China’s Taliban policy may endanger regional peace

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China, which has virtually converted Pakistan into its colony, has begun focusing on Afghanistan with the US-led NATO forces having almost abandoned their combat role in that war-torn country. Somehow the Taliban factions in Afghanistan have come to believe that Beijing may be more useful than any other world capital for moulding the situation in their favour. They appear to be of the view that they can use China to prevent Pakistan from playing a negative role in Afghanistan. Under the prevailing circumstances, Taliban groups are scared of joining the government in Kabul, though capturing power remains their ultimate objective.

This backdrop may help understand the implications of last month’s visit to China by a Taliban delegation representing the extremist movement. The delegation, led by Abbas Stanakzai, who heads the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, visited Beijing from July 18 to 22 following an invitation from the Chinese government. This happened after a rare high-level visit to Kabul last year by China’s Vice-President, who offered infrastructure and security-related support to Afghanistan.

China seems to have two main targets to achieve in Afghanistan: to participate in the Great Game going on there in a more focused manner with a view to making India less attractive for the Afghans and to use the Taliban to weaken the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, which wants independence for China’s Xinjiang province. That may be one reason why China clinched several significant deals during last year’s rare high-level visit by its senior officials to Kabul.

China must have come to realise that this is the ideal time for its increased involvement in Afghanistan when both the government in Kabul and the Taliban are looking towards Beijing for all kinds of assistance for their nation rebuilding efforts. Most of the Taliban factions trust neither Pakistan nor the US, which provides security to the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. That is, perhaps, the primary reason why talks with the Taliban have so far ended in a fiasco. The Taliban side insists that it can agree to join the government only when there is no US support to the Kabul regime.

The Taliban must be clear in their mind that China cannot prove to be effective in putting pressure on the US to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans and totally withdraw from their country. However, Beijing can be helpful in highlighting the damage inflicted on the people of Afghanistan by US armed forces.

Of course, the Chinese greater involvement in Afghanistan can be used by Pakistan to realise its unrealistic dream of using Afghanistan for getting strategic depth. This point is very irritating for the present Afghanistan government as well as some of the Taliban factions, but Pakistan cannot abandon its basic objective in Afghanistan, particularly when some of the Taliban factions are in its good books and get considerable support through the ISI.

Pakistan must be anxiously waiting for the opportunity to come its way with the Taliban joining the government in Kabul though all extremist groups are not pro-Pakistan. If such a situation comes to prevail, it will be dangerous for India as the Taliban factions remain disinterested in India despite New Delhi’s immense contribution to the revival of economic activity in Afghanistan and building of infrastructure on a large scale.

Winning them over is just not possible for India nor will it be advisable from the ideological point of view. India has to intensify its efforts to protect its interests in Afghanistan under all circumstances — in the situation that may emerge when the Taliban groups ultimately succeed in finding entry into the government in Kabul or any other such development.

Large parts of Afghan territory are already under the Taliban control. Nearly 60 percent area of Helmand province, which borders Pakistan and is ahead of other provinces in poppy cultivation, has fallen to the Taliban. It seems the regime in Kabul cannot survive without large-scale external help.

The Ashraf Ghani government is, no doubt, giving the Taliban a tough fight with all the resources at its command, but the Taliban factions feel emboldened as the US and many other countries like China want them to come to the negotiating table to shun the path of violence and join the government.

This shows the US policy failure, which is working in favour of the extremist forces. The strategy of leaving the Afghanistan government to fight the battle against the Taliban on its own is unlikely to produce the desired result so long as the morale of the extremists remains very high as it can be seen at this stage. The Afghan security forces have been unable to dent their morale despite all kinds of assistance Kabul gets from countries like the US, Russia and India.

The extremists are nobody’s friends. They are power-hungry and are ready to take any step that leads them to the realisation of this objective. They appear to be convinced that their extremist ideology is paying them dividends. They are unlikely to leave this path even if they succeed in acquiring power. Their coming to power may prove to be a major threat to peace and stability in the Af-Pak area and beyond. The US made a major mistake by asking the previous Afghanistan government to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table which led to the coining of the laughable expression “Good Taliban and Bad Taliban”.

China also appears to be heading towards making the same mistake. The Taliban will remain the Taliban, whatever concessions the world may offer them. And if the ideology they have been pursuing bears the desired fruit the Uighurs in Xinjiang too will do all they can to continue their fight against the Chinese policies in the province irrespective of the cost they will have to pay. The Taliban example will help them keep their morale high under all circumstances. China will ultimately be a loser by adopting a policy of placating the Taliban.

India should not get influenced by the hollow Chinese strategy. New Delhi should continue to provide training to as many Afghan security forces as possible.

The current practice of giving 1,000 Afghan soldiers free-of-cost training in India needs to be revised: India should make training arrangements for more Afghan soldiers and provide as much military hardware as possible. The policy of strengthening Afghans to defeat the Taliban should never be abandoned.

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