China hopes that the Taliban will prevent the resurgence of ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), but Beijing is unlikely to dirty its shoes in Afghanistan from the outset. Initially, it would push Pakistan to create a conducive environment for its entry, writes Major Gen (Retd) Harsha Kakar
Indo-Pak rivalry in Afghanistan appears to all set to enter into a new phase with the emergence of China as an influencer in the war-torn country. China is keen to recommence its stalled Mes Aynak copper mining project, signed in 2008, but never moved beyond the signing stage, solely from fear of Taliban attacks. It is also attempting to push its Belt Road Initiative into the country and exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
The Taliban have stated that China can be a partner in development. China hopes that the Taliban will prevent the resurgence of ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement). China is unlikely to dirty its shoes in Afghanistan from the outset. Initially, it would push Pakistan to create a conducive environment for its entry.
Indo-Pak rivalry in Afghanistan may not have ended in Pakistan’s favour. It may be in a pause mode before the commencement of a new chapter, dependent on the approach of the Taliban. Will the entry of China be in favour of Pakistan is to be seen.
Historically, Afghanistan has been an Indo-Pak battleground. Both nations have sought influence in the country, albeit for different reasons.
Whenever India was close to the ruling dispensation in Afghanistan, Pakistan would be concerned. Whenever Pakistan had the Afghan leadership in its pockets, India was concerned. This is not a new phenomenon but has been in practice since 1950, when India and Afghanistan signed a friendship treaty, ignoring Pakistan.
Pakistan’s concept of Afghanistan as its strategic depth stems from its fear of India exploiting Afghanistan to open a second front as also providing Pakistan space to absorb an Indian offensive. Pakistan has, in recent years, accused Indian RAW and the Afghan NDS, both secret services, of targeting it from Afghan soil.
Pakistan has claimed that India’s consulates in Afghanistan are avenues to fund and arm anti-Pak terrorist groups, TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) and Baluch freedom fighters. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, stated in a recent discussion with Afghanistan’s Tolo news, “At times, we feel that their presence is perhaps larger than it ought to be because they don’t share a border with you.”
This, despite India having the fewest diplomatic officers on Afghan soil as compared to western nations, located further away. Qureshi, along with other Pakistan leaders have used the Indian presence in Afghanistan as an excuse to blame it for all terrorist strikes on their soil, including the recent attack which killed 9 Chinese engineers working with the Dasu Dam project.
Simultaneously, Pakistan’s military leadership terms the TTP as an ally of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Bajwa, has stated in the Pakistan senate that the Taliban and the TTP are two sides of the same coin. The Pakistan Army and government demanded that the Taliban crack down on the TTP.
In response, the Taliban requested Pakistan to engage in talks with the TTP as they consider it as part of their organization and would not act against them.
There are reports that after taking over Kabul, the Taliban released prisoners from Bagram and Kabul jails, including senior representatives of the TTP, whom Pakistan had been demanding be handed over to them.
Pakistan also fears growing Indian soft power in Afghanistan. Indian developmental projects spread across the country, medical support, Bollywood, education scholarships and training the Afghan army enhanced India’s image.
Afghans respect India. Pakistan has always been distrusted for its support to the Taliban and pushing for violence as a solution to Afghanistan, in addition to the Durand Line dispute. It was the common Afghani who led the ‘Sanction Pakistan’ trend on social media, which was the highest trending topic for days.
India, on the other hand, accuses Pakistan of exploiting a Taliban led Afghanistan for enhancing attacks on its soil and utilizing it as a training and recruitment ground for terrorists as in the 90’s. Pakistan’s terrorist groups, JeM and LeT, have fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and India expects they would be supported in the future in reciprocity.
This, despite the Taliban promising not to permit any terrorist groups operating from its soil. In the past, Pakistan had orchestrated attacks on Indian consulates and its embassy in Kabul, employing the Taliban or its proxies.
Afghanistan has never accepted the Durand Line and considers Peshawar as a part of it. Hence, relations between governments in Kabul and Islamabad have largely been tenuous. It was Afghanistan alone which opposed Pakistan’s entry into the UN in 1947, solely over the Durand Line.
India was a natural ally for any democratic government in Kabul. Pakistan attempted to push every government in Kabul to sign on the dotted line and settle the border but failed.
In the past few decades, Pakistan began believing that a Taliban government would help resolve these differences, though it failed with the first Taliban government.
There is no doubt that the Taliban is influenced by Pakistan’s views. Taliban’s spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, stated in an interview to Pak’s Hum News, ‘India has made projects, many reconstruction and infrastructure projects, and if they want, they can complete the incomplete projects because they are for the people.
But if anyone wants to use Afghan soil for their objectives or for their military objectives or for their rivalries – our policy doesn’t allow anyone to do that.’ He was possibly projecting Pakistan’s fears of India exploiting Afghan soil against Pakistan.
The withdrawal of Indian embassy staff, while Pakistan and China continues maintaining theirs, is being viewed as a positive for Pakistan. India decided to withdraw its staff, despite senior Taliban leader, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, reaching out and requesting India to continue its diplomatic presence in Kabul.
India was aware that elements of Pakistan terrorist groups had entered Kabul and were being directed to damage the Indian embassy and its consulates. Reports have emerged of Pakistan terrorist groups scrounging through the Indian consulates seeking documents implicating Afghani’s who supported India. There are also reports of embassy cars being stolen.
Had Indian presence remained, its staff could have faced capture or death, which would have soured Indo-Afghan relations for a long time, benefitting Pakistan.
(The writer is a retired Indian Army official; views expressed are his own) (India News Network)