By Bhaskar Roy
The Afghanistan issue is poised to take a new turn, with the USA and NATO in a withdrawal mood, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai caught in crossfire, and China declaring its intention to involve itself with Pakistan in Afghanistan.
In his statement (Dec. 16) on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review, US President Barack Obama conveyed a sense that the original American intention to eradicate militancy and terrorism in Afghanistan and establish a secular and democratic government in the country has failed. The aim now was to concentrate attention on the Al Qaida bases in Pakistan, dismantle them and eradicate them from the Pak-Afghan border on the Pakistani side where they enjoy safe haven, thanks to Pakistan’s army and its powerful intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
From 2007, the USA from its highest level had given hard evidence to the Pakistani leaders from the very top ISI’s collaboration with the Afghan Taliban and other militant organizations which fought the USA and its allies. This has had very little impact on the Pakistan army. The Pakistani army Chief, Gen. Parvez Asfaq Kayani had made it clear that Pakistan had an abiding interest in establishing a Pakistan friendly government where the Afghan Taliban had a dominating role, and counter India’s influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s determination to create Afghanistan as a “strategic depth” remains non-negotiable.
President Obama conveyed frustration and impatience over the Pakistan army’s reluctance to clear North Waziristan of militants. This is the main area where the dreaded Haqqani clique, a creation of the ISI for operations against the Afghan government, is located. Similarly, the Pakistani security forces and the government have avoided taking action against the Taliban’s Quetta Shura. American drone attacks have taken out a number of important Al Qaida and Taliban leaders, but have had little impact on the Haqqani clique.
Although President Obama seeks to break the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, it appears he has decided to ultimately leave the Taliban issue to Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve.
At the same time President Obama conveyed that America is not going to leave the Afghanistan-Pakistan turf empty. Even after withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, American presence in civilian and military sphere in Af-Pak will remain. Presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan is of high strategic importance for the US in the context of China and Central Asia, and future terrorist surge against it and its allies.
The US surely understands that anti-US and anti-European terrorism centres in Pakistan’s northern region is difficult to eradicate unless the Pakistan army decides to do so. And there is no sign that Gen. Kayani is in any mood to act on it. Despite all American assistance, military and civilian, Pakistan’s army remains committed to China.
On his recent visit to Pakistan (Dec. 17-19), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made it very clear that China’s relations with Pakistan was enduring and unbreakable. The agreements and the MOUs signed amounting to $20 billion during the visit marked a new high in Sino-Pak “all weather” relationship covering civilian and military assistance, and humanitarian aid. Premier Wen made it abundantly clear that China supported Pakistan’s approach to counter-terrorism actions, thereby meaning it was one with Pakistan protecting and supporting the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani clique and the like. He also stated that China will continue to work with Pakistan in Afghanistan, meaning that they support the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan. China has established a good relationship with the Karzai government but more importantly, it has a close relationship with the Taliban from the Soviet invasion era.
China has decided to prop up Pakistan’s economic and military strength to make Islamabad less dependent on the US. It also aims to help promote Pakistan as a major player in South Asia, something that India needs to take note of. This will also impact on India’s position in Afghanistan. It is, however, unlikely that China will actively try to break Central Asian economic relations with India through Afghanistan and Pakistan as that would impact on China’s relation with these countries. It is evident, however, that Pakistan consults China on all these issues. After all, Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has paid five visits to China since he took over his position in 2008.
President Hamid Karzai is in a mess, and the USA is also responsible for this situation. Washington manoeuvred to make Mr. Karzai the President, and then tried to bring him down. Corruption is a major issue in Afghanistan no doubt, but the US still does not understand that American standards just cannot simply be imposed on Afghanistan overnight. Afghanistan is a country of tribal and sectoral rivalries, and resent foreign regimes imposing leadership on them.
President Karzai is clutching at every straw to be alive – from Pakistan’s army and ISI to Iran and China. If he succumbs to Pakistani pressure, to include the Taliban in the government, the old Northern Alliance members, who hold important positions in Afghanistan’s security establishment will resist. They have little love for Pakistan either.
In the evolving scenario, there is little that is hopeful for Afghanistan. Former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, has suggested a division of Afghanistan. That will be last point scenario, but would create a constant turbulence in land locked Afghanistan.
The evolving China-US confrontation in Af-Pak is a serious issue for this region. Iran, a strategic friend of China but with questionable strategic relationship with Pakistan embedded in religious issues, is not going to standby silently.
India’s options are to quietly do humanitarian and development work in Afghanistan and stay away from conflicting situations. India, after all, is the only involved country which is respected by the Afghan people. This is the card to play.
The new developments, however, points to a more turbulent situation in Afghanistan as there are multiple sides involved. This is the new “hot spot” in the making. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to make a future projection for Afghanistan’s peace, stability and development.
(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at [email protected])