By Bhaskar Roy
Can the elimination of Al Qaida Amir, Osama bin Laden in Pakistan’s garrison town of Abbottabad by US special forces be a game changer in the AF-PAK centre? It could be in the sense of determination of the immediate concerned parties – Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US, and parties who have direct interest like China, Russia, Iran and India. Within Afghanistan lie strong discordant factions – President Hamid Karzai, the Taliban, ethnic factions, and members of the old Northern Alliance led by assassinated leader Ahmad Shah Masud’s inheritor, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. The challenge can only be imagined and there is hardly one answer.
China is a prime factor in the AF-PAK question and resolution of the Afghan issue and terrorism. Pakistan has always been China’s highest priority in its strategic policy in South Asia, the Middle East and West Asian Islamic world, and a kind of foil against the USA and the West. Its “lip to teeth” relationship with North Korea is secondary to its relationship with Pakistan. China’s and Pakistan’s claim that their bilateral relationship is “unique” in the world is very true. Pakistan is not China’s “domino” which can be allowed to fall, but an “extension” state whose occasional misdemeanour can be forgiven and dealt with patience, counselling and assistance and, sometimes with a certain firmness. A recent Chinese media article following the Osama bin Laden elimination, advised Pakistan’s foreign interlocutors not to over pressurise the country, saying terrorists from Pakistan had also come to China but Beijing dealt with the issue in quiet discussions. It failed to mention, however, that when armed Islamists from Islamabad’s Lal Masjid abducted some Chinese workers, Chinese President Hu Jintao called President Musharraf to get them released immediately. Musharraf did so employing brutal force, but the consequences were borne by Pakistan.
Yet, China has never abandoned Pakistan. At the same time, it is not averse to Pakistan milking the US and West, which eases China’s financial commitment to Pakistan, while also benefitting from the war on Islamic terrorists.
The recent media revelations that President Musharraf had agreed to President George Bush’s demand to allow the USA to take out Osama bin Laden if he was found in Pakistan has raised a furore and denial from all sides. The real truth may take time to come out till the US declassified their documents.
But going back to “9/11” and its aftermath in 2001-2002 in US-Pak exchanges, Musharraf was in no position to ignore Bush’s ultimatum of “with us or against us”. According to diplomatic reports of that time, Musharraf allowed placement of US air power in Pakistan and also extracted free flight of US air assets over three-fourths of Pakistani air space. The same reports said that China was seriously concerned and demanded of Musharraf to share the contents of this agreement with the US.
Whether Musharraf shared the contents of this agreement with China is not known to this writer. But what is known to all serious watchers of development is that the US still has its air assets in Pakistan in some degree and most if not all of its drone attacks on Al Qaeda and Taliban targets originate from Pakistan.
China is very well aware of these issues but is in no position to intervene with the US – if they do, they will be seen internationally as a selective partner in the global anti-terrorism campaign. But there is no doubt that the US cannot replace China’s influence in Pakistan.
Notwithstanding China’s cryptic official welcome to the elimination of Osama, its official media is busy spinning another story. To put it briefly, the China Daily, the Global Times, the Xinhua among others are projecting the episode on two tracks (i) US violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty which, of course, extends to USA’s disregard of international law, and (ii) the possible success of US intervention in West Asia and North Africa and the US success on Osama in Pakistan as a prelude to even closer cooperation between the US and India to counter China. China’s worry is that too much international pressure can encourage a rising small section in Pakistan to raise the demand to overhaul the army – intelligence establishment, Beijing’s trump card in Pakistan. This powerful establishment cannot be changed in hurry, but can be weakened, resulting in a set-back to China’s Af-Pak strategy.
China’s Pakistan policy or rather strategy, has a history to its position in Afghanistan. During the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, China partnered Pakistan and the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union very quietly, but not really collaborating with the US efforts. On tactical issues it took inputs from Pakistan. Groups like Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar and his Hizb-e-Islami were on their pay roll. The Afghan Taliban (with or without the Al Qaida) had strong Chinese support, which was encashed when the Taliban established its government in Kabul. Although China did not establish official diplomatic relations with the Taliban government, it maintained a de-facto relationship with it through Pakistan. It is on record that Chinese state owned specialised telecommunication companies like the ZTE helped the Taliban government to set up systems including radars, and communication systems. China’s execution of its economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan got delayed by the US-led war on terror. But it is beginning to think that the time is approaching to play the right cards and networking in Afghanistan. China won a $3.5 billion contract to develop Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mine in 2008. China is starved of domestic raw materials and has been going outright to the resource fields in which its own workers will find employment. It is not bothered about the environment degradation that it leaves behind, something which is about to happen in some of their African investments. There is an active plan for a quadrilateral freight rail road from Xinjiang in western China through Tajikistan, Afghanistan to Pakistan. This would extend their land connectivity to close friend Iran, and the greater Central Asian region. All these projects are to support China’s western development plan, and supplement its basic raw material requirement. We need to keep in view China’s interest in developing Afghan gas and oil deposits.
There is nothing wrong in China’s efforts towards these aims. The question, however, is how it achieves these objectives. It is true China is beginning to enjoy comfortable relationships with almost all groups and sections of the Afghan polity. President Hamid Karzai and his government are keen to bring China in. But the Afghans have not stopped to consider how much China has given in aid to Afghanistan ($200 million) and how much China is investing to buy out the country’s precious resources. There is a huge mismatch. But in a corruption infested country like Afghanistan national imperatives are the last consideration.
China has huge political advantage in Afghanistan. It has good relations not only with the Taliban, Karzai and other factions, but Iran and Pakistan. With President Karzai many games, at least Iran and Pakistan will strongly work with the Taliban against US interest. One constituency that can work against any interest that works with the Taliban is the erstwhile Northern Alliance group led by Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. To them, this Taliban is poison, and they are not as weak as the presidential election results would suggest. The Northern Alliance group also have a line with the US, Russia and India, making them a player of consequence.
It is unlikely that China would succeed in persuading Russia to see their way in Afghanistan. Moscow has its own interests and a memory of the history of the Afghan war. It has its own security concerns, especially on terrorism, with the Chechen rebels and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorists taking shelter and receiving training in Afghan-Pak mountainous border land, which has become the biggest terrorist haven in the world.
Russian interest to get a land route to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean still remains. The recent 3-day visit of Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari to Moscow has this on the agenda. Whether the US and the UK/NATO will continue to oppose this Russian plan is a question. At the moment, the US and NATO are depending on Russia as an alternate route for their supplies to Afghanistan instead of totally depending on the Pakistan route. Much has changed in the US/NATO relationship with Russia in recent years with Europe getting more dependent on Russian oil and gas.
India has a huge stake in Afghanistan and a historical connection. It is one of the rare countries which enjoys very high acceptability among the Afghan people. India’s investment in Afghanistan has reached nearly $1.5 billion, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his recent visit to Kabul (May 11-13) pledged another $500 million. India’s aid to Afghanistan has been in the development sector – infrastructure, education and medical infrastructure, where Indian workers are paid by the Indian government and not from the assistance. This contrasts with the assistance from China, though the latter enjoys a huge foreign exchange reserve nearing $3 trillion.
The attempt on the life of the Indian Counsul General in Jalalabad as Dr. Manmohan Singh landed in Kabul has Pakistan’s ISI’s finger prints all over it. The ISI agents, especially the Haqqani group conducted such attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and other Indian assets before.
The attack on the Indian Counsul General in Jalalabad raises some huge questions on the future of Afghanistan. According to the Afghan daily, the Daily Outlook, during his last visit to Kabul (April 16) accompanied by army Chief Gen. Kyani and ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, Prime Minister Gilani demanded of Hamid Karzai the closure of the Indian Consulates in Afghanistan. This, obviously, has a serious implication for the future resolution of the Afghan imbroglio.
This must be read with recent official Chinese media opinions warning the Indian media post-Osama killing reports demanding surgical strikes on anti-India terrorist camps in Pakistan as “dangerous”. The Chinese appear afraid that Indian media opinions could incite people’s movements in Pakistan leading to street protests that brought down General and President Ayub Khan. The Chinese are obviously concerned about instability on its periphery, but they are more worried about a sweeping change in Pakistan that could topple their decades old allies in Pakistan. They are also aware of the growing questioning in not only the liberal Pakistani media but even from the traditional supporters of the establishment. Such an eventuality will turn on its head the existing power balance in South Asia.
China has always been concerned over US influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They see it as a serious security threat. On the reverse side, the US perceives the Af-Pak regions as a constituency to counter China’s spread of influence and power to counter US strategic objectives in this wider region. It is, therefore, not a surprise when Li Hongmei, the editor of the on-line edition of the CCP mouthpiece wrote (People’s Daily, April 27, 2011) that she saw closer US-India relations as US consolidates its position in the Middle East and North Africa, and warned India’s neighbours to remain vigilant over India’s every manoeuvre including its nuclear ambitions. A commentary from this level in the People’s Daily needs to be viewed in India with seriousness.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has allayed all fears over Indian plans for surgical strikes in Pakistan on anti-India terrorist camps. How far will this settle the questions? The strategic conspiracies go far beyond this one assurance from India. As detailed above, the Afghan game is getting much bigger and the issue is going to be protracted.