Afghanistan: New Great Game unfolds – II
by Sandhya Jain on 19 Jul 2015 1 Comment

China, Pakistan and India: In a bid to expand its influence in Asia, and pursue its Silk Road project, China took a seat at the Afghan high table by inviting the Taliban to Beijing (November 2014) and urging them to negotiate with the elected government; it appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan. China maintained diplomatic ties with the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan, to protect its interests in the country’s natural resources. A spokesman for the Taliban admitted that a two-member delegation from the Qatar office had been to China.


Beijing is concerned because Uighur extremists receive training in Afghanistan and Pakistan and return to Xinjiang to perpetrate terror attacks. It wants the camps along the Afghan-Pak border shut down, which requires cooperation from the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban. Now, the ISIS has vowed to ‘liberate’ Xinjiang. Beijing kept close ties with then President Karzai, inviting him to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit conference in Beijing in June 2012, where President Xi Jinping and Karzai issued a joint statement on a “China-Afghanistan Strategic and Cooperative Partnership.” In September, China’s internal security chief, Zhou Yongka, visited Kabul and signed a number of economic and security agreements that included training 300 Afghan police officers over the next four years. Karzai again visited Beijing in 2013 and received a grant of 200 million yuan ($32 million) for 2013. President Xi offered to host the annual 14-nation regional conference on Afghanistan, the first of which was held in Istanbul in November 2011.


Beijing was the first capital President Ghani visited (October 28, 2014), just before the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan began on October 31. Calling the People’s Republic “a strategic partner in the short term, medium term, long term, and very long term”, he declared willingness to talk with the Afghan Taliban and requested the Chinese leader to urge Pakistan to persuade Taliban leaders to talk. China promised 2 billion yuan ($327 million) in economic aid through 2017 and publicly offered to mediate between the Afghan government and Taliban. But only Islamabad and the Pakistan Army can make the dialogue possible; hence Chinese diplomats went to Peshawar last November to nudge Pakistan to begin consulting the various Taliban shuras on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.


China has managed to do business in Afghanistan, regardless of the regime in power. The consortium, Metallurgical Corporation of China and Jiangxi Copper Corporation, won a $4.4 billion contract to mine copper at Aynak near Kabul in 2007. In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation secured rights to develop three oil blocks in northwestern Afghanistan with an investment of $400 million, in joint venture with local firm Watan Oil & Gas. The US investments, $75 million by 70 firms, lagged far behind.


Ashraf Ghani next went to Islamabad in November 2014. After meeting Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he called on Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif, a move that dismayed New Delhi, but necessary to woo Taliban. He tweaked the strategic partnership agreement Hamid Karzai signed with New Delhi in 2011, and in a major gesture of appeasement, deferred a heavy weapons order placed by Karzai with India and refused India’s offer of military training. After much delay, Ghani is likely to visit India in late April, though he met Prime Minister Modi on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu. Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah visited New Delhi in March, to attend the India Today Conclave. In contrast, Hamid Karzai was a frequent guest in New Delhi.


Ghani’s request to Pakistan coincided with fresh turmoil there. Hitherto, the “good” Taliban was useful in Jammu & Kashmir and Afghanistan, while the “bad” Taliban targetted the Pakistani State. But on 16 December 2014, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has close ties with the Afghan Taliban, butchered 132 students, mostly children of army officers, at the Army Public School in Peshawar. The killings – revenge for the army summer offensive Zarb-e-Azb, which killed thousands of Taliban cadre in North Waziristan – rattled Pakistan; Nawaz Sharif declared that henceforth there would be no distinction between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists.” The army launched massive air strikes against the Taliban in North Waziristan and political parties united to prepare a plan to tackle terrorism in each province. The army claimed it did not spare the Haqqani Network which is reputedly linked with Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But Pakistan has failed to formulate a firm policy on terrorism and is conflicted over the handling of its most notorious terrorist masterminds, even as attacks on Shias continue in cities like Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi.


Gen. Sharif made a return visit to Kabul to share intelligence about the Taliban, following which Ghani sent a symbolic six army cadets to Pakistan’s military academy for training. Both Karzai and former foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta opposed this as subordinating Afghanistan to Pakistan, which is the main sponsor of the Taliban. Spanta doubted the merits of keeping India, the region’s superpower, at arms’ length and claimed that New Delhi had since gone slow on some key development projects. Karzai and Spanta said that though Ghani sent troops to eastern Afghanistan to fight the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban was safe in Pakistan. Pakistan was also given access to TTP prisoners held in Afghanistan. Kabul was further dismayed to learn that Ghani met Pakistan spy chief, Rizwan Akhtar, without the presence of Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil.


New Delhi has been generous and effective in rebuilding the war-ravaged country. Its $2 billion in aid went far because there was hardly any waste or corruption and because it focused on building wells, the Salma Dam, electricity transmission lines, schools, health clinics, etc. The new parliamentary complex on the outskirts of Kabul, which India is funding to the tune of $140 million, is a landmark. India helped train Afghan civil servants in Indian academies; the Confederation of Indian Industry trained over 1,000 Afghans in small skills and the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India trained more than 3,000 Afghan women in microenterprises.


However, the United States may value Indian presence in Afghanistan, to assist its fledgling democracy in rebuilding the shattered economy and in civilian security. New Delhi is keen that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for jihadis seeking Indian targets. The attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 and 2009 and consulate in Herat in 2014 were carried out by the Taliban and the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. India has sent forces to protect its diplomatic facilities and construction teams. Further, India accounts for 27 per cent of Afghan exports, which could increase once the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement is fully implemented. In 2011, an Indian consortium won the tender for the Hajigak iron ore mine in Bamiyan province.


Indian engagement can be enhanced via regional diplomatic coordination. The International Contact Group on Afghanistan includes 50-odd countries and regional organisations; India hosted the January 2014 ministerial. The Heart of Asia–Istanbul Process in 2011 included India. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization includes India and Pakistan in discussions on Afghanistan’s stability, and they are cooperating in the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia and the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphasis on the development of the South Asian Area of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region holds much promise. At the summit in Kathmandu in November 2014, a regional electricity agreement stalled by Pakistan achieved unanimity after member-nations exerted pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It was under the SAARC umbrella that Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar visited Islamabad recently to resume the stalled dialogue.


Talk about the Taliban peace process was on during Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Kabul. New Delhi may ask Qatar, which hosts Taliban and with whom India has a defence and security understanding, to protect its interests in these negotiations. Previously, when Washington was leading the negotiations with Taliban, India informed then President Hamid Karzai of its reservations about Pakistani mediation and asked that the Taliban leaders involved should not be linked with the ISI-backed Haqqani Network. Having spent nearly $1 trillion fighting the Taliban since 2001, Washington has been keen on a face-saving deal that will help it to exit the “graveyard of empires”. Hence, its strategy to accommodate the “good” Taliban in the government.


Ghani now needs Pakistan to bring Taliban representatives for official talks with the Afghan government – the Pakistan army chief assured him that Taliban is keen for talks – and an end to the violence, beginning with a ceasefire. When in Washington, the Afghan president reached out by claiming in an interview (March 26) that peace with the insurgents was “essential” and that some Taliban members had been falsely imprisoned and tortured and deserved an apology. Speaking before the US Congress (March 25), he said Taliban members could return to Afghan society if they agreed to respect the constitution. But so far, there has been no progress – talks should have begun several weeks ago – though Gen. Raheel Sharif has made several trips to Kabul. However, he has begun consultations with former jihadi leaders, religious scholars and civil society groups on peace deals with the Taliban.


That leaves the ISIS. Will the Pakistani army cut deals with terrorist groups who will take money to fight (or pretend to fight) Daesh? Experts agree that even if Taliban makes a deal with the regime, the threat from ISIS and groups like al Qaeda will grow in 2016. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is still ensconced in Pakistan.


(To be concluded…)

This article was written in April for Dialogue quarterly, April-June 2015, Vol. 16 No. 4, before the visit of the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

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