By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
As troubled Afghanistan moves towards a partial withdrawal of American troops; an end to violence; and a political solution, the presence or influence of China, Russia and Pakistan in that country has increased perceptibly.
Despite its accusation that Pakistan is not doing enough to contain terrorism on its soil and also in Afghanistan; despite its trade and strategic conflict with China; and its stand-off with Russia over issues relating to the Middle East, the US has roped in these very countries to help it get out of the mess in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of Afghan troops, militants, and civilians have died every year in the last 18 years of US involvement. Even today, there are 14,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan either training government troops or participating in commando operations against the Taliban.
US Ropes in Pakistan
The US has roped in Pakistan to help it settle issues with the Taliban because Pakistan and the Taliban have had close historical ties.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan will be meeting President Donald Trump in Washington on July 22 to discuss a wide range of issues including Pakistan’s present and future role in Afghanistan.
The meeting comes after the seventh round of US-Taliban talks in Doha in which the two sides had reached a draft agreement on four basic issues: counterterrorism assurances, troop withdrawal, a ceasefire, and intra-Afghan talks.
Pakistan won a place in the high table on Afghanistan by being an intermediary between the Taliban and external parties such as Beijing, Moscow and Washington. This, it had been able to do without diluting its basic stand that there could be no lasting peace in Afghanistan unless the primacy of Taliban is recognized and guaranteed by all parties. It took the regional and global powers-that-be a long time to realize this simple truth.
According to former Indian Ambassador, M.K.Bhadrakumar, the US has assigned to Pakistan the role of ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a “lab of terrorists” as President Donald Trump put it.
According to the White House, the Trump-Imran talks will focus on “strengthening cooperation between the United States and Pakistan to bring peace, stability, and economic prosperity to a region that has seen far too much conflict.” This must be music to the ears of Imran Khan because Pakistan is facing severe financial problems.
It is difficult to say what exactly the White House statement meant when it said that the US will keep in sight “the goal of creating the conditions for a peaceful South Asia and an enduring partnership between our two countries.”
Perhaps it means that the US will restrain India if the latter becomes belligerent towards Pakistan and intensifies its policy of isolating Pakistan globally on the plea that Pakistan is the launching pad for cross-border terrorism.
However, what is likely is that the US might step up military aid to Pakistan. Gen Mark Milley, who is Chief of Staff of the US army, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee recently, that Trump had recognized Pakistan as “a key partner in achieving US interests in South Asia, including developing a political settlement in Afghanistan; defeating Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan; providing logistical access for US forces; and enhancing regional stability”.
Gen.Milley argued for closer military ties with Pakistan. Former US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, told a gathering in Colombo recently that the Obama Administration under which he worked, had erred by cutting off military ties with Pakistan. “As a result of this, the US lost touch with a whole generation of Pakistani military officers,” Blake said.
In a move welcomed by Islamabad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has kept China in the loop on the Doha talks with the Taliban. Last month, Beijing itself had hosted Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Prior to this, in 2018, China had met Taliban leaders on several occasions.
China’s Economic Route To Afghanistan
China has only recently begun playing a role in bringing about peace in Afghanistan. But it had been quietly making economic inroads into that country since 2006.
According to the latest report of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Afghanistan done by the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS), a Kabul-based think tank, China is now Afghanistan’s largest business investor. Chinese companies have been involved in construction projects.
Beijing has an interest in Afghanistan’s vast deposits of essential minerals such as lithium (used in mobile phone batteries). China has won rights to the Amu Darya Basin oil in the north and the massive Mes Aynak copper mine near Kabul, though work on these projects has suffered because of the bad security situation.
In 2016, China and Afghanistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding. In September 2016 the first direct freight train from China reached the Afghan border town of Hairatan. An air corridor linking Kabul and the Chinese city of Urumqi was also opened. In May 2017, Afghan officials attended the international Belt and Road Forum in China, and in October Afghanistan joined China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which funds BRI projects.
According to DROPS, China has pledged “huge support” for building railways in Afghanistan. In 2017, China convened a trilateral dialogue with Pakistan and Afghanistan to discuss extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan.
However, all these ambitious economic plans would hinge on the assurance of safety and security, which have always been a question mark in Afghanistan. One of the main reasons for China’s increasing involvement in efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan is the fear that Afghanistan-based Islamic terror groups might infiltrate into Muslim-majority Xinjiang where there has been continuous resistance to Chinese domination.
Beijing’s anxiety about security started growing when the US began to scale down its military presence in Afghanistan in 2011. To protect itself, China built a base in Badakhshan Province and funded a Mounted Brigade. It launched the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism (QCCM) with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Since 2015, China has been involved in a number of multilateral peace initiatives, including the Quadrilateral Coordination Group and, more recently, the “Moscow Format”.
Beijing has cultivated good ties with the Taliban, meeting them several times in 2018. It was in early 2015 that China began facilitating talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the Taliban made these efforts ineffective.
Therefore, China arranged talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It set up a Trilateral Crisis Management Mechanism. In December 2017, China hosted trilateral talks where the three countries called on the Taliban to join the talks process.
Pakistan and China played a key role in brokering a ceasefire deal. Interestingly, the Taliban agreed to declare a ceasefire only if Pakistan and China became its guarantors.
Ties With Kabul Regime
While all this was going on, China maintained close ties with the Afghan government as well. It signed a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations with Kabul regime in 2006. Two years later, Chinese companies won a US$ 3 billion contract to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mines in Logar province. In September 2017, China gave US$ 90 million towards development projects in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province alone.
In the past three years, China has also extended more than US$70 million in military aid to Afghanistan, according to Ahmad Bilal Khalil, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies in Kabul.
In the telecommunications sector, China’s role has grown from supplying Afghanistan with telecom equipment in 2007 to the construction of fiber-optic link in 2017.
(The featured image at the top shows a Taliban delegation headed by Maulana Abdul Ghani Baradar in China for talks)