As I See IT – A Chinese-American game plan

    G Parthasarathy - The author is an Indian diplomat and author
    G Parthasarathy - The author is an Indian diplomat and author

    Describing Hinduism in India as “anti-human rights” and accusing former Afghan President Hamid Karzai of helping “India stab Pakistan in the back,” General Musharraf acknowledged on February 13 that “Pakistan had its own proxies” in Afghanistan and that his intelligence agencies had been “in contact with Taliban groups”. A reputed Pakistani journalist noted that the very next day. Afghanistan’s former Intelligence Tsar, Amrollah Saleh, hit back at Pakistanis piously disavowing any links with terrorism in Afghanistan. Saleh asserted: “Pakistan is the source of all ills in Afghanistan. Your own President has made the confession of having cultivated and supported the Taliban”. Saleh also lashed out at China for “pushing us to talk to Taliban terrorists”. He noted that while China was cracking down on the “Chinese Taliban,” associated with the East Turkistan Islamic Movement in Xinjiang, it had placed no sanctions on a “a state that abets terrorism (Pakistan)”.

    Responding to Saleh, a senior Chinese official observed that his government was only trying to “facilitate intra-Afghan reconciliation,” urging Saleh not to call the Chinese effort a “surrender to terrorists”. Obviously irritated, the Chinese official asserted: “The Taliban are your people and your President Ashraf Ghani has been asking for help in reaching out to the insurgent group. We will do as much as we can, as long as the Afghans want us to”. It is interesting that both the Chinese and Americans now refer to the Taliban as “insurgents” and not “terrorists”. This, after the Talban have killed over 2,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan. President Obama has evidently converted what President Bush called the “War of Terror” into a mere 14-year-old “counter-insurgency” operation! It is no secret that the American and Chinese efforts for “reconciliation” with the Taliban are being run in a carefully crafted and coordinated manner.

    Both the US and China are jointly attempting to mid-wife an ISI-led effort to legitimize Pakistani aims to give the Taliban a major say in the future governance of Afghanistan. There are reliable reports suggesting that in the talks in Qatar, the US has offered the Taliban the Governorship of the Uruzgan, Helmand and Kandahar Provinces and ministerial slots in Kabul in the Ministries of Frontier and Rural Development and Religious Affairs. Two hot American favorites from the Taliban leadership are reported to be Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who unloaded the luggage of the hijackers of IC 814 in Kandahar into his car, and Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, who allegedly provided the hijackers with explosives and assault weapons.

    China’s policies in Afghanistan are largely mercantilist. Beijing has offered very little economic aid to Afghanistan over the past one and half decades. It has, however, set its eyes on access to Afghanistan’s natural resources
    (estimated at $1 trillion) ranging from iron ore to coal, cooper, lithium and natural gas. China is, however, yet to spend a cent on developing the Aynak copper mines to which it has been granted access in northeast Afghanistan. It is using the
    “reconciliation” with the Taliban to protect its commercial interests by keeping the Taliban away from Muslim separatists of the ETIM based in Afghanistan, while being on the same page as its “all-weather friend” Pakistan. China has barred all Islamic religious practices and prayer meetings in government buildings, schools, business premises in Xinjiang. A recent Australian television documentary described details of a Chinese crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang. Muslim women wearing veils or head scarves cannot travel in public transport. Muslim men sporting beards, attired in Muslim dress, or displaying an Islamic Crescent, receive similar treatment.

    Persecuted Muslims in Xinjiang sought refuge in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s and associated themselves with Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front formed in Kandahar in February 1998. China’s links with the Taliban go back to 1998. While offering economic aid for the development of communications networks in Kabul and elsewhere, China asked Mullah Omar to end support for the ETIM separatists. While the Taliban did not hand over Uighur separatists, they allowed them space in camps for Chechens and Central Asian Jihadis from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. It is well known that over the past five years, the ISI has facilitated China’s links with the Mullah Omar-led Quetta Shura of the Taliban. This has ensured that while the Taliban and the ISI-backed Haqqani network target Indian nationals in Afghanistan at the behest of the ISI, Chinese nationals roam around the country freely, having secured ISI insurance. At the same time, China has sought to remain in the good books of the Afghan Government, having signed a strategic partnership agreement with Kabul and expressed its readiness to provide security assistance.

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    These developments have led to a congruence of Chinese and American interests and policies in Afghanistan. But there are several complications which lie ahead in this Chinese-American game plan. Both Washington and Beijing are going on the assumption that once they entered the portals power, the Taliban would play by the rules they set. They seem to forget that Mullah Omar regards himself as the ‘Amir ul Momineen’
    (Leader of the Faithful) and his cadres have no faith in any form of pluralism. Any attempt by President Ashraf Ghani to acquiesce in the sort of power sharing with the Taliban that the ISI wants will not only meet fierce resistance from Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Hazara Shias, but also from substantial sections of the Pashtuns, who have no desire to return to an era of Taliban medievalism. Ever since Ashton Carter took over as the American Defense Secretary, the Obama Administration has become more cautious about the speed of their troop withdrawal schedule.

    India’s imaginatively crafted economic assistance over the past 14 years has won it vast political goodwill across the ethnic divide in Afghanistan. New Delhi is thus not without its own political leverage. This leverage, combined with imaginative diplomacy, is required to see that Afghanistan does not again become a hotbed for ISI-backed terrorist groups, or a destination for hijacking Indian Airlines’ aircraft.

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