Mission Afghanistan: As China engages in 'shuttle' diplomacy and US-Russia renew rivalry, India must ramp up aid

So the Narendra Modi-Donald Trump joint statement has been read and the nuances and body language debated in the media. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's much-awaited US visit is now behind us, and different factions are claiming victory or defeat.

 Mission Afghanistan: As China engages in shuttle diplomacy and US-Russia renew rivalry, India must ramp up aid

Representational image. AP

Afghanistan and terrorism were among the many issues touched upon by both sides, particularly the Indian delegation. The joint statement also, much to the pleasure of both sides, delivered a stinging rebuke to Pakistan. The statement told Pakistan to refrain from hosting terrorists, which appeared to elevate India’s diplomatic position on terrorism vis-à-vis Kashmir.

However, even as Modi and Trump were breaking bread, another notable event took place closer to home.

On 26 June, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang announced that Beijing would conduct “shuttle diplomacy” between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was the result of foreign minister Wang Yi visiting both countries.

The announcement included several interesting points, including a mechanism to manage crises that stressed intelligence and operational cooperation and a mechanism to set up the meetings of Chinese, Afghanistan and Pakistan foreign ministers, presumably to enable this “shuttling” to take place.

The statement also backed the Quadrilateral Coordination Group made up of China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States with the specific intention of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table and into the peace process. Further flying the peace flag, the statement called for a revival of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) contact group with Afghanistan, presumably to include Russian interests.

That China is the reigning SCO power is a separate issue. As an added palliative to Afghanistan, the statement also backed The Kabul Process, President's Ashraf Ghani's pet project. On one level, Beijing is simply acknowledging the confusing mix of powers that have influence in Afghanistan and have a role to play.

Russia, which has been in and out of Afghanistan, had been, for years, cooperating with the United States in eliminating Al-Qaeda leaders. However, since 2015 there has been a sea change. Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov reportedly stated that Russia and the Afghan Taliban’s interests “objectively coincide” due to the formation of the Islamic State.

Since then, Russian officials have admitted to meeting with Taliban leaders while Afghan intelligence officials have been quoted as saying that such meetings occurred in Moscow and Tajikistan. The Russians also reportedly frequently visit Kunduz province which abuts Tajikistan, a strong Russian ally. Still others allege that some of these meetings have taken place in Iran.

Whatever the truth, the fact remains: Russian president Vladimir Putin has held four multinational meetings on Afghanistan. This showcases that Russia is once again a major player in Afghanistan and has positioned itself directly against US interests.

Why Russia is negotiating with the Taliban is not entirely clear. It could be alarmed by the Islamic State's growing influence in Afghanistan — it calls itself the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) — which it sees, correctly, as a threat. The Islamic State in Syria, with its several hundred Chechens and Uzbeks, has Moscow squarely in its sights.

Recently, there have been reports of the Islamic State expanding its presence in the north Afghanistan, towards Jowzian. Meanwhile, according to Al Jazeera's Afghan sources, "thousands" of Islamic State cadres have moved to Afghanistan. While some movement cannot be ruled out, there has been no indication that the group has more than 3,000 cadres. And this was before the US bombed their Nangarhar base using the Mother Of All Bombs.

So a Russian finger in the Afghan pie is probably the precursor to a large Russian fist making its presence felt in its old sphere of influence. But given Russia’s continuing economic woes — its GDP is below India's — it is unlikely to be able to sustain its Afghanistan venture.

Analysts are already predicting the advent of a “New Cold War” as Russia and US continue to be at loggerheads, exacerbated after the “proxy” bombing in Syria. In Afghanistan, the New Cold War has seen the United States eschewing Russian equipment while rearming the Afghan National Army.

Russian interference is also likely to smoothen the way for the US-China cooperation, at least on this issue. Although China's links to the Taliban go back to the 90s, it has no Cold War lineage in this theatre of war. It does, however have an economic interest. Afghanistan lies smack dab in the way of the Dragon's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

While China may not be the “lynchpin” that some claim, Afghanistan’s importance is apparent from rising Chinese economic aid, which, despite being small change relative to the size of BRI, has been quickly ramped up from a few million dollars to a pledge of more than $300 million. The now standard housing projects are apparent in Kabul, while about 3,000 Afghans have been sent to Beijing for training.

Most importantly, it announced the first train linking Hairatan in northern Afghanistan to China. While China used the existing rail links of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, it nonetheless counts as an achievement. Beijing has also, for the first time, offered Afghanistan security assistance and there have been talks of patrolling the Pamir area together.

China has also offered to provide $85 million for a mountain brigade for Badakshan. The Dragon could do far more for Afghanistan and it is this promise and "persuasion" that it is expected to exert on Pakistan that attracted the attention of the Kabul presidential palace.

On the other side is long time player Iran, which remains suspicious not just of the United States — which retains facilities on the Afghan-Iran border — but also of the Saudis, who have long had an active hand in Kabul while simultaneously engaging with Pakistan. Taliban heads such as Motasem Agha Jan traveled to Riyadh at least thrice a year to collect funds for the terrorists' coffers.

While the Saudis denied that they provided such funds, a leaked 2014 telegram from former secretary of state Hilary Clinton stated that this funding was fallout of the fight between the Saudis and Qatar for influence in the Sunni world. Given the ongoing Gulf diplomatic crisis, this is an action replay of the worst kind. Saudi Arabia has long resented the role that Qatar played in hosting the Taliban ‘office” and its role in negotiations.

Meanwhile, Iran, which once lined up with Russia and India against the Taliban, did a spectacular somersault by hosting Taliban leaders — including its then chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour who was later killed in a US drone strike — and has been using its considerable clout with the Taliban to expand its influence. With the Obama administration’s policy up in smoke, Tehran is hardly likely to cooperate with the US in reigning in the Taliban.

So at what price our position on Afghanistan and more importantly, Pakistan the central spider in the web?

With Iran and Russia finding common ground with China, it would seem that India has already been edged out from influence in Afghanistan. This particularly when the US is also “encouraging” Afghanistan and Pakistan to cooperate in areas very similar to what China has set.

However, India’s position has never been wishing away geography. Afghanistan and Pakistan are neighbours. They have to sink or swim together. That we would rather see Islamabad sink into its own terrorist swamp is a separate issue.

At the moment, we are seen by Afghans as a country that has been loyal to Kabul through good times and bad. Most of all, our aid, which must be ramped up, is being channelled for stability. Hopefully, it will push connectivity in the future. That counts for something. Especially since US drone strikes continue to hit Pakistani territory, killing a Haqqani commander or two.

The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat


Updated Date: Jun 28, 2017 12:50:12 IST

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