The May 2 Strategic Partnership Agreement between the US and Afghanistan pledged to continue cooperation between the two countries to “combat al Qaeda and its affiliates”. The two countries agreed to oppose threats to the sovereignty of Afghanistan, by cooperating closely on Defence and security.

As per the Agreement, even after US forces withdraw in 2014, the US would continue to support training, equipping and sustaining Afghan Security Forces “to ensure terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region and the world”.

The Agreement also provides for access to Afghan facilities for US forces. This is to remain in force till 2024. This Agreement, taken together with the Afghanistan-India Strategic Cooperation Agreement of October 4, 2011, appears to have led to a reappraisal of thinking in Beijing and Islamabad.

CHINA’S STANCE

China has adopted an ambivalent approach to developments in Afghanistan. While being concerned about the impact of Islamic extremism on its Xinjiang Province, it appears to have got Pakistan to persuade its Afghan allies in the Taliban and in Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s ‘Hizb e Islami’ not to attack Chinese nationals or interests in Afghanistan.

Beijing has done precious little for the reconstruction and development of post-Taliban Afghanistan, though it has pledged $4 billion of commercial investment in the development of the Aynak copper mines, south-east of Kabul, together with an agreement in December 2011, to explore oil and natural gas in the Amu Darya Basin, and construct an oil refinery.

The oil exploration agreement comes after New Delhi’s success in securing access to the nearby Hajikak iron ore mines. This Indian investment has been undertaken by a consortium of Indian-owned public and private sector companies called the “Afghan Iron and Steel Company” (AFISCO).

The consortium was set up to not only develop iron ore resources, but also build a steel and power plant. In collaboration with the Indian Government, the entire complex involving an estimated investment of $11 billion will include a 200 km railway line to transport the produce to the Iranian border.

Signs of enhanced Chinese interest in Afghanistan emerged when President Karzai met Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Summit in Tajikistan, in June. The two sides reportedly discussed the possibility of a feasibility study for a Turkmenistan, Afghanistan China gas pipeline. Such a pipeline, through northern Afghanistan, would avoid the Taliban-controlled South and would be more viable than the proposed TAPI pipeline to India, which traverses through Taliban controlled areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s volatile Baluchistan province.

PAKISTAN’S MANOUEVRES

While China would undoubtedly finance the oil pipeline from Turkmenistan, there is still a big question mark over financing arrangements for the TAPI pipeline. The Karzai-Hu meeting was followed by a visit to China by then Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak on July 27.

In Wardak’s meeting with Guo Boxiong, the Vice-Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Guo alluded to bilateral military relations having been “boosted steadily” and called on the two militaries “to enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation”. China appears now to be paying greater interest in establishing a significant economic presence in mineral-rich northern Afghanistan and promoting closer military ties with the Karzai dispensation.

Around the same time as Wardak’s visit to China, Pakistan Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf was in Kabul, where he opened a new Pakistan Embassy building, interestingly located in a part of Kabul which is the stronghold of leaders of the Northern Alliance.

Pakistan realises that it has to reach out to Tajik and Uzbek leaders in Afghanistan, who in the past were described as “Indian Agents”. The Afghan northern leadership and indeed all those who will be high on the hit list, should the Taliban return to Kabul, are reaching out warily to Pakistan, to facilitate a dialogue with the Taliban.

Significantly, these developments are occurring when cash-strapped Pakistan has been forced to climb down from its high horse and reopen NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.

Despite showing a readiness to expand its collaboration with the Karzai regime, China will inevitably work closely with Pakistan to ensure it does not earn the wrath of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan, in turn, is slowly coming to realise that it has to be more circumspect in its support for the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

It is entirely possible that Mullah Omar will be “persuaded” to agree to some form of dialogue with the Americans and the Afghan Peace Council. But, given their past experiences with Pakistan, mere expression and good intentions by Pakistan will cut no ice with most Afghan leaders.

IRAN’S RESPONSE

There have recently been credible reports from Kabul that Iran has allowed the Taliban to open an office in Zahidan in eastern Iran and that Iran will assist the Taliban in operating against the US in Afghanistan. However, supporting a Taliban presence on its soil will only undermine the cordial relations with Afghanistan.

There will, no doubt, be occasion to discuss developments in Afghanistan with the Iranian leadership when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Tehran, for the forthcoming non-aligned summit.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on August 15, 2012)
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