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16 April, 2013

Afghanistan forcing a rethink

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Hectic multilateral consultations on Afghanistan are under way in advance of the scheduled withdrawal of American forces, and there are indications that at least some of the players are ready to revise their past approach.

The US pullout, due to begin this year, is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

Indian and Chinese officials are due to meet in Beijing this week to discuss the post-2014 Afghan scenario. This is the first official-level meeting between the two countries on Afghanistan.

The two countries have been holding regular consultations on Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa for some time. However, when China proposed a South Asia dialogue, India baulked, since it did not want to be drawn into discussions on issues such as Kashmir and Tibet.

China explained that it was keen to discuss Afghanistan, where it has investments of more than $3 billion as against India’s $2 billion.  Accordingly, the dialogue theme was narrowed down and talks were scheduled.

China’s concern over Afghanistan’s future is deep. It is in conversation with all those who have a stake in the region. It has been in talks with the United States on the subject. In February, it held trilateral discussions with Russia and India in Moscow. This was followed by another trilateral, this time with Russia and Pakistan, in Beijing.

The only two countries which are not having direct discussions on Afghanistan are India and Pakistan, its immediate neighbours who hold different perspectives. Former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran said recently that India had offered to work with Pakistan on projects in Afghanistan but there was no response.  

Given the history of discord and distrust between the two countries, Islamabad’s approach is understandable. Pakistan’s involvement with the Taliban and India’s assistance to the Northern Alliance against Islamic militants in that country are factors with the potential to draw them into the whirlpool of faction fights in Afghanistan.

There is a tendency in both India and Pakistan to view Afghan developments in the limited context of their own prickly bilateral relations. Pakistani fears were stoked when former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta talked of a new US defence policy which hinges upon a strategy which recognises that India has to play a vital role in Afghanistan to ensure peace and stability in the region. His successor Chuck Hagel’s 2011 speech, a recording of which gained much attention recently, has given the Pakistani establishment some comfort. In that speech he said India has always used Afghanistan as a second front against Pakistan.

Afghanistan is important to China from the standpoint of energy security. The China National Petroleum Company is due to begin oil extraction from its wells in the northern part of the country next month. It was the first foreign company to sign an oil contract with Iraq after the war in the country. US analysts believe China will likewise step into Afghanistan to pick up contracts as soon as the Western forces are out. It has already indicated interest in laying gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan through Afghanistan.

China’s interest in Afghanistan is not limited to economic factors. It is very concerned over the possibility of spillover of Islamist terrorism into its Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, which is already experiencing ethnic unrest.

Writing in the government paper Global Times, Zhang Jiadong, associate professor at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University, recently envisaged a situation where China, like the former Soviet Union and the US, may get trapped in Afghanistan. “If China does not intervene, Afghanistan will fall into chaos again and endanger China’s security,” he said, “but if China intervenes China’s interests will be damaged as it gets bogged down in the mountains.”

To avoid the trap, he wanted China to seize the initiative in Afghan affairs. Specifically, he suggested that China should enlist the cooperation of the former occupation forces as well as Afghanistan’s neighbours and bring that country into platforms of regional cooperation.

China’s severest test in Afghanistan may come from Pakistan which is not ready to distance itself from the Afghan Taliban, whose leaders are on its territory. Pakistan did not heed US pleas to allow them to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reach an internal settlement. The US dealt with the problem posed by ally Pakistan by exercising military options like drone strikes on Taliban sanctuaries. China may have to deal with this ally without being able to exercise such options. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 16, 2013.

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