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China’s Emergence as a New Arbitrator


China seems to be taking a lead role as an arbitrator in the Afghan conflict; where in the past Germany, Norway, Qatar and the US have faced failure. Early communication between China and Taliban can be traced back to the 1990s. In 2000, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin visited Mullah Omar to forge an agreement with Taliban, not to support ETIM and in return China will accept legitimacy of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. However, both sides could not agree on the terms and the Chinese efforts were unsuccessful. 


From 2014 China resumed its efforts to engage with Taliban in dialogue, where multiple Taliban delegations visited Beijing and Urumqi since then. Over the last two years China has been a part of most of the multilateral negotiations including the quadrilateral – Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US – as well as the six party talks in Moscow. It has initiated other trilateral forums with Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iran-India.


In 2015, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “China is ready to play a constructive role and will provide the necessary facilitation at any time if required by various parties in Afghanistan.” Afghanistan Peace delegation held secret talks with former Taliban officials in Urumqi in May 2015. Furthermore, China continues to reiterate at SCO summits that the members should take up security cooperation in Afghanistan on priority basis.


As a neutral state China has a major leverage to be an arbitrator in this conflict and it has much more to gain out of it. It has good relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, Iran and it does not have any major issues with the Central Asian nations.


Pak-Afghan relations are going through a rough patch; rather the two countries have always shared a difficult relationship. During his recent visit to Kabul and Islamabad Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi emphasized building a bilateral crisis management mechanism between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the help of the US, seemingly determined to revive the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). Washington cautiously welcomed Chinese shuttle diplomacy.


Immediately after this visit, a six member high powered bipartisan delegation of US senators led by John McCain visited both the countries in the first week of July and called for “a strategy to win” the war in Afghanistan. While analysing these two high official visits to the region, one could argue that these visits are either signs of emergence of some convergence of policy interests between the US and China or one could see further political wrangling of the existing great game emerging in Afghanistan.


New Circumstances and Challenges for China


After Afghan security review, the US is planning to send around 4,000-5,000 troops to Afghanistan, which could be deployed in the Af-Pak region in order to control cross border movements of the terrorists. Recently after Chinese interference, the Afghan government agreed with the proposal of joint operation with Pakistan along Durand Line, which will be monitored by the US.


On the peace process front, Hizb-e-Islami (HeI) signed a peace accord with the National Unity Government (NUG). It is a successful move by President Ashraf Ghani to maintain a balance or in other words, to stem the growing pressure from the Northern leaders such as Atta Nur, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammad Mohaqiq. Although, HeI has been given the task of drawing up the Taliban Peace Talk strategy, it would be interesting to see whether the HeI would succeed in pursuing Taliban for the talks.


It is believed that there is a fatigue among the Taliban top leadership, which still has a say so far as political decisions are concerned. This issue has come up when a Taliban spokesperson in his statement said that the Afghan government “should not compare true Mujahideen with expired warlords.” How long can the old Taliban leadership control the younger fighters who are actually fighting on the ground has to be seen. Over the years one has seen that Taliban’s political leadership has struggled to maintain unity and cohesion as a unified entity. However, Taliban has continued its military and psychological offensive to discredit the National Unity Government (NUG). It may not be gaining much ground militarily but its psychological warfare through its propaganda machine is definitely very superior and more effective than the Afghan government. Importantly, more than ever before, Taliban feels confident as a result of some regional actors; either implicitly or explicitly engaging with them.


The rise of the Islamic State in Khurasan Province (ISKP) in the Af-Pak region is a reality now. Initially Pakistan and Afghanistan continued to refuse the presence of ISKP, but after recent attacks in Kabul and the killing of Chinese nationals in Pakistan, they are reluctantly accepting the fact. In March 2015, it was reported that ethnic Hazara elders reached out to their arch enemy Taliban to seek their help against ISKP. Such incidents have helped Taliban to increase its reach and strengthen ground offensive against ISKP and furthermore, the government forces. The rise of ISKP and the failure of the government to protect civilians have ‘politically’ helped Taliban but militarily all the sides are engaged in ruthless battles.


Future Scenarios


Scenario 1


With troop hike in Afghanistan, the US will come out with a new Afghan strategy. This would be – hold land; corner Taliban; get strategically important districts back; put pressure on Pakistan; and force Taliban to talk to assimilate into the Afghan political structure to end the conflict.


Pakistan will complete fencing its border with Afghanistan soon and start pressuring Taliban to migrate to the other side of the border. A weak NUG, keeping upcoming elections in mind, tries to assimilate Taliban with the political structure. One of the important demands that the Taliban is pushing is the withdrawal of the foreign forces, which is unlikely in the near future at least, but possibly they would agree to let 1,000-1,500 US troops stay on the air force bases like Bagram Airfield on the condition that their presence cannot be seen anywhere else in the country.   


This scenario will give leverage to all the conflicting parties. Afghanistan will move from a situation of perpetual war to a relative stability mode, where Taliban will have its say. Regrouping of former Northern Alliance leaders Mohaqiq, Dostum and Nur who had a meeting in Istanbul, will maintain their dominance in northern Afghanistan. Pakistan will be happy having Taliban in the government which will advance Pakistan’s interests. China will go ahead with its plans related to Belt and Road Initiative in Afghanistan. China will also be assured that the ETIM and IMU will not be a threat to its interests in Xinxiang and Central Asia.


The withdrawal of the remaining NATO forces will be a face saver for the US and will save the country a lot of money, which is in line with US President Trump’s election promises. The presence of lesser American forces in Afghanistan may not be a security concern for Russia, when seen from the Cold War perspective. Having China on its side as well as the presence of a significant number of troops in Tajikistan provides confidence, if in the future, confrontation between the two powers resumes on the Afghan front.


Scenario 2


The second scenario would be, if both the conflicting parties – Taliban and the Afghan government – continue to fight and if their patrons – Pakistan and the US – fail to negotiate, then either one of them has to lose eventually in the near future. In that case, major geopolitical counter offensive will be initiated by the backers of the losing party. For example, if a legitimate Afghan government collapses, then the US and India have to maintain stability in that country by countering Taliban and Pakistan militarily and diplomatically. If Taliban run out of options then Pakistan and China will employ different means to dominate and control Afghanistan for their interests. It will lead towards similar geopolitical manoeuvres employed during the Cold War and culminate eventually in an Afghan civil war when the US and allies supported Mujahideens against the Soviet invasion; and India and Iran maintained close relations with the Northern Alliance against Taliban. However, the formulation of alliances will be more complicated and more radical elements can dominate the scenario. This will be an unwanted scenario for China and the US.


Scenario 3


There is a possibility that Chinese arbitration and more US troops on the ground and secured border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, will bring down the violence level in both the countries. In this scenario, the US needs to maintain adequate force level and China has to retain pressure on Pakistan and subsequently Taliban. India and other Western states have to focus on development projects to bring economic stability into the country. But high corruption rate in the border region, tribal structure of the societies, difficult geography, drug cartels, easy availability of small arms and many other reasons bring down the probability of this scenario. 


Options for India


In all these scenarios, it can be understood that India has very limited options.


  • India can continue to do what it is doing currently, that is investing in development-related sectors to earn goodwill. However, how much of this goodwill will be useful during intense geopolitical manoeuvres in the future is debatable.
  • In the future if scenario 2 emerges then India will remain a bystander; hence to avoid that, immediate and increased engagement in critical sectors such as supply of medium and large arms to the Afghan National Army, training more officer cadets, and building support infrastructure for the Afghan armed forces among others will be useful.    
  • If the situation develops according to scenario 2, India should consider former alliance equations and engage with the leaders of the Northern Alliance as well as mainstream Pashtun political leaders such as Karzai and Hekmateyar.
  • In the case of scenario 3, India must focus on deliverable aspects of developmental projects and invest more in the social and economic aspects of human security.
  • Last but not the least, India can persuade other countries of the world not to leave the Afghan government and people to fight their war alone. The entire world should enhance both financial and military engagement with the Afghan government to end the war and establish peace and stability in the country and the region.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.