Instability in Afghanistan along with the discord with Pakistan does not augur well for South and Central Asian connectivity, writes Niranjan Marjani for South Asia Monitor
During his first visit to Uzbekistan last month, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke about the role his country would play in offering connectivity facilities to landlocked nations. As a part of Pakistan’s geoeconomic strategy, a 573-km trilateral rail project – Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) – is being constructed that will connect the three countries. The rail line will provide landlocked countries of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan a link to the seaports of Pakistan.
Pakistan is expecting what it calls its new geoeconomic strategy to end its reliance on foreign loans. Besides, with the connectivity projects, Pakistan is hoping for closer engagements with the Central Asian Republics (CARs).
While Pakistan is trying to position itself as a convergence point in the South and Central Asian region, there are steep challenges before any economic benefits from these projects start kicking in. These challenges are Pakistan-Taliban relations, security concerns in Pakistan and China’s role in it.
Pakistan’s continued support to the Taliban is the biggest impediment to peace and stability in Afghanistan in the post-US troop withdrawal scenario.
The Taliban has increased its offensive parallel to the US drawdown of troops. By taking steps to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan, Pakistan is only causing rising tensions with the latter. Instability in Afghanistan along with the discord with Pakistan does not augur well for South and Central Asian connectivity.
The discord between the two countries has been played out in public. While speaking at the conference on Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Challenges and Opportunities held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 16 July, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said there was an influx of 10,000 jihadi fighters into Afghanistan from Pakistan and other places.
Ghani also accused Pakistan of failing to do enough to influence the Taliban into seriously participating in peace talks. A former Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, said at least 1000 Pakistani terrorists enter Afghanistan every day through the Spin Boldak border area.
Afghanistan’s Vice President Amrullah Saleh has accused Pakistan Air Force of supporting the Taliban. He also said the Pakistan Air Force has issued an official warning to the Afghan Army and Air Force that any action against the Taliban would be met by retaliation from the Pakistan Air Force.
Pakistan’s support to the Taliban was further exposed by the Member of National Assembly (MNA) Mohsin Dawar, from the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), when he highlighted the role of Pakistan in exporting terrorists to Afghanistan. Dawar said the Taliban are backed by Pakistan’s special forces from Peshawar and Quetta.
PM Imran Khan on his part has claimed that the Taliban are normal civilians and not terrorists, thereby further angering Afghanistan. These recent developments have only deepened the distrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan which makes it difficult for any connectivity project to go ahead.
Security concerns in Pakistan
If the security situation in Afghanistan is precarious, Pakistan does not present an encouraging picture either. As the Taliban has increased its hostilities in Afghanistan, there has been a simultaneous deterioration in the security situation in Pakistan as well, putting its grand “geoeconomic” plans at risk.
On 14 July, nine Chinese engineers were killed in a bus attack in the Dasu area of Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Just days after this bus attack, two Chinese nationals were shot at in Karachi. One of them was injured. On 30 July, a grenade attack in Karkhano Market in Peshawar – the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province - killed a policeman and injured two others.
The presence of the Taliban terrorists was also reported in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. Pakistan-Afghanistan relations have further hit a low after the daughter of Afghanistan’s envoy to Pakistan was allegedly kidnapped and tortured in Islamabad.
The US withdrawal and the simultaneous rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan poses threat not just to Afghanistan but also to Pakistan and other countries in the region. Along with Afghanistan, Pakistan’s security situation is becoming vulnerable day by day.
As Pakistan looks to expand its influence in the region, it can hardly do so without taking into account China’s role and support. China not only remains Pakistan’s “all-weather friend” but also is a principal investor in Pakistan. With over USD 60 billion investment in the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC), China has a major stake in the stability of Pakistan and monitors the emerging security scenario in that country minutely. That’s the reason, following the bus attack in Dasu, China sent its own team of officials to investigate the attack, not trusting Pakistan’s own probe into it.
Residents of Gwadar, a port that China is developing in Balochistan under the CPEC, have been protesting against this project. This coupled with the presence of the Taliban fighters in Balochistan put Chinese investments at risk. Besides it also casts a shadow on China’s plans to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government - into Afghanistan.
It is unlikely that Pakistan would crack down on the militants operating from its own soil. The more likely scenario was that of China engaging with the Taliban which happened when a large Taliban delegation visited China and held talks with Chinese officials.
China’s outreach to the Taliban is a clear indication of the former wanting to play a greater role in Afghanistan. China’s enhanced strategic and economic profile in Afghanistan would also challenge the new Quad, a strategic construct proposed by the US which includes the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, purportedly to counter China’s influence in the AfPak region.
While China would want to be a major stakeholder in Afghanistan, necessary strategic recalibration in Pakistan is essential to ensure of security of Chinese investments. Only through a stable Pakistan can China increase its footprint in Afghanistan.
(The writer is a political analyst and researcher based in Vadodara, India. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at @NiranjanMarjani)