A new axis of terror is emerging in the Af-Pak theatre with the convergence of interests between Pakistan, China and Turkey. The Taliban is ready to play ball with the trio. There is no smoke screen any longer.
Pakistan has dropped all pretentions of being a good ally of the West despite the need for an American safety net on a host of issues that have a direct bearing on its fragile economy. This became clear towards the end of June when Prime Minister Imran Khan and his finance minister Shaukat Tarin rolled back their commitments for IMF bailout. And Imran Khan went to the town declaring that his centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – government (PTI in Urdu stands for Pakistan Movement for Justice) would not give any base to the American forces. In the same breath he declared Osama bin Laden a martyr and ruled out any criticism of China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslims.
The Afghan Taliban have since played down China’s concerns vis-à-vis the Uighur Muslims, who trace their religious influence to the Karakhanid, a Turkic fiefdom that ruled Central Asia eight centuries ago. Beijing’s worry is that under Taliban rule, Afghanistan will become a hub for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is waging Uighur insurgency. “We will no longer allow China’s Uighur separatist fighters (from Xinjiang).” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a widely circulated interview to the relief of Chinese supremo Xi Jinping.
Shaheen conceded that some Uighur militants had previously sought refuge in Afghanistan. He, however, promised not to host them. China heard such assurances from Pakistan as well but saw little action to check the movement of Uighur militants between Pakistan -Afghanistan border region and Xinjiang through the Chinese built Karakorum Highway for their hit and run missions. For the uninitiated, this highway passes through Gilgit in Pakistan held Kashmir.
Taliban can be as duplicitous as their patrons, who had managed to fool the Americans during the ‘war against terror’. Well, China may hope to leverage its money power against any likelihood of breach in promise by the Taliban; such a hope, even after its Pakistan experience, exposes its inability not to look beyond the nose.
Turkey fits into the new axis for a variety of reasons. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has become the helmsman of Islamists with his quest to take over the leadership of the Muslim world. He became a darling of Communist China by targeting the Uighurs who have taken shelter in his country. Erdogan hopes to take over the security of the Kabul airport so as to keep it safe from Taliban sway in the days ahead. It will be the first step to spread Turkish influence over more territories in Afghanistan where Turkey has had a presence as part of NATO forces. It is another matter whether it is realistic or imaginary.
From all accounts, it is China, the iron brother of Pakistan, not Turkey that seeks to fill the unfolding void in Afghanistan. It is ready with cash and weapons that the Taliban may need in case the nationalist forces try to checkmate its expansion within the country.
All the three – Turkey, China and Pakistan are eying Afghanistan primarily for its metals, minerals, and other natural wealth. Iran also may close ranks with them at some point to secure its diplomatic and economic turf.
The Taliban is acting street smart by courting these nations. The ‘new’ Afghanistan as and when it reinvents its Taliban wheel, will need investments which can come from Turkey, China, and even Iran. Trained man power requirements will be met from Pakistan.
It is pertinent to recall that the Taliban had begun their trek into Afghanistan to set up the new Caliphate from the Madrasas of Pakistan with Saudi money and CIA weapons. And they had been running their Afghan affairs after 9/11 from a base near Quetta; it is the Quetta Shura (Council).
Significantly, also near Quetta is an airbase that the Americans have been using for their air ops in Afghanistan. One such operation had smoked out Osama bin Laden from his safe haven not very far from Pak capital.
Notwithstanding the denials from both sides, the operation was mounted with the Pakistan Military in the loop. A clear give away is, as pointed out at the outset, Imran Khan’s description of Osama as martyr. It is also a signal to the Islamists of all hues at home to rally behind his leadership.
From media reports it is clear that the Pakistani leadership – military and civilian – is barely hiding their glee at the turn of events and discomfort it has caused to their arch rival, India. The loquacious Interior Minister, Sheikh Rashid has hailed the Afghan Taliban as the Good Taliban. He should know them since he used to run terrorists’ camps in his farmland outside Islamabad. He has gloated about India’s ‘embarrassment’. The ISI chief Faiz Hameed, a manipulator picked by army chief Bajwa to be his master’s voice, has gone a step forward; and declared India’s investment ($4 billion) in Afghanistan is ‘sinking’.
There is no need for a Peter Vidal to say that what the Taliban rule will be. It will be bad for Afghanistan and Pakistan alike. When they were in the driver’s seat before 9/11, the Taliban took the country backward by several centuries. Even now, in the areas where they hold sway, they are enforcing their primitive mindset ruthlessly.
Pakistan will do well to remember that the Taliban do not recognise the Durand Line that separates the two countries. So much so, the dream of ‘strategic depth’ may remain a pipe dream for Pakistan. And then there is the danger of Taliban laying claim to the Pashtun speaking areas of Pakistan itself.
The US special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmy Khalilzad, seems to foresee troubled time for the war-ravaged country. He says while the US is ending its military engagement in Afghanistan, its commitment to the country remains. Well, it means that the US will continue to render financial and other help to Afghanistan. Historically, the money pour did no wonders in Afghanistan. It will not do now.
The scene can change only if the nationalist forces are helped to stand up and challenge the Taliban. Many sections of the Afghan society have already plunged into the new war that has begun to unfold. All on their own.
A wake-up call to the Good Samaritans of the World to rally in their support.
And check the new axis in its stride.