Argument

Why Is China Talking to the Taliban?

Inside Beijing’s plan to set up shop in post-Karzai Kabul.

Hamid Karzai's derailment of this week's planned U.S. peace talks with the Taliban may have been a disappointment to Washington's hopes of ending its longest war -- but it disappointed Beijing, too. China welcomed the breakthrough in the Qatar process, and sees a political settlement in Afghanistan as increasingly important for its economic and security interests in the region. As a result, China's support for reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban has become a fixture of its burgeoning diplomatic activity on Afghanistan's post-2014 future.

Over the last year, China has been expanding its direct contacts with the Taliban and sounding them out on security issues that range from separatist groups in the Chinese region of Xinjiang to the protection of Chinese resource investments, according to interviews with officials and experts in Beijing, Washington, Kabul, Islamabad, and Peshawar. While Beijing would like to see the reconciliation talks succeed in preventing Afghanistan from falling back into civil war, it is not counting on their success, and thus is preparing to deal with whatever constellation of political forces emerges in Afghanistan after the United States withdraws.

While even tentative U.S. and European meetings with the Taliban generate headlines, China's substantive dealings with them tend to slip under the radar. After the 9/11 attacks and the Taliban's fall from power, Beijing quietly maintained a relationship with the Quetta Shura, the Taliban's leadership council based across the border in Pakistan. In a conversation, one former Chinese official claimed that besides Pakistan, China was the only country to continue this contact. Over the last 18 months, exchanges have taken place more regularly, and China has started to admit their existence in meetings with U.S. officials, according to people familiar with the matter. The same sources said that Taliban representatives have held meetings with Chinese officials both in Pakistan and in China. Although the possibility of active Chinese support for peace talks has been discussed, it appears the focus has been on a narrower set of Chinese objectives: as one Pakistani expert noted, "it has so far been about mitigating [Chinese] security concerns rather than reconciliation."

In China's dealings with the Taliban, the independence movement among China's Uighur Muslim minority has always been its biggest concern. In the late 1990s, Beijing worried that the Taliban government in Kabul was providing a haven for Uighur militants, who had fled Chinese crackdowns in Xinjiang and set up training camps in Afghanistan. In meetings in December 2000 in Kandahar, the Taliban's reclusive leader Mohammed Omar assured the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin that the Taliban would not "allow any group to use its territory to conduct any such operations" against China. In exchange, Omar sought two things from China: formal political recognition and protection from U.N. sanctions.

Neither side delivered satisfactory results. The Taliban did not expel Uighur militants from its territory. Though it prohibited them from operating their own camps, it allowed them to embed with other militant groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. At the same time, China moderated its stance at the U.N. Security Council to abstain on sanctions that targeted the Taliban and established trade links that would help mitigate their impact, but it didn't use its veto power. Beijing deferred its decision on giving the Taliban diplomatic recognition, which Washington's reaction to the 9/11 attacks soon made moot anyway.

The two sides, however, realized they could do business with each other. The Taliban's then-ambassador to Pakistan described his Chinese counterpart in Islamabad in the late 1990s as "the only one to maintain a good relationship" with the Taliban. In fact, China was signing economic deals in Kabul the very day of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Since then, China has forged a good working relationship with the Karzai government, without ever becoming too closely identified with it by the insurgency. Today, China's priority remains ensuring that any territory under Taliban control won't function as a base for Uighur militant groups. The small remaining band of Uighur fighters -- perhaps as few as 40 men -- are primarily located in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan, in remote territory under the influence of a commander with ties to both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. China has been seeking assurances that the sheltering of Uighurs will not take place on a larger scale in Afghanistan itself. It also wants its multi-billion dollar investments in Afghanistan protected from Taliban attacks. Beijing's largest economic project, the Aynak copper mine, is in territory with a strong presence of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group that is closely allied with the Taliban.

China's dealings with the Islamist insurgents also hedge against the risk that the Taliban might decide to view Chinese citizens, investments, or even mainland China itself as a legitimate target. Militants blamed China for the Pakistani government's 2007 decision to launch an assault on the Red Mosque, a pro-Taliban stronghold in Islamabad, and duly retaliated with a series of attacks on Chinese workers in Pakistan. Beijing is also increasingly nervous about how Taliban-linked groups view Chinese policy in Xinjiang. The shooting of a Chinese woman in Peshawar in 2011 was the first (and only) occasion that a Pakistani Taliban spokesman pinned an attack on "revenge for the Chinese government killing our Muslim brothers" in Xinjiang, the region where most Uighurs live. 

Nonetheless, sources in Pakistan who have talked to the militant commanders say that senior Taliban leaders are keen not to alienate Beijing -- they have enough enemies already. The Afghan Taliban continues to see the benefit of close ties with one of the few countries that can restrain their sometimes-overbearing Pakistani sponsors. As a result, according to Chinese sources who work closely with the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Taliban interlocutors have provided the same reassurances to China that they gave in the past: they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base of attacks and want to develop economic relations with the Chinese. But these sources also say that Chinese officials remain apprehensive. They doubt the Taliban's capacity and willingness to deliver on its promises, particularly on the matter of safe havens for Uighur militants, and they fear a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would destabilize Pakistan and the region. Beijing has therefore been increasingly keen to see a political settlement in Afghanistan that ensures a stable balance of power.

The United States shares this basic objective of a stable Afghanistan, and after years of pushing Beijing to increase its commitment there, U.S. officials told me they are happy that China has become more active in the region. Chinese officials have even mentioned to their U.S. counterparts the possibility of Beijing using its own contacts with the Taliban to help support reconciliation talks, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

So will Beijing play a greater role in the upcoming peace talks among Kabul, the Taliban, and the United States? Probably not. Despite tentative support from all three parties, Beijing has been deterred not only by its caution over involvement with a risky process but by Islamabad. Pakistan is clearly uncomfortable with its closest friend's presence in a policy area that Beijing was previously willing to outsource to them.

China's stance could prove useful for U.S. negotiators in Doha, however, if the talks move forward. While Beijing still treads carefully in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan, it knows it holds the upper hand, and is willing to exert pressure when important Chinese interests are at stake. China prioritizes stability in Afghanistan over sustaining Pakistani influence in the region; sources in Beijing who follow discussions between the two sides say that officials have made this increasingly clear to Islamabad.

In the 1990s, China paid little attention as Afghanistan slid into civil war and the Taliban seized control of the country. Now, with greater interests at stake, it doesn't want to see the same story play out after the U.S. withdrawal in 2014. If history were to repeat itself, however, there are no prizes for guessing which country would be the first to send a business delegation to Kandahar after the Taliban's return.

Jonathan S. Landay/MCT/MCT via Getty Images

Argument

Brad Pitt and the Zombie Shark

How World War Z ruined the zombie apocalypse.

I had my concerns about the film version of World War Z from the first trailer. As the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, and a fan of Max Brooks's spellbinding novel, I've got some flesh in the game, as it were. I hoped to see a film version that at least nodded to the geopolitical complexities of the novel, which suggested that zombies would potentially exacerbate pre-existing interstate conflicts -- and star/producer Brad Pitt did as well. The pre-release buzz on the film did not make me any more sanguine. So, by the time I sat down for the New York premiere of the film, I tried to throw away any unrealistic hopes or expectations that this was going to be the zombie Citizen Kane. Besides, trailers can deceive, bad buzz has preceded good films, and this is a friggin' summer popcorn flick. Surely, the equation must hold: Brad Pitt + $150 million > Fast and Furious 6. Right?

To judge World War Z fairly, one has to consider its myriad possible purposes. So let's go from hardest to easiest in grading this film:

As a faithful adaptation of Brooks's novel, director Marc Forster's film fails, and fails spectacularly. In looking over my notes after the lights came up, here are the parts of the plot that I was able to determine appeared in both the film and the book:

a)     There are zombies;

b)    They've gone global;

c)     Israel's security bureaucracies are competent.

That's it. Everything else has been changed. And I mean everything, including altering the zombies from slow, lumbering, George Romero-type Night of the Living Dead ghouls to fast, Danny Boyle-type 28 Days Later rage-filled monsters. One of the pleasures of Brooks's novel was his believable take on how countries like North Korea and Israel would respond to a global zombie pandemic. The film version of these national reactions, on the other hand, is literally incredible.

Now, to be fair, Brooks's novel was a Studs Terkel-like oral history with at least a dozen different tales interwoven together. Without a protagonist, it would have been an extremely difficult movie adaptation if done faithfully -- and I doubt anyone would pay multiplex prices to see 32 Short Films about the Comparative Politics of Zombies. So it's completely unfair to judge this film based solely on this criteria.

However, even if you're looking to see a zombie flick where you don't have to think much, the movie is a bit brain-dead. The zombie genre has its own conventions, and World War Z follows some of them. Ten minutes in, for example, society has pretty much broken down. The decision to make the zombies manic sprinters does lead to some decent panicked mob scenes in Philadelphia and Jerusalem, and will make any viewer a bit more squeamish about plane travel.

The thing is, zombie movies have to be at least a little bit interested in, you know, the living dead -- and World War Z is deeply uninterested in its MacGuffin. The film fails to offer a consistent logic of how the undead infection spreads. No major character turns into a flesh-eating ghoul. Indeed, these zombies don't seem all that interested in eating people. Mostly, they cock their heads violently, emit odd noises, and try to break through glass windows. In other words, they act and sound like angry birds -- and not the fun, addictive kind either. 

Of course, what's really interesting about zombie films is how humans react to the living dead. Usually, the misanthropic answer is "not well." Early on, World War Z has a looting scene that touches on these issues, with people brandishing guns to secure supplies and attacking other humans -- but that passes quickly. After that, practically every character with a speaking part acts in a noble, forthright, and earnest manner. There's very little in the way of humans displaying greed, malevolence, or stupidity in World War Z, which is what makes the zombie genre so misanthropic. Liberal internationalists who value the United Nations or World Health Organization (WHO) will find the movie uplifting -- especially when you see the U.N. and U.S. flags flying next to each other in the "U.N. Atlantic Fleet," according to the film. Unfortunately, such a heavy dose of do-gooding leeches the narrative of any compelling conflict. As the film progressed, the only drama I felt was whether Mireille Enos could get through a scene without pursing her lips in a disapproving manner.

As a film about the apocalypse, World War Z does find something of a groove. Indeed, the film has far more in common with 2012 than Night of the Living Dead. Government authority disappears in most of the places World War Z visits, except for military bases and WHO installations. Lines like, "What do you mean, we lost Boston?!" and "Mother Nature is a serial killer" litter the script. Watching the undead overrun a major city or a passenger plane has its voyeuristic charms.  

The problem is that, as an apocalyptic end-of-the-world fable, World War Z needs to get in line -- the world is drowning in end-of-the-planet films right now. This year alone, there's already been Warm Bodies, Oblivion, and After Earth. Pacific Rim is still on the horizon this summer. Fortunately for World War Z, some of those recent films have been so poorly reviewed that it can only look good by comparison. And apparently Brad Pitt > Tom Cruise + Will Smith. However, with the release of This Is The End and the forthcoming The World's End, it's becoming clear that apocalypse films have become so over-the-top that they've become ripe for satire.

Finally, as a popcorn summer flick designed to appeal to a global audience, we arrive to a realm where World War Z will probably find its greatest success. It stars Brad Pitt as the world's most family-friendly ex-U.N. employee ever -- not that we learn anything about the U.N. The film hopscotches the globe to film mayhem happening in tax-friendly places exotic locales. There's a lot of big, dumb action sequences that teenage boys of any country can appreciate. And the ending sets up the possibility of a sequel, though for the life of me it would make no logical sense.

Also, the filmmakers also have changed key plot details from the book to avoid offending large markets -- except perhaps devout Jews and Muslims, who unintentionally create some mayhem in the film's middle act. In the novel World War Z, Max Brooks, inspired by the outbreak of the SARS virus, had zombies originate in the People's Republic of China. In the film, it's not quite clear -- vague references are made to Taiwan, South Korea, and India -- but the zombies definitely did not originate from China. A climactic action sequence in Russia was shot and then deleted, though that may have been for artistic rather than market-based reasons. To be honest, the plot of Fast and Furious 6 makes more sense.

If World War Z does well, however, everyone in the business of writing about the living dead does well. So I'll be rooting for it to succeed. Still, once the lights come back on, I expect those people who attend ZomBcons or Comic-Cons will get up and mutter to themselves, "It used to be about the zombies, man."

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images