Pakistan’s Efforts in Afghanistan With Chinese Aid: ‘Bad Omens’
Pakistan may end up enjoying ‘strategic space’ in Afghanistan — a potential return to the pre-9/11 situation.
As the date (11 September 2021) of complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan nears, the contours of a broad convergence between China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan are emerging. On 2 June in Islamabad, Pakistani PM Imran Khan and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon signed a series of agreements, including on defence cooperation.
In the ensuing press conference, both leaders dwelt upon security concerns arising from said withdrawal, while PM Imran Khan reiterated Pakistan's support to Tajikistan's membership in the Quadrilateral Traffic-in-Transit Agreement (QTTA).
Separately, on 3 June, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan “reached consensus on promoting the Afghan peace process and anti-terrorism measures” during the 4th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue.
Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi added that, with foreign troops accelerating their withdrawal, and conflicts and terrorist activities increasing, it is necessary for the three countries to strengthen communication and cooperation to “improve” the situation in Afghanistan.
Incentive For Taliban & Afghan Govt to Reach a Power-Sharing Agreement
Till recently, the Taliban (through incessant violent attacks), and the incumbent Afghan government (by refusing to be part of any power-sharing deal unless allowed controlling stakes) had literally held the US ‘hostage’. The troop withdrawal takes away those trump cards.
Additionally, the US’s warnings — that the Taliban won’t get recognition unless they are part of a new government — and Secretary Blinken’s call to Pakistan’s ISI chief, have piled pressure on both sides. Add to it the dire state of Afghanistan’s indigenous economy — it has survived almost entirely on foreign aid (USD 6.7 bn in 2011, comprising about 80 percent of the government’s budget; now slumped to USD4.2 bn), reconstruction, as well as spending and employment by foreign forces.
Poverty has worsened from 55 percent in 2019 to 72 percent in 2020, while unemployment has surged to 40 percent. Thus, even if the Taliban take over most of Afghanistan, they would want international recognition for continued funding/aid. Hence, there are incentives for the Taliban and Afghan government to reach a power-sharing agreement.
But even if they do, given Afghanistan’s ethnic divide, numerous warlords, and interests of neighbouring countries, peace is not assured.
No Guarantee of Peace
With the Taliban progressively expanding control, Afghanistan is already witnessing an uptick in fighting, militancy/terrorism, drug-trafficking and organised crime, including astride its borders with the Central Asian Republics.
Simultaneously, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara warlords are re-mobilising their anti-Taliban forces, highlighting the ethnically-driven power struggles that have long beset Afghanistan.
What Made China Help Pakistan Access Tajikistan?
Tajikistan borders Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China – but is separated from the Northern Areas (Indian claim; illegally-occupied by Pakistan) by a narrow strip of land in northeast Afghanistan called the Wakhan Corridor. Tajikistan can thus be Pakistan’s gateway to Central Asia, while Tajikistan could access the Arabian Sea / Middle-East / North Africa through Pakistan, the shortest route.
However, the Afghan government, keeping in mind Indian sensibilities, had declined Pakistan’s access to Tajikistan through Wakhan.
Besides, located just north of the Wakhan is Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO). This remote, mountainous region, with 45 percent of Tajikistan's land area but just 3 percent of its population, has negligible economic activity – and hence, has been a hub for cross-border drug and weapons smuggling. This illegal activity has traditionally created tensions between GBAO and government in Dushanbe.
Both factors led China to assist Pakistan operationalise a road link to Tajikistan (and beyond) through China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Tajikistan In Chinese Debt Trap: Implications
Pakistan and Tajikistan, with shared historical, religious and cultural commonalities, have cordial relations. They are also members of a number of multilateral organisations, for example,, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Economic Cooperation Organization, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Heart of Asia-Istanbul process.
China, also part of some of these organisations, holds about 53 percent of Tajikistan’s external debt – and the latter is ripe for a debt trap. Both Pakistan and China have been encouraging Tajikistan to avail the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
In 2017, Tajikistan, which is part of China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative, expressed interest in joining the QTTA (original members: Pakistan, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).
The QTTA, along with the road through China, allows Pakistan access to Central Asia without going through Afghanistan — and the landlocked Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan (and Tajikistan) to reach Pakistani seaports via China-CPEC.
This arrangement creates pressure on Afghanistan — be part of the process or be left out.
Why Beijing Had to Up Its Economic & Political ‘Game’ In Afghanistan
Beijing has critical interests which the Afghan security situation directly impact. At the strategic plane were Chinese concerns over a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan, which is contiguous to China’s ‘underbelly’, that is, XUAR and Tibet. Yet, China had benefitted from the US’s targeting of militants of all stripes in Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak), including the ETIM/Uighur extremists who operated in XUAR.
Post-withdrawal, Beijing doesn’t want the Af-Pak region to re-emerge as a safe-haven for them. Hence, Beijing has to upscale its economic and political game in Afghanistan.
It is well-aware that the situation in Afghanistan cannot be managed unless there is bilateral cooperation between Kabul and Islamabad. The 3 June “consensus” is aimed at that.
Given China’s resource requirements, its economic involvement in Afghanistan could provide much-needed capital to the Afghan exchequer and political legitimacy to whosoever is in power. In 2010, the US National Geologic Survey concluded that Afghanistan has nearly USD 01 trillion in untapped mineral deposits, especially iron ore, copper and lithium. Earlier, in May 2008, China had committed to invest USD 3.4 billion for rights to the Aynak copper mines.
How China Is Countering Military Threat To Its ‘XUAR’
In 2011, it invested in the Amu Darya oil basin. But none of these projects could take-off on account of the fighting among diverse entities and poor infrastructure. China however, has exhibited a propensity to conduct economic activity in partly-disturbed zones. Notably, it had, during President Ghani’s October 2014 visit to Beijing, accepted the Taliban as a political entity. And China could, after suitable augmentation, transport the mineral resources using Afghanistan’s Ring Road-Peshawar-Karakoram Highway-Xinjiang, or the Mazar-e-Sharif – Hairaton rail connect to Uzbekistan, or by sea (Afghanistan-CPEC / Afghanistan-Iran).
To counter the militancy threat to XUAR, Beijing has also been engaging Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan on border security and counterterrorism.
In 2016, it:
- established a ‘four-country mechanism’ for intelligence-sharing and training
- announced support for building/maintaining eleven Tajik border outposts on the Afghan frontier
- held its first bilateral counterterrorism exercise with Tajikistan along the Afghan border
- established a ‘joint counter-terrorism centre also housing Tajik forces’ in Tajikistan’s GBAO near the Afghan border
In Afghanistan, China began building (2018) a training camp for Afghan troops in the northeastern province of Badakhshan. Former Afghan General Dawlat Waziri elucidated that China will supply the base with “weapons, uniforms for soldiers, military equipment and everything else needed for its functioning”.
Russia has strong security imperatives in Afghanistan and Central Asia — thwarting drug-trafficking and militancy/terrorism from percolating through Central Asia into its Caucasian republics/heartland.
This is one reason Russia is working on improving ties with Pakistan. China's rise as a trade, investment and security partner in Afghanistan or Central Asia, therefore, does not necessarily conflict with Russia's strategy in the region as both countries have overlapping interests.
And China, lacking a military to support its economic agenda, and not wanting to upset Russia, has crafted a careful strategy — Russia maintains military and political influence in Central Asia, and China provides the economic heft by building on trade, resource buying, investment and infrastructure development.
Some of the BRI projects integrate Russian infrastructure.
A Potential Return to Pre-9/11 Situation
Overall, the above developments have the potential to incrementally improve Pakistani and Chinese footprint and posture in impoverished Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s reach into Central Asia.
With Beijing working with Islamabad, and using its deep pockets and economic activity to increase influence with whosoever ends up ruling most of Afghanistan, it could imply a return to the pre-9/11 situation – Pakistan enjoying ‘strategic space’ in Afghanistan and hence able to re-orient military forces from its western to its eastern border with India.
Such reorienting would also suit China’s strategic objective of ensuring that India’s military focus remains divided. It could also allow Pakistan to improve its deteriorated economic condition. Protracted security deployments on its western side have imposed substantial costs – and Pakistan’s economic condition cannot improve till its security situation improves.
(The author is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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