Emerging geopolitics and the Afghan question

September 12, 2021

No matter how diverse the interests of each of various international players may be, they all want to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to chaos

Emerging geopolitics and the Afghan question

While Pakistan appears to some people to be the player holding the key to Afghanistan’s puzzle, the perception speaks of an overly simplistic view. It is no longer 1996 and the Taliban are not as “inexperienced” as they were back then. The proverbial graveyard of the empires seems all set to kick start a fresh push and pull cycle in the Asian region and beyond.

Is China the next contender for power in Afghanistan? This might become clear in the days and weeks to come. One thing is for sure: Pakistan, seen formerly as a part of the Afghan problem still sees its role as a ‘facilitator’. Some insiders prefer the ‘broker’ description. It is seen in the West as helping China gain transitory advantage in the Afghan crisis by diligently working as a capable salesperson eyeing economic, strategic and political dividends.

Whether the facilitation will result in a deal being sealed or not depends on factors like how ambitious the Chinese are with regard to their Silk Road dream; how far the Taliban can curb their impulsive tendencies; will they show the magnanimity needed to form a really inclusive government; will they provide enough assurances backed by tangible results to end Chinese worries about a cross-border spillover of religious extremism; will they give China a clean chit about its ‘vocational training camps’ for Xingjian Muslims; US ability and eagerness to compete with Chinese growth through counter-investments, counter-intelligence and contra-interventions; Saudi eagerness to counter Iran; and the Indian strategy to secure its regional clout. Each of these dimensions is worth exploring.

The recent visit by the ISI chief, Lt-Gen Faiz Hameed, to Kabul was meant in part to find and/ or feed answers on some of the questions. This reminds one of the role Pakistan played in bridging the trust gap between the Chinese and the US in 1972. The US National Security Archives released in February 2002 describe the role Pakistan played in arranging a secret visit by Henry Kissinger to Beijing on July 9, 1971. Kissinger has publicly showered praise on President Yahya Khan for helping US secure Chinese support in isolating the USSR in the ongoing Cold War.

Sources privy to developments in Kabul say that between the Taliban takeover and August 31, US and NATO officers had several bouts with each other as US commanders on ground refused to escort the stranded envoys and Europeans from the city dwellings or embassies to the Kabul airport for evacuation. This prompted foreign ministers of Germany, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands to rush to Pakistan and secure help Pakistan Army. The sources said that Pakistan had secured the evacuation of more than 4,000 Europeans and Americans from Kabul, either by-air or using escorted convoys by-road. Pakistan has also been able to secure guarantees for the evacuation of more than 2,000 Americans that remain in the country.

Sources say when the Taliban captured the last bastion of resistance in Panjshir Valley, the leaders of the Afghan National Resistance Front (ANRF) managed to cross over to neighbouring countries. The Taliban have since set up an interim government in Afghanistan, reportedly with a covert node from the US and struck early deals with the Chinese. They are also said to have managed to control the financial jitters. The sources say the progress was facilitated by US and European agreement to give a cold shoulder to the requests for support from the ANRF leaders and exchange of intelligence with the Taliban as well as Chinese intelligence support.

Some analysts say that Afghanistan is likely to become the biggest test for Chinese non-interventionist model. If official Chinese media is any indicator, Beijing would like to use loans, commodity trade and infrastructure development. 

The sources say that the Taliban have secured assurances about an economic cushion from the Chinese. The US administration too has hinted at de-freezing the Afghan national reserves held in foreign banks in exchange for safe passage for all US interests. The Taliban are learned to have been given limited access to some of the frozen funds. These are besides the assets left behind by fleeing Americans and their allies.

The Chinese engagement has been very cautious. They have refused to be rushed and their commitments have been loaded with conditions. Despite denouncing the Taliban takeover in 1996 and supporting the Northern Alliance against them in 2001, the Chinese changed tack after the US bypassed Afghan government in 2014 to hold secret talks with Taliban leadership in Doha. The same year, the Chinese started inviting Taliban leaders to Beijing. In 2015, they hosted a two-day round of ‘peace talks’ between the Taliban and the Afghan leadership in Urumqi. After the February 2019 Trump-Taliban agreement, the Chinese upped the ante by working on multiple scenarios of cooperation and coordination with Afghanistan including Taliban.

All these options were focused on two key issues: one, the Chinese never wanted to get trapped in Afghanistan like Britain, the USSR or the US; and two, they wanted to make sure that no government in Kabul should let religious extremism overflow its borders into China. The Chinese remained very cautious throughout US presence in Afghanistan and until 2019 had kept their investment to a mere $400 million. This included the Aynak copper mining project (2008) and an oil exploration project in the Amu Darya region (2011). Citing security concerns, China withdrew most of its citizens and companies in 2014. By comparison, Chinese has made investments worth more than $11.9 billion in the neighboring Pakistan during the same period.

Some analysts say that Afghanistan is likely to become the biggest test for Chinese non-interventionist model. If official Chinese media is any indicator, Beijing would like to use loans, commodity trade and infrastructure development. The caveat is the formation of an ‘inclusive’ government in Afghanistan. Chinese media is seen highlighting President Xi’s vision of transforming Afghanistan by engaging its population in some form of positive economic activity.

Diplomatic sources say the Taliban leaders expect to use Chinese clout to have UN sanctions lifted, removal from the list of terrorist organisations and release of frozen funds. The Taliban leaders expect Afghanistan to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (CSO) and would like the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AAIB) to fund their infrastructure projects. The SCO is not a security organisation but it does have the mandate to play a counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics role. Russia, meanwhile, has aasecurity agreement with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and has vowed to wait and see how Taliban rule pans out before making the decision to recognise their government.

For China, it seems, the key issue is progress towards its economic goals and not being held back by Afghanistan. Source say it is pushing Pakistan to help the Taliban develop a multilateral approach to managing both internal and external issues. The onus seems to be on the Taliban.

In India, many analysts are questioning Modi government’s $3 billion investment and the Doval doctrine. The US deal with the Taliban is seen having undercut Indian ambitions in the South Asian region. “The issue is not only an apparent victory for Pakistan. The real issue is the possible diversion of religious extremists towards Indian fissures especially in Muslim dominated states like Jammu and Kashmir,” says an Indian security analyst who wishes not to be named here.

To sum up, there are at least eleven key players in the Great Game. Besides Pakistan they include US, China, Russia, the bordering countries like Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and remotely interested parties like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and India.

No matter how diverse the interests of these players remain, all of them share a desire to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to chaos. Another interest many of them share is that in case of the Taliban failing to calm the jitters, they should have a foothold to use the country to wage a proxy war against their rivals. Key rivalries to watch for are of India vs Pakistan, Saudi Arabia vs Iran, Turkey vs Saudi Arabia. The Chinese and Russian policymakers want only to neutralise a threat from Islamic extremist groups operating from or hiding in Afghanistan.

The author is a senior journalist /analyst and can be reached via sminhas07@gmail.com

Emerging geopolitics and the Afghan question