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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

Afghanistan between an Inclusive Government and Instability

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Source: Twitter

The political processes around Afghanistan persist in active development. Although the attention of the world media has fairly reduced, diplomatic activity regarding the Afghan issue does not decrease. Obviously, despite considerable pressure from the world powers, the leadership of the radical Taliban movement ruling Afghanistan still refused to create an inclusive government and continues its policy of tightening the regime. 

On the eve,  the former US special representative of Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, drew attention to the probable worth of the situation in the country. The diplomat did not rule out the possibility of a civil war in this country. In a recent interview, he called on the Taliban to respect the view of a significant part of society to prevent a new war. Apparently, the American diplomat is rather overstating the situation since the opposition to the Taliban, at least for now, does not have sufficient resource base and support for a full-scale confrontation with the radicals. However, Khalilzad’s statement indicates an increasing irritation towards the Taliban from the great powers.

An Indian diplomat and counsellor of the Permanent Representative of India to the UN, Madhu Sudan, also spoke on this matter earlier. He stated that to ensure Afghanistan’s economic stability and development, it is vital to create an inclusive government. The Indian representative called peace and security in Afghanistan the most important aspect of the global community and called on all countries to join efforts to achieve it. According to the diplomat, despite the changes in the political system of Afghanistan, India’s attitude towards its people has not changed. That is why New Delhi previously sent 50,000 tons of wheat, coronavirus vaccines, other medicines and convenience goods to Afghanistan as humanitarian aid. At the same time, the Indian side stresses the need to create an inclusive government in Afghanistan.

The significance of the presence of representatives of all ethnic and political groups in the government of Afghanistan is also stated in the Russian government. Thus, speaking at the CSTO summit in Armenia, the Russian president called for creating an inclusive government in Afghanistan. “The priority at this stage is to ensure the formation of a truly inclusive Afghan government, which will include representatives of all ethnic groups at the necessary level,” Vladimir Putin said. It should be noted that the CSTO summit was a failure and actually launched the processes for the final disintegration of this inefficient organization. In turn, Russia’s position in the post-Soviet space has weakened so much that we can discuss the impending loss of regional power status. Moscow is no longer a hegemon in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the former USSR as a whole.

However, the Taliban’s policy is increasingly annoying in world capitals, especially in the Global West, India and Iran. Thus, these cases were previously discussed in a conversation between the Presidents of Tajikistan and France. Emomali Rahmon and Emmanuel Macron highlighted the need to develop joint approaches to preserve Afghanistan’s peace and stability. Both leaders also stressed the necessity for an inclusive government.

Meanwhile, all political messages addressed to Afghanistan were denied by the Taliban leadership. Thus, it was stated that “the arguments about the creation of an inclusive government by foreign states are interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.” “The creation of the government and state institutions is a matter of domestic policy,” said deputy Taliban spokesman Billal Karimi. He called on the international community to abstain from interfering in his country’s internal affairs.

A particular setback is also kept in the struggle against the drug trade. Mohammad Masoud Zahidian, Deputy head of the Iranian Counter-Narcotics Headquarters, says drug trafficking from Afghanistan has risen. According to him, the cause for the growth in drug trafficking was the activation of the southern route (Pakistani) from Afghanistan. According to the official, in 2022, more than 220,000 hectares of agricultural land in Afghanistan were allocated for poppy, with 76% of these crops in the provinces bordering Iran. It should be mentioned that the southern route is one of the main logistics routes under the control of the Taliban and Pakistani security forces. This route passes through the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan and then the territory of Pakistan. It is known that Islamabad provides comprehensive assistance, sponsors and counsels the Taliban movement.

The tightening of the domestic policy of the Taliban is indicated by some strange and illogical laws that the Taliban have recently introduced. Thus, the Ministry of Prohibition of Evil and Coercion to the good of the Taliban banned listening to music, explaining that music damages the morality of young people and leads them astray. In a video published by the Ministry, a person introduced as a psychotherapist says that some words that cause inebriation are used in music. Taliban officials also say that listening to music causes heart disorders.

Thus, the situation in Afghanistan is staining. The support for the Taliban, provided by Pakistan, China and partly Russia, has failed. The policy of the leading Western countries is also not entirely clear, which actually left Afghanistan in a power vacuum, which led to an increase in the influence of the Taliban, Pakistan and China. Seemingly, the insight of this is slowly coming to the world capitals.

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The Taliban Finally Granted Permission to the Former President Karzai to leave Afghanistan

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Former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai. (Express photo by Nirupama Subramanian)

Based on the information, the former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was permitted to leave the country. At a time, when online meetings between Sohail Shaheen and American representatives are going on in connection with the start of intra-Afghan talks in Doha, The former president of the country, Hamid Karzai, was allowed to exit the country for the first time after August 15, 2021, when the Taliban took over. Nevertheless, it is not yet known when he will start his overseas trip, but his only purpose is to get preparation for the start of Intra-Afghan talks in Doha and to meet with American officials and foreign Afghan politicians. Since the end of October and the beginning of November, there are reports narrating that telephone calls are being made between President Hamid Karzai, and the US special representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West.

Besides, the persons are preparing for future negotiations, the re-established relationship between the former president Karzai and the CIA took place, when a CIA undercover intelligence officer met Karzai sometimes back, when he represented himself as an International media reporter. Sources suspect that the undercover agent interviewed the president under the auspices of a well-known German based Der Spiegel Magazine.

According to the information, former President Hamid Karzai will fly to Germany, while meeting with the CIA officials at the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Meantime, the former President Hamid Karzai will meet with some high-ranking officials of Germany and then have separate meetings with Western politicians and intelligence officers. Furthermore, after that, President Hamid Karzai will meet with the American ambassador to lay out the strategy for the potential negotiations.

 Currently, there is a lot of confusion in the Mandigak palace in Kandahar province, where Taliban Spiritual leader and the decision making hub located and it is said that there have been serious discrepancies  regarding allowing him to go abroad. However, Sheikh Haibatullah’s position is still neutral about his exit, while negotiating with his advisors to make a final decision in the upcoming days.

Nonetheless, there are no other specific differences regarding the permission. It is only the low-ranking Taliban fighters, who demand the precise judgement of the Taliban’s leader in this concern; In addition, some Taliban leaders are also unhappy about the whole process, especially the former members of the Quita Council of Taliban.

Now the ball is in the Taliban’s ground, whether they are ready to comply with the demands of the international community, by transferring the power to a transitional government or not, and to get along with the United States and get onboard the international community support. Definitely, it causes further splintering among Taliban groups and ISKP will use it as an opportunity to recruit Taliban fighters, while paving the way for regrouping in Khorasan Province the IS so-called territory.

The ISKP long before blamed Taliban for being ‘’ Rafeda’’, while simultaneously cooperating with the US, Russia, China and Iran for their political ambitions.  To conclude, the Afghan people will not accomplish a lasting peace and sustainable economic developments, since the country will turn into a new battle filed among countries, which have stake in Afghanistan.

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The Charisma and Chaos of Imran Khan

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PTI Chairman Imran Khan gestures at the march participants as his convoy arrives in Gujranwala on November 1, 2022. — Instagram

The chances of Imran Khan winning the elections of 2018 were quite murky. Despite his unparalleled fan base and populist rhetoric appeals to the young, and labor class of Pakistan, the legitimacy of his government is marred with allegations of fraud, rigging, and exploitation.

Some argue that his candidacy was a marketing tactic used by the ‘Establishment’ in Pakistan to form a government that is rather weak and dependent so that the ‘Establishment’ can continue its control over domestic security issues including the Nuclear escalation and relations with India.

But by and large, Khan won the elections.

Maybe it was the stardom attached to the name ‘Imran Khan’ and Pakistanis not wanting to confide in the same faces ruling them for centuries.

Maybe it was the mismanagement and violence that marred election day with unfathomable delays in result declaration in metropolis cities, coupled with post-poll manipulation.

Maybe it was the judicial-military nexus, that placed all the votes in the right places by not allowing voters to use their will during elections.

Maybe it was the 7 years-old narcotics case hearing moving forward against the stalwart of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Hanif Abbasi, giving him a life sentence in a rare late-night session of court, four days ahead of the elections that effectively knocked PML-N out of the race.

But the deal was done and can’t be undone and Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, for better or worse.

Khan the Celebrity

Pakistani nationals were victims of the financial crisis, unemployed people, those who lost their homes, and who were in debt; these people felt like the two parties ruling Pakistan for centuries had destroyed their country’s economy.

Imran Khan, with his humongous stardom as an athlete and philanthropist, seemed like the only ‘Messiah’ that could save them from all the atrocities they were facing.

Though, a significant number of votes were cast in favor of PML-N but not in the places that would have locked the win. So Imran Khan, persuaded the angry Pakistanis, the youth, and the labor class who were fed up with being handed over in trade deals with other nations.

Khan, a socialite that he was, knew how to connect with these agitated masses. Their grievances were clear as a day and so he gave them pretty promises wrapped up in his vibrant rallies filled with catchy songs. His huge social media presence along with the ‘Naya Pakistan’ slogan further amplified his staunch.

But there lies a challenge as to why Khan became the top highlight of this era. To many who were tired of politicians filling their own pockets, and amid the corruption charges on Nawaz Sharif, Khan’s celebrity status, his colorful personality, his promise of a corruption-free Pakistan, and his unconventional ‘Don’t Panic’ attitude – all of this made Khan seem like the only option who would deliver a better life and nation and, if not that, then at least would be the eradicator of what Pakistan had become.

Khan the Totalitarian

The other side of the coin sees Imran Khan as a narcissist, self-centered, and power-hungry mogul. After achieving his eternal craving of becoming the Prime Minister, he hardly showed any respect for the institutions of the country. More often than not he refused to attend the sessions of Parliament, with his excuse being the presence of members of the opposition party whom he referred to as ‘Crooks’ and ‘Chors’ (thieves).

This resulted in laws, instead of passing through an ordinary law-making process, being passed through presidential ordinances, with very limited power. We can clearly say that these laws were passed without debate, consensus, and thorough examination, negating the very foundation of constitutional requirements.

Additionally, Khan likes to fabricate stories in his speeches, a lot. In this vein, he brings down any democratic provision that proves him wrong, including targeting political parties on concocted charges of corruption; sustained attacks on the media; undermining law authorities, even the Supreme Court is not exempted from his allegations.

Through the abrogation of rule of law, irresponsible remarks about institutions, and disdain toward democracy, Khan himself created a fragile parliamentary system, which then collapsed on him. Not only this, but he has fractured the already dwindling democracy of Pakistan into a whole new level.

Khan the Leader

Khan came onto the political scene when Pakistan was facing a volatile situation both at home and abroad, coupled with the tensions going on with the Americas, and the rampant inflation, he was still able to take some impressive measures. His work related to health, relief programs, house loans, the environment, entrepreneurship, and the COVID response is admirable.

In addition, his billion tree tsunami and the building of several small dams initiated an environment-friendly drive in the climate change-affected country. But was he able to deliver on the ‘Promises’ made to the nation? Absolutely Not.

Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the cabinet as the abrupt changes in the system dwindled the confidence of investors in Pakistan’s economic machinery. His careless handling of some important economic programs including the CPEC decelerated the capital influx that caused the GDP to drop considerably.

To top it all off, Pakistan, in 2021 dropped from 124th place to 140th place according to Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), leaving an ugly mark on Khan’s corruption eradication promises on which he has led the foundation of his political career. Maybe he should have abided by the agenda of progression in order to gear up his performance instead of getting involved in blame and shame politics.

Khan the funambulist

The important reason why Khan has a cult following in Pakistan is his unfiltered and raw opinions about topics like the Americas, and Afghanistan which he keeps casting in his speeches. And, the audience, mostly the social media-induced young generation eats it all up like a sweet concoction, without paying heed to the implications it will bring to the foreign policy of Pakistan.

Khan’s decision to appoint Usman Buzdar, an underqualified and inexperienced newcomer to a vital position in the key city of Punjab pretty much sums up his political foresight. Perhaps, the most interesting yet debatable contrivance of his regime is his relentless attitude toward the United States, no previous Prime Minister of Pakistan was able to say ‘Absolutely No’ to the US as it had many allies in the domestic political platform of Pakistan. This stance of Khan was admired a lot in the country, with the phrase being trending in Pakistan. But the remarks came with ramifications for Pakistan on the international forum. This whole scenario further makes people question his political sanity.

Imran Khan possesses all the characteristics of a populist leader and in Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Cas Mudde says: “Populists are dividers, not uniters” they split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other.” True to this narration, Khan has divided the nation into two groups of ‘Evil and Good’ people, and the consequences are detrimental to the stability of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Conclusion

To sum it all up, Imran Khan, despite his misgivings, his warts, his narcissism, and his unhinged political views, is still able to reach a class of people that have seen Pakistan erode for centuries and consider him the last hope for the country. But he certainly is not the best choice for democracy as his political understanding is ruined by his self-righteous approach. In this manner, he is no better than former US President Trump who incited his supporters to pass on the U.S. Capitol to forestall the peaceful transition of power after his electoral defeat. It is precise to say that Pakistan has fallen into a deep cauldron and only a Magic Wand can heal it at this point. Though Khan has not singularly created this cauldron, he most definitely is exploiting and feeding on it.

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