After days of political uncertainty amidst allegations of electoral fraud in the recent national elections, Afghanistan seems to be taking cautious steps towards a better future. A National Unity government has been put in place by virtue of which both Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (winner and runner-up of the elections respectively) will share power over the governance of Afghanistan.
But with the ending of U.S combat operations in Afghanistan this year, the Afghan National Army (ANA) will be at its weakest and most vulnerable since the US invasion in 2001. The Taliban will undoubtedly sense a window of opportunity to re-establish an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Indeed, attacks on the ANA have been more frequent in recent days in the absence of Western air support, and they will likely persist indefinitely. The countries that will likely be affected the most by the ensuing crisis in Afghanistan are China, Pakistan and India. Therefore, each should assume a more pro-active, co-operative roles in the region that can help rebuild the war-torn country.
Traditionally, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) played a very limited role in Afghanistan. During the latter half of the Cold War era, it supplied arms to the Mujahedeen to counter Soviet influence in the state, but through Pakistan. The Chinese (with some help from its “all-weather friend”) was reassured by the Taliban government after they came to power that they would not assist separatists in China’s Muslim majority Xinjiang province in exchange for political recognition, which did not materialize. Chinese investment in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan remained (though not insignificant) minimal. This has changed much over the years after the U.S invasion and China is now a major investor in the country. While there are heightened concerns regarding the security of Chinese assets, spillover of militancy into bordering Xinjiang has remained China’s prime concern in Afghanistan. Yet it was unwilling to commit troops for that matter post 2001 quoting its “principle of non-interference” in the internal matters of another state, and preferred to freeride on the security umbrella of the West. But now that the ISAF is packing its bags, the Chinese (however reluctant they might be), might have to take up a major role in ensuring peace and security in the region.
But Xinjiang is not the only issue that China has to worry about. Xi Jinping’s ambitious proposals to develop a Silk Road Economic Belt, recreating the ancient overland Silk Route that connects China to Central Asia and eventually to Europe bringing with it huge benefits to the region, will also be affected by the security situation in Afghanistan. Groups like al Qaeda will also attempt to take advantage of the deteriorating state of affairs. Recent reports suggest that groups like the Islamic State have started actively recruiting from Pakistan and Afghanistan, distributing leaflets published in local Pashto that calls out to Muslims to join hands in their war against infidels and apostates. The new Silk Road does not currently include Afghanistan, passing instead into Iran through neighboring Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
According to experts, the latter three are orthodox Islamist majority societies ruled by tyrannical governments, which are fertile grounds for recruitment for the Islamic State, which may be helped by the insurgency in Afghanistan. Groups like the Taliban backed Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan have openly voiced their support for the IS and many others will undoubtedly follow suit. Such an eventuality would be hugely threatening for Chinese interests not only in Afghanistan but also in Central Asia.
Similarly, India and Pakistan also have a lot at stake. India fears the possibility of a Taliban regime coming to power in Kabul. The group has had a past of working with Kashmir based anti-India radical Islamist groups and even assisted the Indian Airlines IC 814 aircraft hijacking. India’s support of Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban worsened relations. It is certain that these groups will target Indian embassies and investments in the region, as they successfully have in the past.
The instability in Afghanistan is one of the reasons why India is finding it difficult to access the vast energy and mineral resources of Central Asia. A stable Afghanistan will be enormously helpful for energy hungry India which currently is extremely dependent on energy imports (the majority of which is from the Persian Gulf) and are focusing on diversifying its energy sources to include Central Asia. Pakistan, with its Hobbesian worldview and unhealthy obsession to achieve strategic parity with India, is worried about the latter’s growing influence in Afghanistan. It has also tried to undermine the ability of Kabul to govern its territories to its favor by arming and supporting militias. Pakistan will be reluctant to part with this “strategic depth” in the country but China can use its enormous leverage over Pakistan to pressure it to act to the benefit of all. It is high time that Pakistan understands that a stable Afghanistan is preferable in the long run. It could benefit hugely from the establishment of the TAPI gas pipeline project as well as the CASA 1000 electricity project, for which the stability of Afghanistan is essential.
China, Pakistan and India have several incentives to develop Afghanistan as a regional trade and energy hub. The country is the gateway that connects Central Asia to South Asia and Southeast Asia and occupies a location of great strategic significance. While India and China have already initiated several dialogues over the future of Afghanistan, it will be interesting to see how China-Pakistan relations will play out over the same issue. While a weak government in Kabul is viewed as a strategic interest by many in the Pakistani military establishment, China and India will unequivocally prefer a stable Afghanistan as favorable for sustaining their long term economic/security interests in both the country and the Central Asian region as a whole. Will China succeed in convincing Pakistan to change its policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan? Only time will tell.