Multiple state actors' clashing interests may throw Afghanistan's future into uncertainty

China is also keen to extend the coverage of CPEC and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Afghanistan. This expansion of China’s footprint would be a matter of huge concern for both the US and India, writes Amb Ashok Sajjanhar (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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CPEC and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Afghanistan

The 20-year engagement of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan is likely to end within the next three months. This is the longest engagement of US forces outside its territory, having started soon after the 9/11 attacks on the USA by Al-Qaeda in 2001.

The US signed a deal with the Taliban on 29 February 2020 declaring that its troops will leave within 14 months ie by 1st May 2021, while the Taliban will not allow the soil of Afghanistan to be used against the security of the US and its allies.

In early March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested a peaceful “transition” government that would give the Taliban power within the Afghanistan administration. US President Joe Biden announced in mid-April that all US troops will leave Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, ie 11 September 2021.

India's stakes

India has huge stakes in the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan. Although India has been actively engaged in the economic, security, and social development of Afghanistan for over twenty years, it has been on the margins in discussions on the future political and security architecture of Afghanistan. India’s interests comprise not only the USD 3 billion-plus investment in Afghanistan in various projects, big and small, in social and physical infrastructure but even more importantly, in India’s own security and stability. 

India is apprehensive that if the Taliban were to establish dominance over much of Afghan territory, several of its ungoverned spaces could be used by Pakistan to train and launch terrorist offensives against India. India wants the outcome in Afghanistan to fully preserve the gains made by the landlocked country over the past twenty years, particularly in areas of protecting the rights of women, minorities, girl education, etc. To protect and advance its interests, India needs to vigorously engage with all stakeholders in Afghanistan, domestic (including the Taliban) as well as regional and global actors.

The Taliban has consistently stated that it wants cordial relations with India. The Taliban would want to garner greater political acceptability and recognition by India and the world than it had in the past. It will also require funds for economic development which it would hope would continue to flow from India which is the single largest individual contributor to Afghanistan’s development.

Pakistan's position

Pakistan is in a triumphalist mood because it has been able to underline its utility, nay indispensability, both to the United States and the Taliban. The February 2020 Agreement signaled the success of Pakistan’s Afghan policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound, ie providing refuge to the Taliban while assuring the US that it was supporting its war on terror.

Pakistan would expect the Taliban to continue to do its bidding. This, however, cannot be taken for granted as the Taliban leadership would be keen to establish its independent identity and relations with the world, rather than walk on Pakistani crutches. Although Pakistan will have a significant influence on the Taliban, the latter might not agree to continue as a mere proxy for the Pakistan army and Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

It is becoming increasingly evident that the US is interested in keeping some bases in the region to maintain oversight on Afghanistan. Pakistan appears to be wavering in acceding to the US request although it is cognizant of the political and economic benefits that would accrue to it. Most importantly, its reluctance in taking a plunge seems to be due to the virulent opposition of the Taliban. If Pakistan were to provide facilities to US troops, it could cause unbearable strain on its relations with the Taliban, which might be too high a price to pay.

China's interest

In addition, China would be staunchly opposed to such a move as this would bring the US forces close to Gwadar and the strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China, being the indispensable partner of Pakistan, would make certain that its interests are not compromised.
 
Both China and Russia have benefited immeasurably from the US presence in Afghanistan over the past twenty years. China's principal interest after the US withdrawal would be to insulate itself from Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan so that they do not support East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Uyghurs in Xinjiang through the Wakhan corridor adjoining China. China has already established a base in Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan. It might also send troops to Afghanistan to protect its interests and maintain peace and stability. 

China would also be interested in taking full benefit of Afghanistan's mineral resources. It entered into a contract for a major mining concession for the Aynak copper mine in 2007 for USD 2.8 billion. No further action, however, has been taken thus far on this. Afghanistan has threatened to reissue the tender. This hardening of position is due to the busting of an alleged Chinese espionage ring operating in Kabul to hunt down Uyghur Muslims with the help of the Haqqani network. 

The situation can, however, be expected to change once US troops leave and the Taliban expands its dominance. China is also keen to extend the coverage of CPEC and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to Afghanistan. This expansion of China’s footprint would be a matter of huge concern for both the US and India.  

Uncertainty stares Afghanistan in the face as US troops continue their departure. The influence of Pakistan, China and Russia are expected to increase in the coming months. India and the US will have to be proactive and vigilant in protecting and promoting their respective interests.

(The writer is president, Institute of Global Studies, and a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia. The views are personal. He can be contacted at asajjanhar@gmail.com)

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