A conference on Afghanistan without Afghanistan is even more absurd than Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Yet, there is no denying that Russia, which hosted a meeting of Pakistani and Chinese representatives to discuss the Afghan conflict 37 years after the Soviet invasion in December 1979, has a legitimate interest in a landlocked country that was at the heart of the Great Game that obsessed the British during the 19th Century. Modern India is interested because of Kashmir and Pakistani-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan is interested because of the potential leverage vis-a-vis India; China because of Uighur unrest in nearby Xinjiang province.
After a spell of relative quiescence, Afghanistan promises again to grab the world’s attention and dominate the headlines. New alliances are being forged in the churning of global politics. China’s rise threatens Asian stability. The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is spreading its tentacles throughout the Muslim world. A great questionmark hangs over Donald Trump who seems bent for the moment on a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. That makes for an unfavourable response to Barack Obama’s revision of his earlier decision on a complete troop withdrawal by 2017. When the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s fifth-largest city of Kunduz in July 2015, the Obama administration decided that the more than 5,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan would stay on indefinitely to help the Afghan security forces. No matter who is president, the State Department and Pentagon want US troops to leave Afghanistan. But they also want stability and protection of American interests, which explained why Mr Obama reached out to Islamabad.
The Americans believe that the Pakistani military enjoys considerable influence with the Taliban leadership. China, which is wary of the Islamists operating in Xinjiang and their alliance with the Taliban and other Islamist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is also seeking Pakistani assistance, both to help establish an acceptable peace in Afghanistan and to keep India on tenterhooks.
But as Ahmad Shekib Mostaghni, a spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, put it, excluding Kabul from talks on the future won’t help the Afghan situation. “Even if such talks are organised with goodwill, it cannot yield any substantial results because no one from the Afghan side is there to brief the participants about the latest ground realities,” said Mr Mostaghni dubbing the Moscow meeting “illegitimate and dubious.” On December 26 the Afghan parliament also expressed concern over the role of “certain countries” – clearly Pakistan – and warning them against “meddling” in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.
If India and Afghanistan were not invited to the Moscow conference, neither was the Taliban which many see as the key to any successful peace negotiations. According to Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, “Russia, China and Iran are worried about the US presence in the region.” He added, “In the past, they had discussed the issue with us, but not recently … We would welcome an anti-US alliance.” The Taliban also welcomed the trilateral discussions and the Russia-China-Pakistan decision to try to have members of the Afghan Taliban removed from the United Nations sanctions list.
In the past, this attempt to differentiate between “good” and “bad” Taliban has been dismissed as chasing an illusion. The Taliban as a whole opposed the introduction of parliamentary governance to Afghanistan and fought tooth and nail against Hamid Karzai’s regime. They are no better disposed towards his successor, Ashraf Ghani. It’s not only individuals that the people who destroyed the priceless 4th and 5th Century Bamyan Buddhas oppose. They oppose the very notion of secular democracy in a plural society and are determined to impose Islamist theocracy on the lands and peoples under their control.
India’s ideological objections have a solid practical basis. Trade and defence cooperation with Afghanistan has increased in the past few years as the two countries have moved closer to each other while Pakistan has been seeking closer ties with China and Russia. Afghanistan is extremely critical of Pakistan’s role in encouraging if not sponsoring terrorist outrages, and accuses Pakistani military and spy agencies of backing Taliban insurgents in their efforts to destabilise Afghanistan so that Islamabad can play a more important geopolitical role. Mr Obama’s overtures convinced Islamabad of the success of its strategy and strengthened its resolve to woo Mr Trump.
Naturally, this is not to Kabul’s liking. Speaking at the recent sixth Heart of Asia ministerial conference, Mr Ghani urged Pakistan to take action against the sanctuaries that the militants (read terrorists) have established in the country’s north-western tribal areas. Mr Ghani said the $500 million aid that Islamabad pledged for the reconstruction of Afghanistan would be better spent on eradicating terrorists who continue to launch attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil. “We must confront the spectre in the room,” he announced while on a visit to India, referring to what he called a fresh wave of terrorism and political violence, abetted by “some states”. He added that a Taliban leader had recently admitted that the group would not last a month if it did not receive sanctuary in Pakistan.
Expectedly, Islamabad tries to paint itself as another innocent victim of terrorism. “Pakistan has suffered a lot in the war on terror but Washington blames us for the turmoil in Afghanistan” laments Mushahid Ullah Khan, a close aide of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. “The US has failed to bring peace to Afghanistan, so now we are trying to engage with other regional countries to work for Afghanistan’s stability, which is essential for peace in the entire region.”
Southern Asia’s geostrategic equations are changing rapidly with India and the US strengthening defence and economic ties amid growing concerns about China’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea as well as in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, Islamabad and Washington, which connived against Moscow during the Cold War and collaborated in the 1980s Afghan war to create the Taliban, are drifting apart despite
Mr Obama’s expectations. Islamabad is trying to revive ties with Moscow (the two held their first-ever joint military drills earlier in 2016) but the real exponential growth is in expanding trade and military ties with China.
In 2014, Beijing announced a $46 billion economic cooperation plan in Pakistan. With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China’s Xinjiang and plans to create road, rail and oil pipeline links to improve connectivity between China and the Middle East, China is all set to take a bigger role in global affairs, and satisfy its need for priority capacity cooperation in areas such as steel manufacturing. This strategy was unveiled in September and October 2013 in announcements regarding the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the ocean-going Maritime Silk Road. Premier Li Keqiang promoted both projects during state visits to Asia and Europe.
These initiatives, China’s support for Pakistan, and Pakistan’s tacit support for the Taliban are creating a piquant situation that Mr Trump will have to handle with more deftness than he has so far demonstrated.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist