What the Taliban Surge Means for China, the U.S. and Afghanistan

  • Afghanistan's capital city of Kabul is safe, for now
  • U.S. conducts airstrikes at Afghan government's request

The Taliban this week captured the strategic Afghan city of Kunduz -- the first time they have taken a provincial capital since the U.S. invasion in 2001 -- undermining President Ashraf Ghani’s authority as foreign soldiers leave.

A Taliban victory would put other major Afghan urban centers at risk and disrupt President Barack Obama’s plan to withdraw most American troops by the end of 2016. The U.S. has spent more than $700 billion to oust the Taliban and set up a stable democracy in Afghanistan that denies a safe haven to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.

With the stage set for a prolonged battle, here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:

Why does Kunduz matter?

Kunduz city is the capital of a northern province of the same name. It’s a key center for the drug trade, control of which would give much needed funds to the Taliban. The adjoining Badakhshan province borders China and Kunduz itself borders Tajikistan, making it a gateway to former Soviet Republics.

Continued control of northern Afghanistan risks allowing Taliban militants to enter China and neighboring countries, which have their own secessionist struggles with Islamic groups.

What do the Taliban want?

While Kunduz is the first major city captured by the Taliban, its militants have been gaining ground over the past two years. The group now controls about 20 districts, more than double the territory held in 2013. If the Taliban hold on to Kunduz, 50 percent of Afghanistan may fall into their hands, according to Abdul Baqi Amin, the director of the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies in Kabul. UN and Afghan government officials declined to comment on the Taliban’s advance.

The Taliban want to regain political control of Afghanistan, which they ruled from 1996 to 2001. The group wants to impose Islamic law, which includes banning education and jobs for women, strict controls on music and entertainment, and decapitations, stoning and amputations as punishments for various crimes. 

Is Kabul at risk?

Not immediately. The presence of foreign troops in the capital will deter the Taliban for the near future. The militants also would probably prefer to consolidate power in the north while continuing guerrilla strikes in Kabul. The government won’t fall and Ghani is unlikely to step down, according to former Afghan diplomat Ahmad Saeedi, who says that the president’s resignation could trigger a civil war.

What happens to peace talks?

The capture of Kunduz will reinvigorate the Taliban and is likely to help new chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour unify various factions that had threatened a split after the death of revered leader Mullah Omar. Peace talks with the Afghan government will stay derailed.

What does this mean for the U.S.?

The U.S. is carrying out airstrikes in Kunduz and elsewhere at the Afghan government’s request, said Resolute Support Mission spokesman Ron Flesvig. He declined to say if the U.S. would send in ground troops to fight. Any soldiers now present are there to advise and train their Afghan peers, he said.

How worried is China and what’s it doing?

There’s no evidence of Chinese involvement in the military efforts, though China is helping facilitate peace talks with the Taliban. President Xi Jinping has also pledged to start providing security equipment and training to Afghanistan, particularly at border areas to stop drug smuggling and terrorist movements.

What foreign companies may be affected?

More than 2,500 foreign companies have invested over $10 billion in various sectors such as in services, infrastructure and mining, according to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency’s website. While U.S. firms have exposure through contractors, Chinese companies including Metallurgical Corp. of China and China National Petroleum Corp. are developing copper and oil and gas deposits in Afghanistan.

The worsening security situation risks triggering their withdrawal, threatening a fresh economic crisis in one of Asia’s poorest nations.

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