China cautious on Afghanistan while Pakistan faces grim situation

Pakistan has been reeling under international pressure on their handling of the Afghan situation and it is conscious of the fact that its role in Afghanistan will increasingly come under scrutiny in the coming days.

It is for this reason that Pakistani leaders are nudging the international community to project the idea that Afghanistan is not Pakistan’s responsibility, but of the international community.

At the same time, Pakistan has been propagating the theory that in case international support and assistance does not come through, the fall out of any negative developments in Afghanistan could impact the region and the world. The latter is being conveyed in a subtle manner so as not to be seen as part of aggressive posturing by Pakistan.

The fact, however, remains that Pakistan has a far deeper hand in Afghanistan than being portrayed, and it cannot cease from playing this role at this stage. The Pakistani deep state remains well-engrained in the Afghan system at different levels.

Meanwhile, in Kabul, the formation of the interim government has left no room for praising the Taliban or their Pakistani advisors, as the cabinet overwhelmingly comprises hardliners. Domination by the Haqqani group has certainly placed the international community in a state of alarm.

The Taliban has thus squandered away an opportunity for improving its image and has sent out mixed signals about its intentions in terms of government formation and execution of tasks. They have also failed to deliver on women’s rights and an inclusive government — the two core issues on which the international community has been more concerned.

Moreover, the fissures in the Taliban structure and conflict of interest among the senior leaders have also sent out a strong negative message. Reports about differences appearing in the ranks of the Taliban with speculation doing the rounds about Mullah Baradar being injured and even killed, has led to increasing doubts about the credibility of the present government.

If at the very onset, the government has been marred with differences, the scope and possibility of delivery is bound to be limited. If inherent differences do persist, this would only further aggravate as the government starts functioning and critical decisions are taken on a range of issues.

One cannot ignore the fact that given the aggressive character and nature of the leaders and their battle-hardy background, the possibility of their differences precipitating to a level where clashes leading to casualties among them cannot be ruled out.

In such a situation, it would be difficult to sustain the government and the disenchanted factions could come to the fore challenging those in power. The situation could spill into a civil war in the long run. Such a scenario is based on the premise that Pakistan indeed does not have a complete hold on the various political factions and ethnic entities and is seen as favouring certain preferred sections.

Pakistan would thus have to play a cautious role not to be dragged into any internecine conflict in the long run or being blamed for siding with one faction against the other. However, Pakistan seems to be far from adhering to a safe course on this front.

Afghanistan also has a very intricate mesh of various radical entities which have bred in Afghan territory over the years. Whether it is the TTP, ETIM or ISIS-K, these entities would all have to be engaged and brought into the civilized fold over a period of time, though this would remain a difficult and challenging task for the government.

Pakistan’s role in this sphere would be critical though the chances of success appear grim at this stage. The years of cross dynamics between these groups that Pakistan has encouraged and played on, will make it difficult for Pakistan to seek a safe compromise with them. If differences continue at the leadership level within the Taliban and the leaders of the disaffected ethnic groups are sidelined, it would only tend to further vitiate the atmosphere.

Most significantly, in the ensuing developments and prevailing uncertainties, the Chinese and the Russians would be wary of supporting the Taliban government whole-heartedly. After the initial euphoria, the Chinese have realised the inherent dangers of getting seeped into the complex political and security maze that prevails in Afghanistan.

There is realisation in the Chinese establishment that under no circumstances can China alone cater to the aid and assistance that Afghanistan has been receiving from the international community over the years. With around 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s economy being run through external support, China would not be able to substitute this package.

Moreover, the predictions are that given the prevailing situation, Afghanistan is bound to see a deep downslide in the socio-economic sphere in the coming days, and it would indeed be challenging for China to alone bail the nation out of the crisis.

Any substantial involvement by China in Afghanistan could also divert Chinese attention from the larger Chinese external ventures, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Covid crisis has taught a lesson to the global community that nations have to remain prepared for any eventuality in the form of natural calamities which could draw in significant national resources.

Afghanistan has been known to be a deep well with capacity to absorb endless amount of aid and assistance with no viable outcome. Afghanistan has received around USD 35 billion of aid from the international community between 2002 and 2009, which makes it an average of $5 billion each year.

This is other than the direct aid in the form of support for the Afghan defence forces and handouts of equipment and supplies which are not accounted for. A struggling Afghanistan which is yet to build its own defence forces and security establishment, will require significant amounts for nation building over and above the regular aid. China would have to consider these aspects carefully as dependency on its fair weather friend on this aspect is futile.

The security factor is another aspect that China would have to consider, as the security situation is bound to remain volatile for some time to come. China would be concerned of this aspect, especially going by the US experience.

Besides suffering several casualties, the US military action has also led to generating hatred towards the US across certain cross sections of the Afghan society, especially with collateral damages caused in various operations.

Most significantly, the US has now left Afghanistan without bringing about any perceptible change in the political and security spheres there. Removing the Taliban from power and eventually handing them the reigns of the government after 20 years at the cost of huge expenses and loss of lives, is a learning lesson for all nations keen to engage Afghanistan.

The Russians too had to walk out after a bitter ten year experience dealing with Afghanistan, and would know best why getting involved in Afghanistan as a sole player could be damaging at this stage. At the same time, Russia is concerned about its own security and that of the Central Asian region which it considers as its last frontier of defence against any outflow of radical ideology or narrative from Afghanistan.

Russia has been a victim of radical Islam when it had to deal with the Chechen crisis and has been concerned about the 30 million Muslims in Russia, especially during the hey days of the ISIS. Russia realizes that any involvement in Afghanistan has to be well calibrated and as part of a larger platform rather than going in alone. Iran on the other hand has been keenly observing the developments and would remain focused on the interest and welfare of the Hazaras. Their insistence on an inclusive government is an expression of their unhappiness over the present government formation.

The situation thus remains extremely complex in Afghanistan. Significantly, role of Pakistan’s deep state remains a concern for the international community. Inspite of Pakistan trying to play down its role in Afghanistan, the extent of its involvement in Afghanistan in terms of micro managing activities would make it difficult for Pakistan to shun blame for any mishap in Afghanistan in future.

In its desperation to seek strategic depth, Pakistan has bitten more than it can chew without considering the long term implications. Incase the security situation deteriorates further due to political differences and related factors, Pakistan would inevitably get involved in sorting out the mess, thereby further blemishing the credibility of the Afghan government.

Much though Pakistanis have been on a euphoric high after the Taliban takeover, the toxic fallout of any deteriorating politico-security situation would hit Pakistan the most. It would thus be in Pakistan’s interest to tread cautiously in Afghanistan and preferably ensure being part of a larger group of nations in the process, instead of making Afghanistan its own fiefdom.