China challenges Obama’s Taliban plan

U.S President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Chinese commentaries have questioned the efficacy of the U.S. plan to “reintegrate” the Taliban, saying it is a deeply flawed idea. File photo: AP  

U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to reconcile with the Taliban in Afghanistan ought to win him a second Nobel, although during the entire period between 1901 and 2009, a Peace Prize was never awarded twice to any of its 97 individual recipients. An exception of course can be made. From a historical perspective, if the Obama plan advances, Afghanistan promises to become the first country where Islamists are ushered into power on a wave of America’s smart power. That is no mean achievement.

However, there is always a catch somewhere. Curiously, it is Beijing that will have the final say in the matter. And these days Beijing cannot be persuaded until it is convinced. Its considerations will be solely guided by China’s national interests at the prospect of an Islamist regime resurfacing in Central Asia — a prospect that is entirely within the realms of possibility and is fraught with grave implications for China’s security. The fact of the matter is, as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the Munich security conference last weekend: “Of course Afghanistan is not an island. There is no solution just within its borders.”

The international community has been led to believe that the India-Pakistan fault line is the pivotal concern in the U.S.’s diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan. However, it is more a subplot. The U.S.’s principal protagonist is China, while India and Pakistan — and increasingly Russia — are more like jesters in forming the confusion and the humour in an Elizabethan drama. The main plot is about the expansion of NATO in Central Asia.

At Munich, Mr. Rasmussen spoke of the “need to turn NATO into a forum of consultation on worldwide security issues … NATO is a framework, which has already proven to be uniquely able to combine security consultation, military planning and actual operations … Afghanistan is a vivid example that, in the 21st century, security can’t be a relay race, with one individual handing the baton to the next runner ... That is why … the Alliance should become the hub of a network of security partnerships … Already today, the Alliance has a vast network of security partnership, as far afield as Northern Africa, the Gulf, Central Asia and the Pacific.”

The Central Asian region is increasingly projected in the western media as a “ticking bomb waiting to go off.” The argument runs like this: social and ethnic tensions are smouldering in the region and the economic crisis is deepening whereas the autocratic and repressive regimes are incapable of addressing the tensions; Islamists are, therefore, stepping into the political vacuum and Central Asia is becoming increasingly susceptible to the al-Qaeda. The argument is gaining ground. Pakistani analyst Ahmed Rashid said recently: “[Militants] are preparing the ground for a long, sustained military campaign in Central Asia. There is now a real threat because the Islamist surge is combined with an economic and political crisis … The reason is that they have, first of all, done enough fighting for other people. They now want to fight for their own country. The real threat now is the fact that they are trying to infiltrate back into Central Asia … They are trying to infiltrate weapons, ammunition and men back into Central Asia.” There is an ominous overtone to it. The al-Qaeda was used as a justification for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Yemen is fast becoming eligible for a U.S. intervention on the same account. This is why the U.S.’s idea of reconciliation with the Taliban merits close scrutiny.

Prima facie, the idea is eminently sensible at a time when Muslim anger is rising, there is growing disillusionment about Mr. Obama and the U.S. is dangerously close to confronting Iran. Besides, it is always sound tactic to “split” Muslim opinion. The idea of inducting Saudi Arabia as the mediator with the Taliban is a masterstroke. There couldn’t be a better way to further harass the Shi’ite regime in Tehran than by injecting a heavy dose of Wahhabism into neighbouring Afghanistan. Indeed, that was a prime consideration in the mid-1990s at the time of the conception of the Taliban by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as a joint enterprise.

To be sure, the Taliban’s reconciliation makes the stuff of realpolitik. The Afghan war costs lots of money, it costs youthful western lives and it cannot be won. The Taliban reconciliation is arguably the only option available to keep open-ended NATO’s military presence in Central Asia without having to fight a futile war. Secondly, the ascendancy of malleable Islamist forces also has its uses for the U.S.’s containment strategy towards China (and Russia). The cold war testifies to the seamless possibilities of pitting Islam against communism. In today’s circumstances, the triumph of Islamists in Afghanistan cannot but radicalise regional hotspots such as North Caucasus, Kashmir or Xinjiang.

China has the maximum to lose if a Taliban regime reemerges. Islamists can create havoc with China’s plans to source Central Asian energy through transportation routes that bypass U.S.-controlled Malacca Straits. The “foreign devils” can complicate the situation within Xinjiang. Worse still, China may come to inherit the Soviet Union’s plight as the “enemy” of Islam. That explains the length to which Beijing went at the London conference on Afghanistan on January 28 and at the Istanbul regional conference immediately preceding it to assert that Afghanistan is far too critical an issue for regional security and stability to be left to Washington.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spelt out in great deal during his speeches at London and Istanbul that Beijing intends to play an active role to safeguard its interests. Mr. Yang outlined the kind of Afghanistan that China wishes to see emerging out of the abyss. First and foremost, it has to be a peaceful and stable Afghanistan that “eradicates the threat of terrorism.” Two, it should be an Afghanistan that accepts the “existence of diverse ethnic groups, religions and political affiliations and rises above their differences to achieve comprehensive and enduring national reconciliation.” The accent on pluralism is a virtual rejection of the fundamentalist ideology of Wahhabism practised by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Three, Afghanistan should “enjoy inviolable sovereign independence, territorial integrity and national dignity. Its future and destiny should be determined and its state affairs run by its own people.” In essence, China expects a total and unconditional vacation of foreign occupation.

Four, Mr. Yang highlighted repeatedly, the centrality of the regional powers in the efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. Afghanistan “should be a part of the regional cooperation mechanisms… Countries of the region have special associations with Afghanistan.” He added: “There are now quite a number of mechanisms and initiatives regarding Afghanistan. Countries in the region should increase communication to ensure that the relevant mechanisms are viable, practical and efficient and can play a positive role … We should avoid [the] overlapping of various mechanisms … we should be open and inclusive and promote sound interaction with other partners … It is imperative to respect the leading role of the United Nations in coordinating international efforts and demonstrate openness and transparency.”

Mr. Yang then added a punch line: “Countries from outside the region should vigorously support the efforts of countries in the region and fully appreciate their difficulties in order to foster sound interactions between the two.” In effect, he challenged the U.S.’s monopoly of conflict resolution. Mr. Yang demanded that the Obama administration get off the back of Hamid Karzai. He asked Washington to “respect the leading role of Afghanistan in economic reconstruction and let the Afghan government and people sit in the driver’s seat. China supports channelling more assistance through the Afghan government and making more investment ... on the basis of equal consultations with the Afghan government.”

Chinese commentaries have since questioned the efficacy of the Obama administration’s plan to “reintegrate” the Taliban, saying it is a deeply flawed idea and raises concerns that Mr. Karzai may be ultimately forced into making “certain political concessions” to the insurgents in terms of power-sharing and constitutional reform. They lamented that the entire exercise aimed at “a graceful exit strategy” for the U.S. and its allies and “appears to have been carefully stage-managed to allow the U.S. and NATO troops to start scripting a withdrawal. But perceived in a certain light, it could be counter-productive.”

The Chinese commentaries underlined that the plan to split the Taliban by buying off its cadres and reintegrating those who had no link with the al-Qaeda wouldn’t work. “The United States has always tried to spend its way into a solution, a tactic that could backfire with the more extreme element of the Taliban … the prospect conjures images of a bottomless money pit.”

Almost word-by-word, Mr. Yang’s Indian counterpart could have echoed him at the London conference. Yet, New Delhi preferred to let one more opportunity pass by when India could have made common cause with other like-minded regional powers that share our profound sense of disquiet about the ascendancy of militant forces in Afghanistan.

( The writer is a former diplomat.)

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 9:51:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/China-challenges-Obamarsquos-Taliban-plan/article16814666.ece

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