President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan has a small window of opportunity to set things on the right track and strike some kind of a deal with the Taliban. He is banking on China and Pakistan for help.
The new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is a man in a hurry. He knows he has a narrow window of opportunity to put things in some kind of an order before he is left alone holding the bag. The Americans will draw down their forces and withdraw from direct combat to a “supportive” role by the end of the year. The 10,000 or so US troops left in Afghanistan will essentially do guard duty at the sprawling American embassy in Kabul. It will need plenty of protection from the resurgent Taliban.
To have a reasonable chance of success, Ghani is banking on the goodwill of two neighbours: China and Pakistan. He made highly publicized visits to both within a spate of two weeks despite his poor health (Ghani has had most of his stomach removed because of cancer). He was in China for four days from October 28 and also attended the “Istanbul Ministerial Process” that aims to work for political reconciliation in Afghanistan.
The Istanbul Ministerial Process is a regional forum on Afghanistan. China hosted the meeting for the first time and officials from Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan attended. To show its seriousness about working for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, China proposed, albeit informally, setting up a forum for stalled peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban during the “Istanbul Process.” A formal announcement would come once Ghani has had some indication from Pakistan and the Taliban whether it would fly.
Under the Chinese proposal, the forum will bring together representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the Taliban command. Previous reconciliation talks, primarily in Doha, Qatar, between Taliban and the US stalled because of Washington’s duplicity. Similar efforts in Paris in December 2012 also failed but China may have a better chance because it is not viewed by the Taliban as a meddlesome power.
Within two weeks of his China sojourn, Ghani was in Pakistan (November 14 and 15) for meetings with Pakistani officials including President Mamoun Hussain, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief, General Raheel Sharif. He was warmly received and given a detailed security briefing at military headquarters in Rawalpindi. A number of trade, political and security agreements were also signed, the real purpose of Ghani’s visit. Officials of both countries were effusive in their praise of each other. The other important point on Ghani’s wish list was to facilitate talks with the Taliban; the Afghan president felt Pakistan could help. Perhaps, this may be an opportune time to broker a peace deal with the withdrawal of most if not all American troops from Afghanistan. This was one of the conditions the Taliban had stipulated before entering into any talks with Kabul.
That Ghani’s first important foreign visit as president was to China (he also visited Saudi Arabia briefly), not the US, is significant (the US had already signaled China’s acceptance as a major interlocutor in Afghanistan). Equally significant is the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping personally received him at the airport. Ghani was not disappointed by his Chinese hosts; they pledged $330 million in grants over a three-year period as well as agreed to train 3,000 Afghan troops, according to an Associated Press report.
China sees great potential in normalizing relations with Afghanistan because it has mineral riches (estimated at $4 trillion; that explains the imperialists’ frequent assaults on the country) on the one hand, but also because it is an incubator for training militants, especially the Uighur militants, on the other. Beijing would like to control this situation and prevent militants from creating problems in China’s Xinjiang province. President Xi told Ghani that he was willing to work toward “a new era of cooperation in China-Afghanistan relations and take development to a new depth and breadth.”
Ghani’s two-day visit to Pakistan was preceded by high level visits from Pakistani officials to Kabul. Sartaj Aziz, Advisor on Foreign and Security Affairs to the Pakistani prime minister visited Kabul in October. This was followed by an even more important visitor — Pakistan Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif — who met with Ghani in Kabul on November 8. The Pakistan army chief not only offered training to Afghan troops but also offered to provide weapons to equip an entire Afghan brigade. Should one or both offers materialize, it will help improve relations between the two neighbours that have been uneven because of former president Hamid Karzai’s frequent tantrums. General Raheel’s visit occurred against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s rejection of obtaining arms from India.
A day after the Pakistani army chief’s Kabul visit, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Ghani was keen to build a “real and honest friendship” with Pakistan during his visit to Islamabad. The paper quoted Nazifullah Salarzai, the president’s spokesman, as saying the visit was aimed at resetting ties with Pakistan. “Afghanistan wants to build a real friendship with its neighbouring country,” Salarzai said. “As the president has said, we have this window of opportunity; we want this window to be transformed into a door, then into a corridor and then into a highway.”
While Salarzai was waxing eloquent about relations with Pakistan, he said nothing about what the Afghans would do to improve them. The landlocked country is virtually entirely dependent on Pakistan for trade and transit yet it has not hesitated to embrace Pakistan’s arch-enemy India in order to exert pressure on Islamabad. Further, there are still two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan that are a major burden on Pakistan’s fragile economy. Much of the militancy that bedevils Pakistan is the result of their presence having made common cause with elements in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Pakistan has paid a heavy price caring for the Afghans. Unfortunately, there is little appreciation of this in Afghanistan where officials continue to blame Pakistan for all their problems.
In 2007, following then President Hamid Karzai’s usual bouts of Pakistan bashing, accusing it of allowing infiltration from Pakistan to carry out attacks, General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani strongman proposed building a fence along the entire 1,400km long border. This, Musharraf said would prevent “infiltration” of militants. Karzai balked clearly indicating that the Afghans do not recognize the Durand Line that demarcates the boundary between the two countries. True, it is a colonial imposed border but there is no evidence the Pashtuns on the Pakistan side of the border want to become part of Afghanistan. Why should they when life in Pakistan is far better than it will ever be in Afghanistan. Besides, if Afghanistan were such a good place, why do the two million Afghan refugees not wish to return to their own country?
Events, however, have moved beyond the question of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. China is moving in a big way to fill the vacuum that would be created by America’s departure from Afghanistan. Its other allies — Britain, Germany, France etc. — have already fled. At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in China (November 9–11), President Xi announced a new $40 billion Silk Road initiative. This is aimed at reviving the historical trade route that would once again reconnect Europe and the Muslim East to Asia, with China as its easternmost point. Ghani enthusiastically embraced the Silk Road project. “We feel that our vision of Afghanistan as a hub of regional trade, transit, and peace would be an illustration of your vision of East Asia and South Asia cooperation,” Ghani told Xi. His other proposal that has been broached by successive Afghan rulers to set up a transport link along their narrow border at the easternmost tip of the Wakhan Corridor, an inhospitable and mountainous region, did not evoke much enthusiasm from his Chinese hosts.
China’s grandiose plans, however, are predicated on the security situation in Afghanistan. For their part, the Chinese are willing to put their money where their mouth is. They have huge amounts of spare cash but they have little control over the security situation in Afghanistan. In 2007, a Chinese state firm signed a $3 billion contract to develop the Mes Aynak copper mine but Taliban attacks frustrated the deal forcing the Chinese to pull out.
This is where Pakistan comes in. It has some influence with the Afghan Taliban but this must not be exaggerated. The Afghans have a mind of their own and often turn out to be unreliable, even when dealing with their closest benefactors. Peace in Afghanistan cannot be imposed from outside. This will have to be worked out internally.
How this will materialize will depend largely on the various ethnic groups — the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkoman, Aymaq, etc. — feeling that their interests have been protected. This is a game the Afghans have traditionally played. Even if one group feels its interests are not being served, there will be no peace.
At the present time, despite being a majority the Pashtuns are divided among themselves. The Taliban are unlikely to settle for a secondary role at a time when they know it was their struggle and sacrifices that drove the foreigners from Afghanistan. They are certainly not likely to be impressed by the Afghan National Army from whose ranks defections are rampant and loyalty is tenuous. Besides, most of the officers are from the minority Tajik or Uzbek ethnic groups. This is hardly a situation the Taliban would find acceptable.
Much will depend on how Pakistan and China — and perhaps Turkey and Saudi Arabia, two other players the Taliban are likely to listen to — approach them. While nothing can be taken for granted, there is an even chance that some kind of peace may be established in Afghanistan once US troops leave. The people of Afghanistan, commemorating the 35th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of their country this month, deserve peace that has eluded an entire generation lost to war.
It is time to give peace a chance. This, however, is ultimately up to the Afghans themselves.