x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

China and India try to fill Afghan gap left by US withdrawal

Both the countries are ramping up military training in Afghanistan in one of the clearest signs yet of regional concern.

New Delhi // India and China are ramping up military training in Afghanistan, in one of the clearest signs yet of regional concern about the expected drawdown of US military strength next year. Although there has been no official confirmation, Paris-based Intelligence Online reported recently that General Ma Xiaotian, the deputy of the Chinese army, discussed having the Chinese train Afghan army and security forces during a meeting with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in Beijing last month.

New Delhi is also actively discussing its role in Afghanistan once Nato departs. Most Indian analysts reject the idea of training Afghan troops inside India, or perhaps in partnership with one or more Central Asian countries. "The key challenge ? is to ensure Karzai has enough residual capacity to prevent the insurgents from regaining the initiative," Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, said in an interview.

"By offering to help meld the ANA [Afghan National Army] into a capable force in a reasonably short time frame, India can stiffen Karzai's resolve ? and possibly ensure that he is not forced to negotiate with a weak hand, and so accept compromises that might be unpalatable to New Delhi." Both regional powers will not expand their efforts in co-operation with Nato, analysts say. Instead, they are acting in their independent national interests to contain militancy and drug trafficking, while also moving to protect significant investments of time, capital and expertise in the country.

China has pledged US$3.5 billion (Dh13bn) to develop the Aynak copper mine 60km south of Kabul, and has built a state-of-the-art hospital in the city. India has committed $1.2bn on a broad programme of assistance, including power transmission lines from Uzbekistan that now supply Kabul with reliable electricity, as well as a major hydroelectric dam in Herat. India has also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in small, community-based projects that have brought roads, water, schools and health care to hundreds of impoverished Afghan villages.

US plans to drawdown troops may threaten those projects, particularly in the rural hinterland, Mr Raghavan said. The US commander in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has already started concentrating US troops in major urban centres, last year abandoning forward operating bases in the Korengal Valley. The valley is one of the most active smuggling routes used by militants crossing the Afghan-Pakistan border, and the US withdrawal raised hackles among the Pakistani army as it struggled to contain the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas directly across the border.

The risk that Taliban-inspired militancy will spread into Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia is now a critical concern for regional powers. "Mounting discontent and social tensions in Tajikistan will make an ideal hideout for the Taliban and al Qa'eda elements," said Nirmala Joshi, in Reconnecting India and Central Asia, a report published this year by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

China is especially concerned about the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is based on the Xinjiang border with Afghanistan. "Concerns about Islamist militancy on its western border have only heightened since the Uighur riots of July 2009 and are likely to increase as the United States withdraws," Christian le Miere, the editor of Jane's Intelligence Review, wrote last month in the Foreign Affairs magazine. "As the United States begins its military withdrawal and drone strikes become less frequent, China worries that the TIP will gain greater freedom of movement."

Mr Raghavan said a number of hawkish Indian security analysts are arguing in favour of an Indian troop deployment to Afghanistan to protect India's rural investments, something that would antagonise Pakistan and threaten to expand the Indo-Pak dispute into Central Asia. The United States has hinted at a Pakistani agreement to a small Indian military deployment along the borders of Central Asia and Iran, if India agrees to negotiate its Afghan involvement in resumed Indo-Pak talks, Mr Raghavan said.

Both India and China are aware that Central Asia holds a treasure trove of natural resources. Kazakhstan alone has proven reserves of at least 40 billion barrels of oil and a minimum three trillion cubic metres of natural gas. Afghanistan also offers India crucial connectivity to continental trade. Indian trade with Europe, Iran, Central Asia and Pakistan is set to rise to $600bn in 2015, promising Pakistan massive potential transit revenue, according to a report from the Central Asia Caucasus Institute.

Mr Raghavan said it was time for India to chart its own course in Afghanistan. "It is increasingly apparent that the US cannot promise, let alone deliver, anything significant in Afghanistan," he wrote in a policy paper last month. "Kabul, rather than Washington, will be our most crucial partner." Beijing is taking a similar approach, welcoming Mr Karzai to Beijing last month for the fourth time, and responding favourably to requests for economic co-operation, technical training and preferential tariffs for Afghan exports.

"As Washington shows its impatience with the Karzai regime ? Kabul is beginning to look for new supporters and patrons," Mr le Miere said. "As the regional hegemon, China is the obvious choice ? The interest appears to be mutual." @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae