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China can choose stability over spies. Or get shamed and singed in Afghanistan

Various factors have dictated Chinese operations in Afghanistan over the years. But with India back in the Afghan game after decades, China would do well to take stock of the new threats.

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We live in interesting times. The best of the ultimate spy novelist, the late John Le Carré, lived again as Afghanistan uncovered a well-embedded nest of Chinese spies across the country. This seems to have come to light from a data leak reported by an Australian paper, which exposed some two million members of the Communist Party of China employed across the world in top corporate offices and even in consulates. That data leak was earlier extracted from a Shanghai server by Chinese dissidents who were supposedly using it for counter-intelligence activities. It seems that spies, murders, and intelligence games are the order of the day.

The Afghan spy fest 

First, the facts as reported by the Indian media. The Afghanistan spy nest was uncovered by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), and included the arrest of a Chinese national in Kabul, together with arms and Ketamine, a drug that is increasingly becoming a part of the trafficking network. A woman operative who was a restaurant owner was also arrested, together with eight others including a Thai national. The operation seems to have started sometime in early December. This may be the first ‘official’ arrest of Chinese nationals, something that is as embarrassing for China as it is for Afghanistan, which sees its powerful neighbour as a source of potential aid via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Unsurprisingly, therefore, President Ashraf Ghani has assigned former head of intelligence and first vice president Amrullah Saleh to investigate the case, and deal with the Chinese. Kabul has demanded that Beijing apologise for this ‘betrayal of trust’ if it wants to avoid a criminal case against the accused. That seems generous. But it would force Beijing to eat humble pie, and admit that it is spying heavily on a war-torn neighbour. That won’t do Chinese pride any good. Interestingly, though, Saleh has since denied that the arrested nationals were Chinese, saying they are Taliban members.

Also read: US wants India to ‘get off the fence’ over China. But forgets Cuban crisis lesson

The spy networks  

Then the allegations. An unspecified diplomat noted that the intentions of the ring could include setting up a fake ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM) so as to lure potential recruits or commanders. There is also a mention that the spies were in touch with the Haqqani network, the prime Pakistani chess piece in this complicated Afghan game.

The first seems entirely likely, since this group has been a thorn in the side of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Xinjiang, China’s only Muslim majority province. It is also entirely likely that the spies were in touch with the Haqqani network, given the history of Chinese ingress into Afghanistan, both covert and overt, that once passed almost entirely through Pakistan.

Four phases of Chinese operations in Afghanistan 

The Chinese worry about Afghanistan was somewhat minimal prior to the entry of US troops, with Beijing even willing to engage with the Taliban government of the time, including a meeting of its Ambassador in Pakistan with Mullah Omar. There was concern about Uyghurs slipping into Afghanistan, but it was seen as manageable. All this changed following 9/11, when Beijing began to probe Pakistan on US intentions in Afghanistan.

This second phase worked well for Islamabad, since China has little or no knowledge of the intertwined nature of Afghan violence. Besides the main directing body, the Quetta Shura was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Matters changed, however, as violence and unrest in Xinjiang surged, leading Beijing to take a hand, in addition to ‘assistance’ from Islamabad.

In 2012, Zhou Yongkang, China’s security chief, visited Kabul unannounced to sign a security cooperation deal that also involved training of the police. That led to the first reported direct and highly secret talks with Taliban representatives in 2015 and the signing of a 30-year deal for the Aynak mines and infrastructure, with the ‘approval’ of the Taliban. It meant Chinese feet on the ground, and a series of visits by Afghan officials to Beijing thereafter. That might be called the third phase, with Islamabad in a hand-holding role.

The fourth phase began when the Islamic State (IS) made its first appearance in Afghanistan. Uyghurs were already fighting in Syria prior to 2017, and by 2019 Chinese sources estimated some 20,000-50,000 Chinese had left for training with the IS. Interestingly, it soon became apparent that the Taliban were on a collision course with sections of the so-called “Islamic State of Khorasan’, the Afghan chapter of the IS. That was certainly a boon for China.

Then came Russian allegations that US helicopters were ferrying ‘foreign’ fighters in the far north. Those allegations were made in the presence of Pakistani foreign minister in 2018, implying that Pakistan was part of this collusion. And in the same year, US aircraft conducted airstrikes in Badakshan, an area that abuts Chinese territory. Recently, the US also removed ETIM from its list of designated terrorist groups, causing China to rage on ‘double standards’. Enter China, directly into the game, in this fourth phase, with independent espionage activities in the heart of Kabul.

Also read: Why India needs to give some troubled Chinese companies a nest here

Bad news for India. And China too

None of this is good news for India. Afghan officials may deny the arrests in an effort to stabilise relations with their powerful neighbour, but there is little doubt that China is now operating in Afghanistan, though given the trends of Chinese espionage exposed by the data leaks, this could be at a much higher level. Any kind of Pakistan-China relationship that extends to intelligence operations is worrisome. Moreover, with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar participating in the first intra-Afghan dialogue at Doha, India is back in the game after decades. New Delhi wants nothing more than a stable Afghanistan, for which it could work with China, which actually wants the same.

But barring the one initiative in joint training of diplomats, declarations of India-China cooperation have remained just that. With China now directly threatening our borders, any talk of cooperation is impossible. That’s bad news for China too.

First, not a single power has gone into Afghanistan and not come out singed. Second, it seems that Beijing has to deal with multiple threats right at its border into the highly sensitive area of Xinjiang. Remember also that Xinjiang once shared a border with what was then the princely state of Kashmir. Beijing needs to realise that to stabilise the one is to stabilise the other.

As spooks continue with moves and counter moves in various parts of the world, it might be time to take a good hard look at the map, and choose stability over the spies. Stability, unlike spy games, breeds more stability. Spies are often a necessary appendage to diplomacy, but sometimes they just breed embarrassment.

The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.

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