Balwan Nagial
Balwan Nagial

Combined threat of China-Pakistan-Afghanistan

Recent development in Afghanistan has generated understandable concerns in the region and beyond. The significant priorities are ensuring that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used to ferment and spread terrorism and have an inclusive government. The abrupt withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan created a vacuum. India was not in the loop of the US and Taliban peace talks. India was not taken into confidence on all aspects of the deal signed by the US and the Taliban last year, and it still is not clear whether Afghanistan will have an inclusive government or whether Afghan soil will not be used for terror, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said on Thursday.[1] Indeed, these developments have raised concerns in India as well as in the world community. China is aggressive, the US and the western world are regressive, India is cleverly on wait and watch strategy, Russia has expressed its neutrality, and the world is in dilemma what to do?

The geopolitical situation has changed, and China, Pakistan and Afghanistan play an essential role in the geopolitics in Central Asia. The prospects for India rises after the withdrawal of the US-led troops ranging from the concern about the threat of nuclear terrorism to ports, mines, pipelines, etc. For Pakistan, China is the biggest hope of economic development and military support.  Through Pakistan, China wants to fulfil geostrategic drives viz to take-off as a global naval power and connect a new silk road with the energy fields of the Middle East and the markets of Europe.

Though China is Pakistan’s all-weather friend yet, Pakistan is also a battleground for China for encounters with Islamic terrorism-which has got a boost with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan. China’s involvement in the wars in South Asia has to face two fronts; one to fight the rivalry of India and the US and the threat posed by the terrorism to Internal Security by the Islamic Terrorism. The radicalisation of the Pakistani military and Talibanisation in Afghanistan may pose significant threats than opportunities to China in future.

While Pakistan has been the creator and supporter of the Taliban for a long, China jumped into the fray in 2019 and sympathised with the Taliban. In 2019, Mullah Baradar was part of the delegation to China and later headed the delegation of talks held between the US and Taliban at Doha.[2] Pakistan and China appear to have played a critical role in shaping the Taliban’s position in the US-Taliban deal and ensuing takeover of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s track record in aiding terrorism was unlikely to win the Taliban international approval shortly.

China’s interests in Afghanistan. Following the pull-out of the US-led forces from Afghanistan, China has emerged as one of the first nations to advance diplomatic channels with the Taliban. This relationship springs from China’s economic and security interests in Afghanistan. It also fears terrorism gaining a hold in Afghanistan, for example, in the form of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), in the interest of its homeland security and territorial integrity. On the strategic front, Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires and a swamp representing a failure of US foreign policy signifies a critical arena within great-power competition. Afghanistan is also strategically located within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with Chinese ambitions to connect to Iran via railways, energy corridors, and other infrastructure projects. Former ambassador to Afghanistan Yao Jing stated in 2016, “Without Afghan connectivity, there is no way to connect China with the rest of the world.”[3]

Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan. All have not seen Pakistan as a firm ally in the battle against jihadist terrorism. Many have long accused it in the US and elsewhere of providing support for the Taliban, something it denies.  The country’s military and intelligence establishment maintained links with Islamist groups in Afghanistan like the Taliban. Those links, so it is claimed, at times turned into significant material and logistical support. The belief among strategists was that Pakistan wanted a stake in Afghanistan to ensure it did not end up with a pro-India government.[4] Lt Gen HR McMaster, the former US National Security Adviser, told a Policy Exchange seminar this week that Pakistan should be treated as a “pariah state” if it did not stop its support for jihadi groups. “We have to stop pretending that Pakistan is a partner,” he said. “Pakistan has been acting like an enemy nation against us by organising, training and equipping these forces and by continuing to use jihadist terrorist organisations as an arm of their foreign policy.”[5]

Threats to India. In Nov 2020, a Chinese spy racket was busted in Kabul, and the ring leader was working as a teacher in a private school. The Chinese nationals were put on a plane to China. Indeed, the table has been turned now, and these days, Chinese officials are engaging with the Taliban, and Pakistani counterparts are cheering the returns of the Taliban. India has spent $3 billion on building dams, roads, bridges, power stations, hospitals, schools and even the national parliament building.  The return of the Taliban is fetching back memories of the troubled 1990s when enthused by the Taliban and equipped by Pakistan, and the terrorism was in full swing in  Jammu and Kashmir, bombs went off in many places, highjacking and kidnapping were carried out. An aeroplane was hijacked to Kandahar, and terrorists were escorted to freedom.

However, India’s apprehension is no longer about the revitalisation of terrorism but is strategic and military. The Taliban is in quest of building a realistic state system. Historically, through Afghanistan, India was invaded many times since the days of Alexander. “It was essential to secure India by ensuring a friendly state there that the British fought two costly wars in the 19th century, played the Great Game in western Tibet and central Asia, and followed an aggressive frontier policy towards the Chinese empire.”[6]

India stayed secured after the British left in 1947 because there had always been a friendly govt in Kabul, which denied  Pakistan the strategic depth to Pakistan. Pakistan committed a large part of its defence force near the Durand Line. Afghanistan never accepted Durand Line as the legitimacy between Pakistan and Afghanistan-which helped India to have the military advantage over Pakistan. However, when USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the ‘Cold War’ knocked at our doors. Thus the country was thrown into a civil war involving religious bigotry, tribal feuds, American dollars, CIA spies, ISI terror, and the Pakistan army.

When the USSR army left, Pakistan gained strategic depth in Afghanistan through the terrorist groups functioning over there. With the arrival of the US-led forces a decade later, hunted down terrorists and the Taliban, India invested heavily in Afghanistan and earned widespread goodwill, but not strategic dividends.

Now that the US is out of Afghanistan and Russia has gotten closer to China and Pakistan, India finds it challenging to effectively address the Afghan and Central Asian issues. So now India lacks close territorial proximity with Afghanistan and has no powerful friend in the region. Theoretically, India does have territorial nearness, and that constitutes the main strategic concern. The northwestern corner of Jammu and Kashmir, the Gilgit-Baltistan region, brushes against the borders of Afghanistan in the northwest, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the west, China’s Xinjiang to the east and northeast, the Kashmir Valley to the south, and Leh to the southeast.

A significant part of India’s Army is deployed on the Line of Control(LoC) against occupied Jammu and Kashmir, including Gilgit-Baltistan. Likewise, a large share of Pakistan’s army is poised on the other side of the line, threatening the Indian part of Jammu and Kashmir and the Ladakh region, including Kargil. Due to the US-led forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan could not afford to use the strategic depth against India. Nevertheless, now Pakistan enjoys that strategic depth and go for any misadventure.

During the Kargil war in 1999, China stayed away, thus leaving space open to the US to pressurise Pakistan but may not do so in the near future. The People’s Liberation Army(PLA) is now present in eastern Ladakh, putting pressure on the Indian army since the Galwan crisis of last year and in the west, physically camping in the Pakistan-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan region involved in civil works such as widening the Karakoram highway.

India can undo another Kargil or Galwan types threat, but whether China-Pakistan can join the game. “We have been talking of two-front war,” said noted strategic scholar Pravin Sawhney. These two fronts had already merged into one since August 2019, when the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was bifurcated into two UTs, and Art 370 was abrogated. The military threat already exists, and with Kabul likely to join the axis, this threat is becoming more potent.

Many security experts believe that Galwan was a micro-level staging of this combined threat. According to some sources, Pakistan was apprehending some action by the Indian military into Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK). At this time, China started building up in Galwan. Moreover, with Afghanistan under their control, nothing stops Beijing and Islamabad from mounting up the skirmish into a bold territorial invasion from the Karakoram sector.

The widening of the Karakoram highway cuts through the zone between Asia and the Indian subcontinent where China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan come within 250km.  According to some Intelligence sources, the PLA has built another 8m- to the 10m-wide road to Karakoram Pass to cut the distance from the pass to India’s strategic base at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO).

The Indian army is also apprehensive of Pakistan launching a localised offensive in north Ladakh to gain territory that would provide depth to the CPEC. India could resist it with force and even counter-attack elsewhere, but what if the Chinese, who are just a few hundred kilometres away, get involved? The army is learnt to have war-gamed for three levels of threats from China—low, involving five to six divisions of about 10,000 troops each; medium, with eight to 12 divisions; and high, 18 to 20 divisions.[7]

The exit of the US from Afghanistan has thrown options for China in the region, both direct and through Pakistan, to go in Central Asia, which it has been looking at for a long time. Furthermore, if Iran could co-opt, that would give the BRI access to the Persian Gulf, allowing China to dominate the Af-Pak region and access the Middle East. Pakistan, too, has been reaching out to Iran, an old friend of India that has been annoyed in recent years with India’s strategic proximity to the US and Israel. While India is going ahead with its project in Chabahar port from where India hopes to get road access to Afghanistan, Pakistan is reportedly asking the Iranians if they are interested in building a rail line between Chabahar and their own Gwadar. In the foreseeable future, Pakistan and China will be together on the strategic front. If Beijing puts a fast pedal on its expansionist policy, Kabul will be a central focus.

How Can India counter the threat emerging from the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan axis? The Sino-Pakistan relationship is nothing new, but it has far profound implications today than perhaps ever before. China has always looked at Pakistan as a counter to India’s influence in South Asia. China, through its chequebook diplomacy, wants to exercise this hegemony over the South-Asian neighbours. In this pursuit, China would want to drain India’s economic resources on the border confrontation. Thus, a two-front war scenario can be a strategy by China to undermine India’s role in its neighbourhood.

In the past, it was believed that Pakistan used the Haqqani group to sponsor terrorism in India and Kasmir in particular; now, the same group is part of the present govt in Afghanistan. Pakistan is already under the scanner of the Financial Action Task Force(FATF) and most likely would shift its base to Afghanistan to spread terrorism in India. Therefore, before Pakistan does anything, India must engage the Taliban for peace and development in Afghanistan and regain reassurance from the Govt in Afghanistan that their soil will not be used for terrorism against India.

Also, India can join like-minded countries in the UN-mandated peace process of 2002, which was re-mandated by the UNSC on Sept 17, 2021. The UN resolution 2593 reaffirms the importance of upholding human rights, including women, children and minorities.  Encourages all Parties to seek an inclusive, negotiated political settlement, with the whole, equal and meaningful participation of women, that responds to the desire of Afghans to sustain and build on Afghanistan’s gains over the last twenty years in adherence to the rule of law. Furthermore, it underlines that all parties must respect their obligations.[8]

The world, including China, must understand that the real problem is Pakistan, not the Taliban. After a protracted loss of sweat, blood and money, Pakistan has control over Afghanistan through the Taliban. It is up to the world, especially China, to force Pakistan to desist from exporting terrorism from Afghanistan and recognise that India can help stabilise the situation in Afghanistan.

India’s soft power diplomacy, predominantly in Afghanistan, encompasses winning the hearts and minds of the people and firming up its cultural and political relations with Afghanistan, supported with the ideas of nation-building and political stability. Indo-Afghan relations are interwoven in history, and no govt can ignore this fact, and the Taliban sooner they understand, the better it is. While one might say that India’s ulterior motive is to gain regional hegemony or become a global power, it cannot be denied that focusing on soft power methods has benefitted India in Afghanistan and is helping it build trust and support in the nation.

Conclusion: Pakistan, by extending its arms to Afghanistan, is a blessing in disguise for India. Now, since most of the military resources of Pakistan will be concentrated in Afghanistan, therefore, India need not worry much about Pakistan’s threat. China’s objectives in Afghanistan have changed over time. Its foreign policy is no longer security-driven, as the economy and geopolitics play a significant role, especially when it comes to India and the US.

India, Iran and China would benefit from peace and development in Afghanistan’s economy, countering narcotics and fighting terrorism. While all three are treading cautiously in Afghanistan, the vacuum left by the US withdrawal would make their task much safer and more manageable, keeping in mind that Pakistan and Russia are also on the same page.

China’s obvious coalition with the new Taliban government will, it is believed that it could consolidate its economic dominance through Afghanistan’s full integration into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), position itself as a regional security supporter and start to put to use Afghanistan’s estimated $1tn worth of untapped mineral resources.

Ideologically and strategically, India can utilise the power of soft-power and democratic values to connect the hearts and minds of the Afghans. A stable Afghanistan is crucial for regional and domestic security and stability for India. So far, India has its influence through art, culture, music, films etc. India must work to build trust and support in nation-building measures in Afghanistan. Soft power plays a vital role in developing friendly and diplomatic relations with nations and cannot be neglected at any cost.

[1] ‘India wasn’t fully in the loop on US-Taliban deal’: Jaishankar . https://www.hindustantimes.com › india-news Accessed on Oct 14, 2021.

[2] Why China backs Taliban and how it poses a threat to India.   https://www.indiatoday.in › World. Accessed on Oct 14, 2021.

[3] China’s Conflict Mediation in Afghanistan – Stimson Center.    https://www.stimson.org › Asia Accessed on Oct 14,2021.

[4] Afghanistan: What rise of Taliban means for Pakistan – BBC.  https://www.bbc.com › news › world-asia-58443839. Accessed on Oct 12, 2021.

[5] Ibid

[6] Potential axis of Taliban, China and Pakistan could be a …  https://www.theweek.in › 2021/09/02 › alarming-axis. Accessed on Oct 12, 2021.

[7] Ibid

[8] S/RES/2593(2021) – Undocs.org     https://undocs.org › RES › 2593(2021). Accessed on Oct 18, 2021.

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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