By Nodir Boboev*
America’s Afghan problem has become fiendishly complicated and miserably endless. As the longest-running US war, military engagement in Afghanistan has cost $783 billion iand the loss of more than 2,000 human lifes. Still, the achievement of fundamental goals to pave the way for the ultimate US withdrawal in the hostile land is as elusive as ever.
Instead the US is considering putting more troops on the ground in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the Taliban controls more territory than ever before since 2001. On the other, these insurgents have ruthlessly eaten into the Afghan forces that the US has ceaselessly worked to raise and help stand the ground. In addition, the threat of the sinister Islamic State that has ravaged parts of Middle East also lurks in Afghanistan. The government in Kabul is inefficient and divisive to the level that it is becoming a sort of liability at times. Yet this is not the full picture of America’s tribulations in Afghanistan.
There is a regional aspect of this whole panorama that was long in the making, but has started to crystallize only recently. The role of neighburing countries including Pakistan, Iran and Russia has become part of the problem in Afghanistan. On the face of it, these powers share common goals with the US regarding Afghanistan: a stable Afghanistan that poses less of a security threat to other countries and is governed and controlled by the Afghan people. But practically, their policies have done little to help in achieving these goals at the most critical juncture of the war in Afghanistan. In fact, these countries have started to play their own cards to offset any gains the US might be achieving.
Russia, which has been vying with the US for influence on many fronts, has started taking a leading role in Afghan peace talks. In a surprising move in December last, Moscow – including Pakistan and China – held talks with the Taliban that excluded both Afghanistan and America. As a result, the Afghan government was less restrained in expressing its anger and denunciation over the move. Irrespective of the fact that the Taliban are the main security threat in Afghanistan, in fact, Russia, has shown greater sympathy and support for the Taliban. A top US general even claimed that Moscow was supporting the Taliban.
In addition, Russia and Pakistan – the erstwhile rivals- have astonishingly warmed up to each other around the issue of Afghanistan (though this is not the only reason). In an unprecedented move, Pakistan few months ago facilitated a visit by Russian military delegation to North Waziristan that sits at border with Afghanistan and was once the hub of militant insurgents. It is noteworthy that Pakistan — with its long connections with the Afghan Taliban — has been considered to be the most crucial player in resolving the Afghan conundrum. If Russia’s relations with the US have deteriorated for the worse, the state of Pak-Afghan ties is not encouraging at all. Above all, Pakistan has yet to put full-hearted efforts behind the goal of bringing an end to the Afghan insurgency.
Perhaps the most intriguing is the role of Iran. Despite its historic aversion for the Taliban regime, Iran has made an outreach to the Taliban that is directly aimed at countering the American gains in Afghanistan. The deadly Taliban chief, Mullah Mansour was killed by an American drone while returning from Iran. Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, recently pointed out this fact at a Congressional hearing by saying that “Iran is reportedly arming and funding the Taliban.” Iran’s approach in one way is comparable to that of Pakistan: using the Taliban as proxy to undermine the American presence in Afghanistan and its allies in Kabul.
Afghanistan has become a battleground for regional powers especially Pakistan, Russia and Iran to mire and bleed the US in an endless proxy war. In fact, the billions of dollars and thousands of troops that the US has been investing in Afghanistan have served the interest of these regional countries. American involvement has maintained a delicate and shaky balance of security that has so far forestalled the outright victory and hence the control of Afghanistan by Islamic militants. Even if they have supported the Taliban in one way or the other, none of these countries would like them rule Afghanistan again. As America has been providing this primary goal so far so well, these actors in return have found themselves absolved from bearing any direct burden in Afghanistan. Instead, they have started ganging-up in a way to make sure the U.S. and its allied government in Kabul doesn’t get enough foothold in the country. But there is a major exception in the form of China that can play a constructive role.
There are many reasons to believe why China can be part of the solution to Afghan problem. Since the launching of the grand “Belt and Road Initiative” (called by various names) in 2015, China has been on the spree of investing billions of dollars around the world. China’s interest and determination about the idea of BRI was in full display in the form of Belt and Road summit held on May 14-15 in Beijing. In addition to pledging $124 billion for the project, Chinese President Xi Jinping termed it as the “project of the century”.
One of the most crucial regions in Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” planning sits next to Afghanistan: Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) constitutes a pivotal role in this whole projection. With $51 billion of projected investment, CPEC is envisaged as “flagship project” for China’s inter-continental connectivity plans.
But all this investment in Pakistan can run into difficulty because of deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan has already blamed the cross-border (inside Afghanistan) elements behind the terrorist activities in the country. Even if Pakistan has maintained a relatively stable order in the country, security threats always lurk behind the scene. China has a very strong reason for preempting this type scenario derailing its OBOR-related ambitions. Still more important factor to believe China’s stakes in a stable Afghanistan are higher than few-years-old economic ambitions: security interests overrides all other considerations. The volatile region of Xinjiang shares borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The argument and further extended to the fact that unlike Pakistan and Iran or even Russia, China’s relation with the Taliban is diplomatic and based on pragmatic calculations. China has played rather cautiously in managing its relations simultaneously with both the Taliban leadership and Kabul government. On the one hand, Beijing maintains fairly warm relations with government in Kabul and on the other, it has courted the Taliban for peace talks.
Concurrently, relations between the Trump administration and Xi Jinping are relatively in better form. First, China seems to be cooperating with the U.S. on North Korea problem to the extent that the American President Donald Trump openly hailed President Xi’s efforts. Second, both the countries reached a trade deal few days ago with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross saying “U.S.-China relationships are now hitting a new high, especially in trade.” And thirdly, the Trump administration while recognising “the importance” of China’s new Silk Road plan sent a delegation led by the White House adviser Matt Pottinger. The mover was quite symbolic in the sense it marked a shift from Obama administration’s cautious approach towards China’s OBOR plan.
If China has got its stakes in a stable in Afghanistan, it’s opportune time for the new administration in Washington to seriously think about including the Afghan issue to the list of agenda of talks and cooperation with China. At least China can employ its influence to alter the behaviour of “all-weather” friend Pakistan that has supported insurgency in Afghanistan for a long time. China also maintains fairly good offices with the Taliban and can help pushing them for meaningful talks. After all, compared to other powers in the region – i.e. Pakistan, Iran and Russia – China’s role in Afghan proxy war has relatively been innocuous: China does not use or support Taliban as a proxy. However, for all this to happen, the US-China relations should be free of any new major troubles. It is not guaranteed if this approach will bring the desirable results but the U.S. has a good case (in terms of China’s interests in stable Afghanistan and good relations between the Trump and Xi) to think about this opportunity. Without having any regional on its side on Afghan issue, it will be far more difficult for the US to find a solution to Afghan issue.
*Nodir Boboev is a PhD International Relations student at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University, China.