China emerges as a key player in Afghanistan
The recent rise of Islamist insurgencies in the Middle East has underscored the folly of leaving a job half done in Arab Spring countries struggling to come to terms with transition. The same could happen in south and central Asia if serious attention isn’t paid to finding a political settlement in Afghanistan. Indeed, it has been happening there – albeit in slow-motion – ever since 2003, when the US invaded Iraq without completing the task in Afghanistan.
Had it not, there would have been no space for a Taliban comeback which, despite an intense US-led counteroffensive between 2009 and 2012, has not been contained. Rather, the Taliban have been expanding their arena of activity in areas where international combat forces have withdrawn.
The Taliban comeback is one reason political forecasters are worried about a replay of events that took place in Afghanistan in 1990s. There are also obvious parallels with the political dynamics of Syria and Iraq, both current and historic.
That said, there is more room for optimism about the future of Afghanistan, because there’s no mystery as to what would happen if it were to relapse into chaos. The 10-year Taliban-branded insurgency in Pakistan has amply demonstrated what could easily happen again in the region.
Thus there is much more clarity as to what competing domestic and external players want in Afghanistan. In essence, everybody agrees on two points: first, the need for a domestic political settlement that ensures stability through the participation of all Afghan stakeholders and second, that the settlement more or less ensures that Afghan territory won’t be used by other countries to threaten each other’s national security.
The issue preventing a settlement has been “mistrust”, the polite word used to describe the deep dishonesty with which practically all participants have conducted relations with each other since 2003, when the US commitment to Afghanistan became questionable.
That is why China’s recent offer to facilitate a dialogue seeking peace and political reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban ought not to be thought of as a diplomatic punt, or dismissed out of hand as such. China is not a country that tends to thrust itself into complicated diplomatic situations as an arbiter. It would not have become involved unless the key players had asked it to, and assured it that they would act in good faith.
The origin of the idea is a mystery, but Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, set the diplomatic ball rolling in September by asking Saudi Arabia and then China to facilitate a reconciliation with Pakistan.
He acted intelligently by engaging couriers who are close allies of Pakistan. That sparked a parade of Pakistani officials to and from Kabul, with the powerful Pakistan military assuming the lead role in the bilateral re-engagement – a necessary demonstration of political will. As the international lead actor in Afghanistan, the US, too, has signalled its approval through secretary of state John Kerry.
The intense diplomatic activity culminated in Mr Ghani’s state visit to Islamabad on Friday and Saturday, and an agreement to work together to resolve their bilateral disputes and prevent an implosion in Afghanistan by politically engaging the Taliban.
That’s where China comes in. Its ambitions in Afghanistan are limited, clearly stated and rooted in its desire for stability on its western borders. As such, China has never been part of the problem, and is seen as neutral. Its combined diplomatic and economic clout also means none of the players want to antagonise it.
The contention here is that the Afghan Taliban share that perspective and could, in due course, join a China-hosted dialogue involving the Afghan and Pakistani governments. Admittedly, that contention is an optimistic one. Nonetheless, fear of chaos and destruction is a powerful motivation.
So is the prospect of political isolation, which is precisely what faces the Taliban’s Mullah Mohammed Omar if he does not respond positively to the Chinese offer.
At this point, the Taliban is considered both a terrorist organisation and a legitimate political stakeholder in Afghanistan. Although attempts at political engagement between the Taliban and the Afghan government have got nowhere, Omar has subtly repositioned his stated goals in recent years. For example, the Taliban now lays claim to the Pashtun-dominated south of Afghanistan, instead of the entire country. It has also said, in as many words, that its conflict with the US will be over the day all of America’s troops depart from Afghanistan.
Omar must now make some definitive choices, primarily between his commitment to jihadist ideology and Al Qaeda, and a genuine shot at legitimate power-sharing in Afghanistan. One choice would vindicate his lifelong struggle, the other could impose disaster, just as it did when he refused to extradite Osama bin Laden in 2001.
Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist and political analyst based in Islamabad
Updated: November 17, 2014 04:00 AM