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China’s turn to enter the graveyard of empires

Jul 04. 2017
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By Muhammad Amir Rana 
Asia News Network

Forging peace in Afghanistan is key to Beijing’s connectivity dream   

Despite billions of dollars spent and diverse efforts made, including military campaigns, political strategies and reconciliation efforts, peace and stability in Afghanistan remain a distant dream. It’s more than one and a half decades since the world began trying to solve the Afghanistan puzzle – but in vain. Now China has entered the theatre, with a new framework of conflict management.

It considers neighbouring Pakistan crucial to achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan is eager to reinforce the impression, due to strategic advantages it sees in Afghanistan. This has strengthened the notion that the path to peace in Afghanistan passes through Islamabad.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Islamabad recently attempting to reduce the trust deficit between Afghanistan and Pakistan. While regional security and stability are among the foremost prerequisites for the Chinese connectivity dream of One Belt One Road (OBOR), peace and stability in Afghanistan are also vital for China’s internal security. The US would probably welcome any move that shares its burden in Afghanistan, including of failures.

Previously, China avoided playing an assertive role in Afghanistan despite its strong desire to see peace prevail in the country. Though Beijing made back-channel efforts to convince the Afghan Taleban to become part of the dialogue, it avoided taking a lead role in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group that also included the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the quadrilateral peace process broke down, China partnered with Russia to create space for another attempt at peace in Afghanistan. The fate of this initiative remains unclear.

Breakthrough for Beijing

Recently, China took the rare and bold diplomatic step of brokering a deal between Pakistan and Afghanistan to normalise their bilateral relationship – a crucial foundation for any peace initiative in the region. China helped the two countries to establish a bilateral crisis management mechanism to avoid communication breakdowns.

Many see it as a desperate move by China to achieve regional stability. Yet the country’s growing diplomatic and political stature in the world requires it to assume a more effective role in resolving regional and international disputes. Afghanistan is a test case for China since it entails diverse internal, regional and international conflict dynamics. To start with, removing the deep-seated mistrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly when seen in the context of India, would not be an easy task for China.

On the one hand, China and Pakistan are strategic and economic allies, and on the other, Afghanistan has also signed a strategic partnership agreement with China. But Afghanistan is still far from being a functional state. It also maintains close links with India, which is resisting China-led regional connectivity initiatives including CPEC.

However, China has made huge strides in bringing Pakistan and Afghanistan closer together and forging a trilateral China-Afghanistan-Pakistan foreign minister-level dialogue forum. The forum has also invited the Afghan Taleban to join the Afghan reconciliation process.

US troop surge

Taleban chief Maulvi Haibatullah Akhundzadah is demanding the complete removal of Nato troops from Afghanistan as a condition for peace talks. The recent surge in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan is also seen as an attempt by anti-talks Taleban commanders to increase pressure on Kabul so that the government declines to initiate talks.

There are other impediments too, including the worsening Afghan political crisis, decreasing morale of the Afghan security forces and competing positions of international stakeholders in the peace process. Even as China and Russia are trying to convince Kabul to restart the reconciliation process with the Taleban, the US is preparing a troop surge in Afghanistan, which indicates that the new administration is thinking along the lines of defeating the Taleban militarily. Another critical issue is the emerging US-India strategic partnership on regional security issues, which will encourage India to exploit the situation in Afghanistan against Pakistan and even China.

Pakistan’s dilemma is that over the decades the world has learned to see the country through the prism of Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan expects its Arab friends to proffer military cooperation. However, they have done nothing to ease Pakistan’s diplomatic burden by offering any mediation between the two countries.

Afghanistan and Pakistan both know how to improve their bilateral relationship but sadly they are trapped in a vicious cycle of mutual mistrust. They have huge potential for trade and economic cooperation including regional connectivity through CPEC and routes with Central Asia. 

Each side complains regularly that the other tolerates terrorist sanctuaries. Having failed to achieve bilateral cooperation on border security, Pakistan is investing a lot in border management. But without Afghan cooperation, Pakistan will find it difficult to secure its border with Afghanistan from militants’ incursions.

The time is ripe for China to step in. In the next phase, Beijing may facilitate such cooperation between the two countries. The prospects of joint security operations against terrorists in border regions can also be explored, especially in the context of the capabilities of the Afghan security forces.

Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst.

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