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China, Pakistan & Afghanistan: a strategic partnership for regional peace

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Authors: Shahid Ali  &  Wang Li

On August 21 (Monday), U.S. President Donald Trump unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy in a national address, calling a rapid exit of the US troops from Afghanistan “unacceptable” and pledging a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. Evidently, Trump ruled out a quick exit of the US troops, saying that a “nasty withdrawal” would create a vacuum that terrorists including the Islamic State and al-Qaida would instantly fill.

That means that the Untied States have been facing “immense” security threats in Afghanistan and the broader region, which made him stop following his “original instinct” to “pull out” the troops. Ahead of Trump’s speech, he had already agreed on Defense Secretary Mattis’ plans to send about 4,000 more troops in Afghanistan. This meant Trump’s strategy for the United States was not nation-building but focusing on “killing terrorists.”

Meanwhile, President Trump in his speech heavily accused Pakistan’s close links with the militant groups involved in launching cross-border attacks on U.S and Afghan forces. He even reasoned that “Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror… Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people.” In the wake of Trump’s grim accusation of Pakistan, China’s FM Wang Yi met with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua and affirmed Beijing’s support to Islamabad, followed by a formal statement as follows: “Pakistan is at the forefront of the counter-terrorism efforts. For many years, it has made positive efforts and great sacrifices for combating terrorism. We believe that the international community should fully recognize the efforts made by Pakistan in fighting terrorism.”

Actually, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a shuttle diplomacy during June 24-25 towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he frankly had a vital task on mediation at the two sides’ request to promote the improvement of bilateral relations and support the Afghan reconciliation process. As he stated that China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries, never imposes China’s will on others and never involves in geopolitical imbroglio. During his visit, he had candid and in-depth talks with the leaders of the two countries ended with a joint communiqué involving the core points: the three countries are to jointly safeguard regional peace and stability. Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed to establish a bilateral crisis management mechanism to which China would provide full support. The three countries agreed to resume the coordination group of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the U.S. and to devote to domestic peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and call on Taliban to join in the peace process at an early stage. Finally, China reaffirmed its support to resume the liaison group between the SCO and Afghanistan in order to play a constructive role in promoting the reconciliation process of the region en block.

Now the question is why China is eager to act a “responsible role” in the Afghanistan issue? And what is China concerned with the current reality in this war-worn land?

Some scholars like Jeffrey Kaplan argued that Afghanistan is a “failed” state, and the Taliban has actually controlled the area of resources and many other parts of China-planed infrastructure projects. Rather, tribal militias, bandits groups and conflict zones dot the whole landscape of today’s Afghanistan. In addition, some held that China’s approach to have dialogue with the Taliban and then to have negotiations with the Kabul regime were perceived as a challenge to the United States. If the American troops withdrew to their barracks and away from active combat, China will be then left in a position of making many promises but having none of capacity of securing projects that traverse territory not under Kabul’s government control. What these people argued are due to, on the one hand, their unawareness of Chinese efforts to cooperate closely with Pakistan, Afghanistan and other SCO members; and on the other hand, China has been involved with the Group of Four, along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States, seeking peace talks in the country. We can argue that China’s approach to the issue of Afghanistan has since been cautious and cooperative.

President Trump’s new Afghanistan and South Asia Policy assigns a greater role to India to assist the U.S to bring an end to its longest “war without a victory”. He further argued that “We want them (India) to help us more with Afghanistan”. According to many analysts, the U.S. decision to engage India to play a more active role in Afghanistan is a part of U.S strategy to counter the growing China and Russia in terms of vicissitudes in Eurasia. Furthermore, The U.S. emphasis on giving India a larger role in Afghanistan at the expense of Pakistan would enable New Delhi to snip a strategic advantage over China. Strategically, China has high stakes in Afghanistan in view of a more active and broader Indian role and a greater US-India coordination in Afghanistan which could bring serious consequences for China’s core interests in the region. Given this, it is imperative for China to play a more constructive role in Afghanistan for protection and development of its “Belt & Road Initiative”.

Geopolitically, Afghanistan is not only a neighbor of China, but also is deemed as one of the key exits of China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” to the broader areas of the Central Asian and the Middle East. In fact, it is well-known that President Xi Jin-ping has extended China’s “grand century project” to Afghanistan which has met with enthusiastic desire from successive administration in Kabul. As the most reliable ally of China, Pakistan has agreed to work with China involving Afghanistan into the key projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the CASA 1000 electrification which offers the prospect of desperately needed infrastructure and energy development into a country wracked by generations of bloody conflict. Equally, according to US Pentagon report in 2012, the potential supply of lithium was so great in Afghanistan that the country could become “the Saudi Arabia of lithium” once it is exploited properly. Added to this are vast deposits of gold, iron, copper and cobalt. As a rising economic superpower, China needs both natural resources and regional security in Afghanistan.

Domestically, China and Afghanistan have the shared border of 60 miles, but the latter is adjacent to China’s Muslim communities in Xinjiang. Although Beijing has insisted on having dialogue with the Taliban groups, Uighurs from China has increasingly appeared in ISIS propaganda video, denouncing Chinese approaches to the Muslims that made China becoming more controversial in Islamic circles. There is a dilemma in all this. In Ningxia, another of China’s region of Muslim people, who have lived in harmony with the majority of Chinese and their religious life is much more peaceful than many Muslim polities. But in terrorism, the medium is the message and few outside of China have ever heard of Chinese Muslims citizens. It is also true that well-trained Uighur terrorists were reported to cross the border into Chinese side, but many of them were either arrested by the Afghani authorities or driven back by the Chinese borders guards. In this case, Afghanistan does indeed play the role of what China needs badly.

According to my survey recently, most of the students from Afghanistan who are now in China believed that for China Afghanistan can be strategically valuable due to its geographic pivot at the crossroad of South Asia and the Central Asia. Its vast resources are untapped and present great potential opportunities. No doubt, the notorious security dilemma and corruption challenges have deterred many Foreign Direct Investments. But China has played the key role in supporting peace talks between the government and the Taliban by encouraging the latter to join the nation-building. Obviously, peace and security in Afghanistan not only contribute to the war-wracked country, but also helps China feel secure regarding in its western border region—like Xinjiang. To that end, China has sped up its cooperation with Afghanistan in terms of providing military aid and security training for counter-terrorists efforts. In 2015, Chinese FM Wang Yi addressed at Shanghai forum that China had will and capability to play a constructive role in the Afghani reconciliation and the post-war reconstruction. Thereby, “China can become a better interlocutor for peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region than the US.”

There is a cliché existed that the American involvement into Afghanistan led them into disastrous imbroglio while the Soviet misadventure in the same country ended with great humiliation. Whether the Chinese approach to Afghanistan will be any more promising than those of the U.S. or USSR is questionable. Yet, as a rising power, China unquestionably seeks its own glorious moment on the world stage. The prospects for the success of the “BRI” in Afghanistan are currently uncertain. However, people who are pessimistic or suspicious of China’s motive and approach have ignored three key points as such. First, China’s involvement into the land of Muslim population is unlike those of the United States and the Soviet Union, for it is more economic win-win method backed up by its growing strong military. Second, now China has strategic partnership with nearly all the neighbors of Afghanistan that means China is not alone in dealing with the regional security issue. Evidently, Beijing has worked consistently on the prospect of inviting the SCO into Afghanistan. Third, after several generations of both civil wars and foreign wars, the Afghan people are desirous of peace, stability and the decent life.  Yes, God alone knows the outcome, but no one can deny people’s will and wishes.

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South Asia

Religion Freedom Index of Bangladesh: Current Developments and Government Responses

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Pope Francis joins in prayers led by a Rohingya Muslim man at an inter-religious conference at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on December 1, 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) recently published its annual Religious Freedom in the World 2021 Report (RFR) that scrutinizes the situation for all major religion groups in 196 countries across the world. The report found that, over the past two years, oppression against susceptible faith communities has augmented in all but one of the 26 countries listed in the survey’s worst (‘red’) category. Bangladesh is that only country whose position on the red list of religious persecution remains unchanged.

The annual report says that religious freedom is being undermined in one out of every three countries in the world which composed two-thirds of the world population. 62 countries out of a total of 196 face severe violations of religious freedom. The situation of minorities in India and Pakistan is deteriorating further. The situation in China and Myanmar is the worst. According to the report, the situation is worse in 95 percent of the 26 countries where persecution is taking place. Nine new countries have been included in this list- seven from Africa and two from Asia.

The report on Bangladesh says that the torture of minorities has not increased in recent years but the influence of Islamic groups is increasing in the politics of Bangladesh. However, the government has been successful in subdue the influence and maintaining religious freedom. For instance, after the rise of Islam-fabric politicization leading by “Hefazat-e-Islam”, the top leaders and at least 375 people nabbed for their recent violent activities. The strict position of law enforcement agencies against the rampage of the group denotes the zero-tolerance of Bangladesh government in ensuring religious freedom and upholding “secularism” which is one of the state principals of its constitution. The argument can be evident with the recent report of the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) titled, “Bangladesh and Pakistan: acting against extremism versus making a show of acting against extremism”. Highlighting the activities of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam (HIB) in Bangladesh and the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) in Pakistan, the report comments that Bangladesh government has been making “noticeable progress in dealing with the radical Islamist HIB whereas Pakistan has floundered dramatically in its inconsistent, ill-considered and ill-implemented attempts to pacify the TLP”. Besides, the initiatives of the Bangladesh government in protecting the minority rights are so much praiseworthy.

According to the 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom of US Department of State, to advocate the minority rights and to foster religious tolerance, Bangladesh government has taken a number of initiatives such as-

•Providing guidance to imams throughout the country to prevent militancy and monitoring mosques for “provocative messaging”.

•Deploying law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considering potential violence. The Economic Times reported that 30,000 and 31,272Durga Pujas were organized across the country in 2017 and 2018 respectively without any security issue.

•Zero-tolerance to Islamic militancy. For instance, Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants who were accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka.

•Offering stipends to students from the minority groups in the primary and secondary level; and

•Providing funds for minority rituals and social activities.

Most importantly, Bangladesh ensures a level playing field in the employment sectors and a viable people-to-people contact. ‘Dhormo Jaar Jaar, Utsob Shobar,’ (Religion for own, but festivals for all” is a testimony of its secular values and communal harmony. The ACN report itself showed, in Bangladesh, where due to fear of infection, minority faith groups were incapable of offering the last rites to family members, an Islamic charity buried not only Muslim but also Hindu and Christian victims of COVID-19. Besides, reliefs were equally provided to every sector of the society regardless of their race or religion.

To conclude, Bangladesh always believes in fraternity beyond ethno-religious affiliations and practiced secularism in daily life throughout the history. But at present, due to the rise of right-wing populist politics both at regional and global level and rise of fundamentalism, religious harmony in Bangladesh is also affected. However, comparatively, Bangladesh is doing better than many regional states and the country is destined to overcome the challenges in near future due to the pro-active role of the government in this regard.

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South Asia

West Bengal Election: Implications for Indian Politics

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Polling officials collecting the Electronic Voting Machine (EVMs) and other necessary inputs required for the West Bengal Assembly Election, at a distribution centre, in Uluberia, West Bengal on April 05, 2021. Image source: Election Commission of India, Government of India

After a tumultuous eight phase election process, Trinamool congress has become successful to retain power for consecutive third terms amidst growing popularity of saffron tide. However, Mamata Banarjee’s Trinamool congress has successfully halted the tide at West Bengal frontier. The victory of TMC in the state testifies to “Bengal Exceptionalism” and is also a victory for Indian secularism.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) victory in the assembly election has far reaching repercussions for wider Indian politics. For one, it sends a resounding message to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that their dream of monolithic Hindu India is still far-fetched. While BJP was much enthusiastic and ardent to gain a victory in the election, as evidenced by Amit Shah’s intermittent visit to Bengal and the latter’s incendiary rhetoric and Prime Minister Modi’s several visit to state to canvass votes. Interestingly, the ubiquitous display of Narendra Modi’s posters led one commentator to sardonically quip whether NarendraModi is vying for chief minister position. This partly explains the importance BJP and Narendra Modi attached to West Bengal election.

Above all, this election was important for BJP to prove their regional appeal. BJP’s vision of “one state, one party” largely hinged on the victory in the Bengal. If BJP could win in Bengal, there had been possibility that other states would fall in order. This significance of Bengal election illuminates the importance that BJP attached to Bengal and their buoyant activities to seal the victory.

Bengal was long been known as bastion of ethnic politics rather than communal one. It was never been a fortress of all-India political parties. Even, in its heyday of all India politics, Indian National Congress (INC) couldn’t gain much favor in Bengal election as the politics in Bengal is driven by an appeal to “Bengali-ness” which other nationwide party lacks.

However, upheavals in Bengal politics had been unmistakable in recent times. Especially, the event of BJP’s significant performance in 2019 union elections led some observes to presage an ominous trend of Bengal politics unfolding. The BJP’s 40% share of vote from Bengal is largely an anomaly in the Bengal’s election history where all India political parties had hard time managing minuscule portion of the votes. The 2019 election result therefore doesn’t augur well for TMC in 2021.The defections of stalwart TMC leaders in favor of BJP exacerbated this grim predication and forbade an electoral mishap for TMC.

The detractors implicated Trinamool Congress for power abuse, extortion, misappropriation of welfare money and egregious Muslim appeasement. Especially, BJP seek to frame Trinamool Congress as anti-Hindu party. They had pointed to how Mamata Banarjee had benefitted Muslim clerics inordinately by providing them with benefits which their counterpart of Hindu religion was deprived of. Beside, “Bangladesh Card” had been recurrently employed to accuse the alleged lenient approach of TMC with regards to Bangladeshi migrants.

BJP capitalized on anti-incumbency resentment emanating from prolonged period of TMC role which had generated local level corrupted politician and scandals of misappropriated welfare schemes facilitated BJP rhetoric. Besides, BJP promised that the coordination with center government will be far easier if BJP gains state power. BJP rallied unemployed youth with the pledge of jobs had BJP

ascent to Bengal throne. Above all, BJP appealed to Hindu sentiments of the 60% majority Hindus of the state.

However, with the charismatic leadership of Mamata Banarjee and the promise of being rooted in Bengali soil and a proponent for peaceful communal relations, Mamata Banarjee’s TMC has been indomitable as manifested by resounding victory of Trinamool Congress.

The BJP’s promise of “Hindu Bengal” hadn’t materialized as West Bengal had long been a fortress of communal harmony, largely an aberration from all other Indian states. This communal harmony has been again bolstered by defeat of BJP in the assembly election.

The result of the election will largely reverberate across India with far-reaching consequences. Firstly, the victory of Trinamool Congress means that Modi’s vision of monolithic India isn’t viable in view regional peculiarities. Secondly, it safeguards the federal structure of India in face of increasing intrusion of central government. It also will restrain Narendra Modi’s unchecked centralization of the state. Thirdly, it will make Mamata Banarjee a spokesperson and central figure of anti-BJP movement in absence of vigorous congress presence. Fourthly, it puts an end to NarendraModi’s contentious CAA(Citizen Amendment Act) and other policies.

Lastly, this win of Mamata Banarjee has the possibility of catapulting her to the heft of an all India leader. Especially, in the absence of a BJP’s strong chief minister face, Mamata Banarjee was vying with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This has momentous implication. This will consolidate the popularity of TMC in other states also with the image of Mamata Banarjee and memory of implicitly defeating Narendra Modi serving as an accelerator of her all-India appeal.

Nevertheless, there is marked indications that the Bengal politics has irrevocably altered in the process of this election. While Bengal had long been the indisputable image of Indian secularism, the communal tendencies have made deep inroads in Bengal politics. BJP has surpassed all other local political parties and now only second to TMC. This trend is unnerving for secular Bengal as well as India. However, it can now rightly be articulated that saffron tide of communalism has been retarded. This victory of Mamata Banarjee has reverberation across India and can be termed as the victory of Indian secularism and federalism.

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Feasible Outcomes after Withdrawal of US Troops from Afghanistan

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According to US President Joe Biden’s announcement, the process of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan has begun. On September 11, 2001, there was a militant attack in the United States. The United States went on a military operation in Afghanistan in the wake of that attack. Now all US troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the longest war in U.S. history. US President Biden commented that the goal of the US war in Afghanistan has been achieved. After the Taliban’s overthrow, the civilian Afghan government was established in Kabul with US support. The US administration now feels that the present Afghan government is capable of ensuring the security of its country.

The announcement during Trump’s tenure was that the troops would leave on May 1. Biden pulled it off in September. Biden’s Republican party has persuaded him against the rapid departure of troops. The reason behind Biden’s announcement of the new withdrawal date lies in repairing relations with NATO, which suffered under Trump. This transatlantic relationship was damaged by several of Trump’s statements. According to Trump, NATO members were not doing what they were supposed to pay for the alliance and wanted to approve Germany, Afghanistan’s top contributor after the US. When the withdrawal agreement was negotiated with the Taliban last year, the demands of NATO members, who are dependent on the US military for airlift support, were not considered sufficiently. Now it appears that NATO also announced the withdrawal of troops after Biden announced the withdrawal of troops to fix September 11 as the withdrawal date. This time change has given NATO members the opportunity to work to coordinate with the United States for their departure from Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s move could be seen in the context of efforts to bring US foreign policy back to multilateralism.

The United States also feels that rebuilding relations with NATO and other partners is very important. Because it will enable the US to stay in better position to face various global challenges like China’s rise and climate change. Already China has expressed concern over the decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan. China thinks foreign troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan in a responsible and orderly manner. According to them, this is necessary to ensure a smooth transition from Afghanistan as well as to prevent any terrorist group from taking advantage of the chaos. But the real problem lies for China as US officials point out that the United States now wants to focus on addressing other important challenges, including the threat from China, by shifting its focus from Afghanistan.

However, the long-term presence of US troops did not eventually defeat the Taliban. Afghan forces and the central government in Kabul could not be able to increase control over the entire country. After 20 years of war and thousands of deaths, US officials have acknowledged that the Taliban are at their strongest military level. We see that the attacks have increased dramatically in the last one year. The Taliban has taken over and has destabilized the position of the Americans in Afghanistan. The provincial capital, briefly occupied by Afghan troops, is regularly recaptured by rebels. US forces are leaving behind a deeply unpopular Afghan government that has not won the confidence of the people. Afghans blame Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s weak leadership for the Taliban’s resurgence. His reluctance to share power is hampering the initial move to map a post-war future, which is a barrier to peace.

The Taliban are indicating that they want to return to the role of the previous regime when American troops leave. Their desire is single authority. Unwilling to compromise and run the country, they want full authority after September. They are talking about establishing their own model of ‘Islamic rule’. But it won’t be that easy for them as they have full control of only 20 to 30 per cent of the districts of the country. The same is true of government forces. Both taliban and government forces hold power in the remaining 50 percent of the area. However if Taliban are able to take control over the whole country, women’s society and the media are most afraid of their past rule. Higher education institutions are often attacked by the Taliban. Millions of girls went to school while Americans were still there, who were forbidden by the Taliban to receive any kind of education. From under the protective shield of Americans, women became doctors, entrepreneurs, Parliamentarians. They will now be in danger. Similarly, Afghans who have struggled to make the country a more hospitable and socially tolerant place will be at risk. Meanwhile, about 17,000 Afghans from those communities are waiting to get U.S. visa.

It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan’s warring sides come to an agreement. As the US moves away, it is time for Afghans to lead the talks and agree on a permanent ceasefire and peace settlement. The coming months will tell how much faith the Taliban and the Afghan government can give to the war-weary Afghan people and show the leadership they need to rule. Whether the Taliban will undermine the rights of women and minorities returning to Kabul has become a question. It also remains to be seen whether the Taliban will allow al-Qaeda and IS militants to be active in Afghanistan if they return to power. There is a possibility of high levels of polarisation across the country due to insecurity among the groups. Stability can come only if the present government and Taliban in Afghanistan work together.

The United States is now more interested in shifting attention from Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East and looking to Eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific region. The United States is reluctant to take responsibility for the negotiations even though it has announced the withdrawal of troops. Biden’s announcement does not have a roadmap for how the country will run after their departure. The United States wants Russia, China, Pakistan and India to participate in talks on Afghanistan. As a major power, it is dependent on who will be in governance in Afghanistan in the interest of Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. China and Russia are interested in Afghanistan for regional dominance and trade reasons, but India has a major interest in Afghanistan’s geopolitics in the conflict-making relations with Pakistan and the Kashmir crisis. The current deal will benefit the Taliban as well; It will also help Pakistan create a comfortable position in regional politics. Pakistan would like its backed Taliban government to be established in Kabul in its desire to consolidate its influence. But Pakistan also has a reason to worry. If the Taliban cannot bring peace to the country, the world society will put the responsibility on Pakistan. The refugee wave in Pakistan could rise another round if Afghanistan is newly disturbed. India, on the other hand, will want Pakistan’s influence-free Afghanistan. Again, in northern Afghanistan, where the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek people live, they will not easily accept Taliban forces controlled by the Pashtun population. So there is a risk of long-term unrest. Afghanistan’s future situation depends a lot on what the role of regional powers will be after the withdrawal of US troops and how much the agreement of international community to control itself will be implemented there without being in Afghanistan.

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