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On Afghanistan, China should join India — for a change

A terrorist movement that is heady with the success of beating back a second super power may well turn its sights on the budding one next door.

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Under normal circumstances, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a precursor to the larger heads of State gathering in September, would have generated marginal interest, except in terms of what the Indian and Chinese ministers would possibly say to one another at a time of border conflict. This time, however, because of the prevailing situation, the meeting will garner eyeballs. The Taliban are knocking at the doors of not just Central Asian States, but also China. And as the US exits, the role of China and its friends and allies suddenly looms large, as does the forum’s itself.

Also read: India will support Afghanistan on peace, says Jaishankar in Tashkent as Taliban shadow grows

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation 

The SCO, formed in 2001, may not seem much at first sight. After all, apart from China, its other seven members are India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — not really the greatest of power centres, barring a former superpower fallen on bad times and an aspirational power hit badly by the pandemic. But take a look at the total territory on the map. The countries comprise a very large area of the globe. And this doesn’t even include the four Observer States of Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia, and six ‘Dialogue Partners’ Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey. NATO pales in comparison to this sheer vastness.

Now consider this. China features among the top three trading partners of all the SCO members, and two of the observer States. Beijing’s economic engagement with some of these countries includes not just the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but also the 2015 International Capacity Cooperation, which simply put, channelled Chinese excess capacity out into grand projects with the necessary technical and financial backing.

All that adds to rather a lot of clout.

Beijing recently held its own meeting of C+C5 (China plus Central Asia) at Xian, where it underlined connectivity, and rather nastily, also pointed to 30 years of Central Asian independence from Russia as an age to ‘stand firm’. Meanwhile, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi was touring the region, including Turkmenistan (not part of SCO), indicating concerns on the deteriorating Afghan situation as well as the dangers to its committed investments in this area vital to ambitions of linking up with Europe. Beijing’s official position is for an “inclusive” government in Afghanistan, which in Pakistan’s parlance translates into a role for the Taliban in a future government.

Also read: The Afghan chessboard is up for grabs again. And India is looking towards Iran this time

Russia back in business?

But leadership has to come with responsibility. While everyone looks to Beijing to take the lead, it is Russia that is using the Afghan instability to renew its influence in its former ‘backyard’, by providing armed forces to ensure border stability in Central Asian countries. For instance, on 7 July, Uzbekistan conducted joint drills with Russia. Moscow has also offered border guarding assistance to Turkmenistan, which is not part of the SCO but has recently faced attacks from across the border. Tajikistan has invoked the Moscow led CSTO  (Collective Security Treaty Organization), to which Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov responded favourably, noting that it would activate its base in Tajikistan where 6,000 troops are deployed. In reply to a question whether Russia would deploy troops in Afghanistan after the hurried exit of the US, he said the answer was “obvious”, citing the “swiftly deteriorating” situation. Meanwhile, the threat from the fighting next door is getting evident by the day with Uzbekistan repatriating fleeing Afghan soldiers and Tajikistan giving refuge to civilians.

Moscow’s position is complicated. It has had several meetings with the Taliban leaders, including one where India was represented. Its foreign ministry called for inclusion of the Taliban in an “interim government” and its ambassador said that the militant group was no direct threat to Russia. But that doesn’t show the complete picture. Russia’s problem – somewhat like India’s – is of terrorists operating against it under the guise of Islamic State cadres. Meanwhile, reliable reports note contacts with “unofficial leaders” of ethnic minorities (read former northern Alliance leaders). Clearly, Moscow is hedging its bets. Presently, it is Russia that is on the ground, and not China. At least not entirely. There are persistent reports of Chinese troops not just in Tajikistan, but also along the Wakhan corridor. That’s a long way from committing troops on the ground.

Also read: Now that US withdrawal has been achieved, China will move slowly on Afghanistan

Central Asia and Iran – reconciling to Taliban ‘role’?

Central Asian states also seem to have shifted their position on the Taliban. Uzbekistan tried being a peacemaker and even hosted a Taliban delegation in 2018, in a rare gesture of friendship. Though it was among the first to host a US base, and acted as a rest and recuperation area for Anti-Taliban leaders like Rashid Dostum, it has since appeared to accept that the Taliban are here to stay. Moreover, it has to contend with the remnants of the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), a terror group that had been operating alongside the Taliban but now appears to have coalesced into the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) while others remain in Taliban ranks.

Then there are others such as the Tajik-dominated Jamaat Ansarullo and Uzbek-dominated Islamic Jihad Union, Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, and Katibat Tahwid al-Jihad. All of them concern Tashkent and Dushanbe more than the Taliban themselves, which makes it all a nice negotiating point for the Taliban (and Pakistan that has long hosted Uzbek groups). Give us support, or else.  That could explain why Turkmenistan recently held a  secret meeting with a Taliban delegation headed by Abbas Mohammed Stanekzai, even as it rushed additional troops to the border. Meanwhile, here’s a bit of a surprise. The Taliban were reported to have fired a large number of mortars at the India-built Salma Dam. The project so vital to Afghanistan was opposed – sometimes violently – by Iran. At a recent meeting of both the Taliban and Kabul in Iran, an anodyne statement called for peace etc. It was a vote for a Taliban role in the future government.

India’s three-point plan calls for an independent, neutral Afghanistan that ceases all attacks against civilians and chooses dialogue rather than violence, and notably, one that does not pose a threat to neighbours in terms of “terrorism, separatism and extremism”. The MEA has increasingly begun to use the term ‘separatism’, originally coined by China to describe Kashmiri separatist activity — a smart move that clubs New Delhi’s position with Beijing’s, every time the latter speaks of this. Jaishankar also added “legitimacy” as a precondition for any government in Afghanistan, pointing out realistically that Afghanistan’s past cannot be its future. India’s position is likely to be enthusiastically supported by almost all Afghans; it is equally likely to be resented by Taliban supremos like Zabiullah Mujahid who’s interview with a gutsy Tolo News journalist showed him up as exactly what the militant outfit has stood for — a backward and revanchist group that will never be any different, never mind the protestations of how it has changed.

And here’s the truth. No neighbour is likely to get on the wrong side of the Taliban, unless they are effectively beaten back from major borders; or if a segment of the group reconciles to a ‘role’ in government rather than just taking total control. There’s a world of difference between a ‘role’ and a Taliban controlled government. The former might be acceptable to all in making the best of a bad situation. The latter choice would be uncomfortable in the extreme, for the smaller republics and Russia. China thinks it can buy its way in, as it has with military governments in Pakistan and elsewhere. But Beijing is in for a shock. Both Pakistan and the Taliban have gone too far on that extremist road to pull back.

Beijing would be wise to ally with India’s middle position, which has the advantage of not just moral ascendancy, but sheer practicality for everyone concerned. Otherwise, a terrorist movement that is heady with the success of beating back a second super power, may well turn its sights on the budding one next door.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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