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Updated: October 15, 2013 10:04 IST

The many roads to Kabul

Vivek Katju
Comment (13)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

China is quietly but surely pursuing its strategic interests in Afghanistan. It is time India worked out the implications for itself

A few years ago, Pakistan made an extraordinary proposal to Afghanistan regarding the extraction and marketing of Afghan mineral wealth which is, according to the United States Geological Survey, worth around $1 trillion. It suggested that an Afghan, Pakistani and Chinese consortium be established to undertake this activity. It was a serious and thought out proposal for it was made by a very senior Pakistani Minister. The Afghans were not certain if Pakistan had taken China on board before making the sounding but some in Kabul saw this as a manifestation of a Sino-Pakistan nexus on Afghanistan. The Afghans rejected the Pakistani idea altogether.

Needed, scrutiny

This episode holds a lesson for the Indian strategic community which is focussed on U.S. and Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. This is unexceptionable but our security establishment should also pay close attention to China’s policies, both direct and along with Pakistan, towards Afghanistan as they may intersect Indian approaches and interests. A middle official level dialogue between India and China on Afghanistan has occurred but far greater scrutiny of Chinese actions is needed.

China has always looked at Afghanistan with caution and circumspection but never with indifference; it has actively but quietly pursued its interests in a country with which it shares a short boundary in the high mountains at the eastern edge of the Wakhan Corridor. On the Chinese approach in the 1960s, the American scholar Dupree notes, “the Chinese moved from behind the bamboo curtain to woo the Afghans socially, politically, and, in a lesser degree, economically.” During the Afghan Jehad against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the Chinese supported the Afghan Mujahideen. Barnett Rubin, an authority on the Afghan Jehad, writes, “the operation was not just a CIA operation; it was a joint operation of the CIA, the ISI, the Al Istakhbarat al-Ama (General Directorate) of Saudi Arabia. The Chinese were also involved (although they were and are rather discreet about this). These were four intelligence agencies that met every week in Islamabad. A lot of weapons from China went into Afghanistan as well but were not paid for by the Chinese.”

Ironically, the success of the Afghan Jehad invigorated China’s main internal security threat — Xinjiang’s Uighur militancy and quest for throwing off the Chinese yoke. In the 1990s, as the Taliban gained strength and territory in Afghanistan and as their alliance with the al-Qaeda deepened they began to give sanctuary and support to Central Asian Islamic militant groups and others including the Uighur groups. It is generally believed that a thousand Uighur militants came to Afghanistan but in 2003 a senior Chinese official gave this writer a much higher figure.

China turned to Pakistan to persuade the Taliban to expel the Uighur militants from Afghanistan. The “all weather friend” interceded; Chinese officials met senior Taliban leaders who made promises to rein in the Uighur militants. The promises were not kept. Following 9/11, the Taliban were ousted by the Coalition and Northern Alliance forces in November 2001. They retreated into Pakistan and the Uighur militants went with them.

China went along with international efforts on Afghanistan after 9/11 but remained restrained in its public articulation on the Taliban and low key in Kabul after the establishment of the Hamid Karzai led Interim Administration. On his part, Mr. Karzai began to assiduously woo China, a courtship he has continued throughout his presidency. He visited Beijing in January 2002, ahead of his visit to India which came in end February of that year. Since then he has visited China on numerous occasions, including for four state visits; the last was a few weeks ago in September. Through these years bilateral ties have been upgraded: from “good neighbourly” to “comprehensive cooperation” to “establishing strategic and cooperative partnership.” Economic relations have been strengthened with the award of major projects in the mining and hydrocarbons sectors. Contacts in the security and intelligence sectors have intensified. A section of the Kabul elite is strongly supporting the Chinese connection and some have developed economic stakes in it. However, China’s relations with Pakistan, Pakistan’s connections with the Taliban and continuing Taliban sympathy for the Uighur cause complicate the relationship.

Over the past six years, Afghanistan has provided China with evidence of Pakistan’s actions to destabilise Afghanistan. Predictably the Chinese have simply ignored all the material given to them. In these interactions China’s focus has remained on the Uighur militants. Uighur militancy in Xinjiang has been vigorous and bloody over the past decade. China views Afghanistan, according to Chinese scholar Zhao Huasheng, “as an inescapable part of Xinjiang’s security.”

Two-pronged approach

China’s current approach towards containing Uighur militancy is two-pronged:

The effort with the Taliban to expel the Uighur militants from FATA continues. With this aim the Chinese have not criticised the Taliban on any count. Instead they have said that they are a durable political group and hence have followed the Pakistan line and supported a process of reconciliation between them and the Afghan government. The Taliban June statement assuring that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used against any country would have given satisfaction to China as it did to the U.S. in the context of the al-Qaeda.

Secondly, China has focussed on the development of Xinjiang as an industrial base and as a pole in the trade and transit networks it is putting in place in Central Asia and beyond. The Central Asian states have been co-opted in this grand design. Russia has not opposed it either. The prospects of economic benefits and an absence of ideological affinity have denied Uighur militancy sympathy in Central Asian countries except within Islamist groups in the region.

The ambitious Gwadar-Kashgar Trade and Transit Corridor Project which China and Pakistan will undertake has also to be seen in this context. The project which involves the development of the Gwadar port and which will no doubt eventually seek to enmesh Afghanistan has obvious geo-strategic implications for India as it goes ahead with Iran to develop the Chabahar port and its links with and through Afghanistan to Central Asia and beyond.

China is conscious of an inevitable element of competition between the two transit systems. Hence, it is paying close attention to the Chabahar port and developments in western Afghanistan, especially around the Indian-built Zarang-Dilaram Highway that connects the Chabahar port with the strategic Kabul-Kandahar-Herat Road.

The Aynak Copper mines will be developed by China at a cost of over $4 billion. The project envisages the construction of a railway to evacuate copper to Xinjiang via Tajikistan. It is currently stalled because of security concerns but it will eventually be built and will be a model for other mining projects that will be undertaken by China. All this will be designed to integrate a major part of the Afghan mining activity with the economy of Western China.

China takes a long-term view of its interests but pursues them relentlessly. It will do so in Afghanistan too. India has built a fund of goodwill in Afghanistan through the example it holds as a democracy as well as its popular assistance programme. With these assets it is well placed though it will have to navigate the next few years through the minefield of the consequences of the U.S. forces drawdown. In the long term, India will need to evolve new strategies to safeguard and advance its interests in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, it has to make a success of the Hajigak iron ore project and ensure that transport systems are established to move the product through Chabahar.

(The writer is a former ambassador to Afghanistan)

More In: Lead | Opinion

After the withdrawal of US forces from this war torn soil India will
be caught in a vulnerable position because of it efforts to establish
democracy which according to Taliban is God less and the
reestablishment of Taliban regime is inevitable because it is gaining
momentum more so every day. While India is training the west backed
afghan govt. militia which are fighting along the faraway enemy
against Taliban with Indian provided weaponry over which Pakistan
secret allegiance toward Taliban will not bode well for India in the
long long run because Pakistani Intelligence Agencies would not bypass
this opportunity to use them against the Indian security establishment
in the Jammu and kashmir which can be viewed from its past designs
during 1989.

from:  Aijaz Rasool
Posted on: Oct 17, 2013 at 00:24 IST

This is an excellent article and very timely too. Clearly, the dynamics of the entire region is changing and will change more after the withdrawal of US troops. China too is undergoing profound change in its foreign policy. They have understood that their preoccupation should not and cannot be the US, which after all is losing steam! Therefore, they are playing for huge stakes in their own backyard, ie AfPak region. The instability in Pakistan(their all weather ally) is now becoming as much a worry for them as for India and for the first time, we are seeing a new stance towards India. Secondly, for their own interests in dealing with the Uighur problem, they need a toehold in Afghanistan, as a counterbalance to Pakistan, which is where the Uighur militants are being trained. Therefore,India too should develop a clear strategy for the entire region and work in tandem with the Chinese. This will put enormous pressure to join the parties in a common effort

from:  sridhar
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 23:34 IST

Indian Govt. is busy splitting up states for winning the next election.
They can not be bothered about such trivial matters as Afghanisthan!

from:  satish
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 18:38 IST

Afghanistan can become a true friend to India if India could play its
card well in changing scenario in Afghanistan.India can control
destabilizing activities from Pakistan and China to certain extent, with
the help of Afghanistan.People in Afghanistan,after American war,have
come more closure to Indian people thus India should made all efforts in
construction of Afghanistan so that Afghanistan could become natural
ally of India......

from:  anoop kumar bhardwaj
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 17:04 IST

@ Tipu.

You didn't expect India to support the Taliban and Al Qaeda did you like Pakistan did?
China is well developed already in terms of infrastructure. It's economy and skilled manpower has projects all around the world. However India still has a way to go in terms of its own infrastructure and developing manpower skills. India needs to concentrate on itself first and then 'help' other underdeveloped countries with the prospect of getting access to their natural resources.

from:  Vida
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 14:20 IST

Stability of Afghanistan post NATO withdrawal will be of great importance for south
Asia in general and India in particular.As pointed out by the writer that china has
compulsions to not offend Taliban as it wants Taliban to be its helper in containing
Uighur mikitancy, india has no such constraints and can very well develop more
economic ties with Afghanistan. Goodwill towards india due to its assistance
programmes will be of added advantage for us.Hajigak iron project can be India's
initiation in establishing greater industrial ties and at the same time , it can be a drive
to utilise the proposed chabahar port.The writer's point that india needs to be
circumspect about China's interest in Afghanistan, is certainly needs greater attention.

from:  Shivraj Gurjar
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 13:41 IST

This is a timely and valuable word of caution from an officer who has
served in Afghanistan. He has brought out how far China has already
gone in terms of economic cooperation and economic relations with
Afghanistan. India has done well to focus on the infrastructure so
far, which would not have gone unnoticed by the Afghans. It is high
time India considered the question of larger cooperation involving
India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran: these are the primary powers
of this region which can profit much from economic relations with
China and Central Asia. We should not think in terms of continued
hostility between Pakistan and India although this seems to be a fact
of the ground situation today. Sooner or later Pakistan may realize
that its interests lie in cooperation rather than confrontation with
India and may in due time make appropriate adjustments of policy.

from:  V. C. Bhutani
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 12:14 IST

Deepening of economic ties and expanding the range of mutual cooperation
to levels of dependence supplemented by the soft power image is the most
empirical course india can follow currently with the added caution of
keeping friction to minimum.

from:  Munir Dar
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 11:22 IST

As usual, a well balanced article from Vivek Katju. There seems to be some consensus developing that the Taliban need to be accommodated in the post-2014 scenario. India remained possibly the only country that opposed the Taliban totally and India got isolated in the process. After that, SM Krishna too agreed to the inclusion of Taliban. The fight is now between the pro-Pakistan Taliban group and somebody who gets the nod from Karzai. For the last two years or so, the US is playing every trick, in collusion with Pakistan, to make Karzai talk to the former group even as that group imposes conditions and behaves as though Afghanistan is already its Emirate once again. The axis of India-Iran-Russia is ineffective so far. China which made some anti-Taliban noises two years back at the tripartite Bangalore-meet of India-Russia-China is silently playing a deep game contrary to its earlier position. The odds are heavily stacked in favour of Mullah Omar and Pakistan. India has to be astute.

from:  Subramanyam Sridharan
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 11:14 IST

An excellent, well thought out and well researched article.
Congratulations.

from:  Nathan
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 10:49 IST

What the enlightened commentators of the Hindu expect from a government which has mortgaged everything in the feet of USA,leaving its strategic interest mortgaged!The China centric threat perception shall only bleed us and make the middlemen and our senior defence officers dealing in defence hardware rich!

from:  atis
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 10:15 IST

India chose to ride the Western bandwagon, there are no more choices to be made as far as India is concerned.

from:  Tipu Qaimkhani
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 09:00 IST

A great article on the importance of Afghanistan to India's larger
strategic and security interests in central Asia. However, there
are two challenges that India faces with respect to Afghanistan
after the US and NATO troop withdrawal in 2014. First, the
potential fall of a democratically elected government to the Afghan
Taliban, which would complicate past and future Indian investments
in that country. Second, India simply does not have the resources
to compete with China. However, India has a lot of goodwill with
the Afghans and it should capitalize on it as a strategic
counterbalance to Sino-Pakistan influence. It is in India's
interest to quietly convince the present Afghan government to sign
the strategic treaty with the US and NATO for maintaining about
10,000 troops post 2014 to maximize and protect Indian investments
in Afghanistan. If India mines and smelts the ores in Afghanistan
and create local jobs, it would consolidate her security
relationships with the Afghans.

from:  Sam
Posted on: Oct 15, 2013 at 07:09 IST
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