US President Donald Trump made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on 28 November. Last year, his Administration started negotiations with Taliban and then cancelled them, rather suddenly. Trump has also made an announcement that the US will withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan in the future. As next US elections come closer, Trump’s Afghan policy might be influenced even greatly by US elections trends. Given the high degree of uncertainty it should not come as a surprise if one morning the world knows from Trump’s tweet that the US is pulling out its forces from Afghanistan.
The US withdrawal, planned or abrupt, can create two opposite scenarios for the war-torn country. In the worse case, it will repeat the 1989-90 situation engulfing the country in another long cycle of violence and instability. In positive case, since foreign occupying forces have historically been resisted by Afghan people, the US withdrawal might remove this irritant and pave the way for negotiations among feuding elements.
Regardless of what side the Afghan situation finally turns, no two countries in the world will be affected from it more than Pakistan and China. At the same time, no bilateral efforts are more relevant and crucial to Afghan peace than made by Beijing and Islamabad due to their distinct advantages.
Out of all major powers and regional countries, China is known for its neutrality and non interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs throughout history. This is acknowledged by Afghan government, its staunch rival Taliban and the international community at large. In addition, as reconstruction of Afghanistan requires large-scale assistance, China the world’s second largest economy seems willing to contribute in its capacity.
On the other hand, Pakistan has vast experience of dealing with Afghan affairs
(Critics call it Pakistan’s meddling in neighbour’s internal affairs). The geographic proximity, religio-cultural ties and ethnic bonds further highlight Pakistan’s significance. Given this crucial role, Pakistan is part of almost every process dealing with final Afghan settlement.
What is even more important is that a stable Afghanistan is critically important to the core interests of China and Pakistan. This underlines the necessity of their comprehensive coordination as the Afghan situation is poised to take a new direction.
China’s project of the century, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is directly affected by what happens in Afghanistan. Many branches and offshoots of BRI pass from regions which fall within the range of tremors emanating from Afghanistan. Three out of the six corridors being developed under BRI are in geographical proximity to Afghanistan. They are the New Eurasian Land Bridge; the China-Central Asia-West Asia Corridor; the China-Pakistan Corridor (CPEC). On top of that, instability in Afghanistan will directly affect stability of Xinjiang which is China’s core internal security challenge.
Likewise, Pakistan’s own stability is intertwined with peace in Afghanistan. The new Pakistani government under Prime Minister Imran Khan has restructured Pakistan’s policies by prioritizing economic development over geostrategic imperatives. He realizes this is not possible without peace in Afghanistan. After his election victory in July 2018, in his first public speech, Khan expressed his country’s earnest desire for Afghan peace which he termed crucial to Pakistan. Islamabad seems to have changed its policy of preference for a particular group to Afghan-led, Afghan-owned settlement. This change is now being acknowledged by outside powers. For example, in recognition of Pakistan’s role, the US for the first time has stopped the mantra of “do more” and instead has requested Pakistan’s support to negotiate with the Taliban.
As Pakistan and China coordinate their policies in the backdrop of unfolding situation in Afghanistan, it is important for them to take into account each other’s sensitivities. Pakistan’s key sensitivity is to curtail or at least neutralize Indian influence. In recent past, New Delhi by taking full advantage of the volatile security situation in Pakistan’s western neighbourhood substantially increased its role there. Throughout history, Afghan-Pakistan border remained unguarded. Driven by Indian and other factors, Pakistan began to deploy not only regular forces but also started fencing the entire length of the Pak-Afghan border.
The number of Indian Consulates in war-devastated Afghanistan is more than in it has in developed countries, and most of those Consulates are located in regions closer to border with Pakistan. Thus, limiting India’s role to its legitimate requirement will be Pakistan’s key objective. In the past, Pakistan had also tried to promote friendly governments in Afghanistan (partially triggered by the Indian factor). Apparently, this is no more a priority under the new government in Islamabad.
China is less concerned which faction takes power in Afghanistan. China’s key concerns in Afghanistan are instability and regrouping of extremist elements. Beijing in particular is concerned that terrorist groups especially East Turkistan Islamic Moment (ETIM), Al-Qaeda and IS should not again take roots in Afghanistan.
What is significant is that China and Pakistan are cognizant of each other’s concerns. They are engaged in bilateral, trilateral and multilateral processes dealing with Afghan quagmire. There are three additional suggestions. First, as the Afghan crisis is long, complex and multidimensional in nature, the participation of other regional and global stakeholders will help in its long-term settlement.
Second, in their dealing with Afghan elements China and Pakistan need to spread the meanings of peace to all Afghan elements especially to fighting forces that peace, stability, well-being of people is not against any “ideology”.
Thirdly, and most importantly, extending CPEC to Afghanistan can potentially contribute to its stability. China and Pakistan have already announced to extend CPEC to Afghanistan. Details, however, are yet to be finalized. According to traditional Chinese philosophy if economic opportunities are provided to people they can shun violence. China has successfully experimented this policy in different regions. CPEC’s extension to Afghanistan will bring FDI, improve infrastructure, link Afghan economy to the outside world, especially with Pakistan and China. These measures will generate new opportunities and help in addressing decades-long wave of violence.
Currently, there are around five roads whichcut across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Among them, the busiest Peshawar-Kabul road is being upgraded. Pakistan also intends, under the CPEC, to establish rail links with Afghanistan. These linkages will be improved during the second phase of CPEC (2020-25). A comprehensive coordination between China and Pakistan is crucial to long-term peace in Afghanistan.
Excerpts from this paper were presented at an academic Symposium on the ‘“Belt and Road” China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Regional Cooperation and Development,’ organized by Zhejiang Normal University on 22-24 November 2019. Views expressed in this article are personal.
Dr. Ghulam Ali is Associate Professor, Sichuan University of Science & Engineering, Zigong, PR China.