Written By: Didier Chaudet
When one talks about Afghanistan’s regional environment, one thinks first of Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asian countries: they have been the ones suffering the most of the Afghan wars and foreign interventions. But it would be a mistake to forget two other neighbours, less connected to Afghanistan by history, human links or cultural ties, but with greater means at their disposal to influence the fate of this country: China and Russia. Indeed, the Chinese-Afghan border is only 92.45 kilometres long, according to the website of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And as for Russia, it is not one of Kabul’s neighbours in the geographical sense of the world. It can be considered so only if one takes into account the symbiotic relationship between the Russian Federation and its “Near Abroad” in terms of security. But those two Great Powers have shown a greater interest in Afghanistan recently, and they seem to share a political will to invest in resolving the never-ending civil war.
‘Security’ seems the key word to understand the Afghan foreign policy of those two regional Great Powers. And their recent diplomatic choices could have a positive impact on Pakistani national interests.
Russia: A Diplomatic Evolution of Afghanistan and Pakistan
The Russian evolution on the Afghan issue is particularly striking, from a rejection to accept any talks with the Taliban to a support for an inter-Afghan reconciliation. On December 27, 2016, Russia, with China and Pakistan, called for “integrating the armed opposition into peaceful life” and said it will support the idea to get Afghan Taliban leaders delisted from UN sanctions’ list. It is oversimplification to believe, like some American sources seem to do, that there is an “alliance” between the Kremlin and the Taliban. The reality is much more pragmatic: the Russians have accepted that the Taliban were not merely terrorists, but rather rebels representing a political force in Afghanistan, a force strong enough to make a pure military solution for the Afghan conflict strictly impossible.
The best way to understand the Russian evolution is the Chinese influence on this subject: clearly the Kremlin has been influenced by Beijing’s initiative towards Afghanistan. Broadly speaking, this evolution can be seen as Russia adapting to a geopolitical situation that has evolved over the last few years. Most importantly, there is a specific jihadist risk for Central Asia and Russia in Afghanistan now: Daesh. This is very clear from the discovery of a Russia-Taliban dialogue in December 2015, and the press release following the meeting in December 2016 reminded above: the Russians see the Taliban as the best option to fight ISIS in Afghanistan, as the Afghan legal government seems unable or unwilling to make it a priority. For Zamir Kabulov, the head of the Asia and Middle East department of the Russian foreign ministry and special envoy of the Russian president to Afghanistan, there are now 10,000 IS fighters in Afghanistan, and as he said to Russia Today in April 2016,“They are being trained against Central Asia and Russia”.
Even if the Russian numbers about IS in Afghanistan seem overblown, the Kremlin is right to worry about Daesh. After Arabic, Russian is the most important language in the so-called ‘Caliphate’. Militants from the Northern Caucasus became well-known fighters fighting for this terrorist organization or for Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. If one focuses on Central Asian fighters alone, numbers can still be a source of concern for the post-soviet countries: between 3000 and 5000 so called jihadists have travelled to fight for Al-Baghdadi in Iraq and Syria since 2013. And many of them were recruited in Russia itself, while they were working there, which means that ISIS has been able to build some sort of network, at least for recruiting, in the country. The fear that those terrorists could come to Afghanistan in order to strike later, Russian and Central Asian interests, is not a fantasy: from December 2016 to February 2017, Iranian authorities arrested individuals passing through their country to go to Afghanistan to fight in the name of the Islamic State of Khurasan Province (ISKP), following Daesh’s orders. A view is that ‘ISKP’ in Afghanistan is partly made up of anti-Pakistan Taliban formerly from the TTP and Central Asian jihadists from the ‘Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’, it is clear that Daesh will seize any opportunity to strike Russia’s post-Soviet southern neighbours. In Afghanistan itself, it represents at least 7000 to 8500 militants (fighters and the ones supporting them) according to the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI). And despite some important victories won against the ISKP by the Taliban, it seems to be able to resist any action to eliminate it from the Afghan battlefield. Actually, the terrorist attack against a military hospital in Kabul, on March 8, 2017, that caused the death of nearly 50 people, is proof that Daesh is resourceful and could be a source of worries for Afghanistan and its regional environment.
Besides, Russia had to adapt to real geopolitical evolutions on the ground. To stick to a policy close to the one from India – opposing any talk with the Taliban – would not change the military situation on the ground, and the fears related to security in Central Asia. If the Russian “big brother” is unable to deliver concrete actions that could help protect its Near Abroad, the Central Asian leaders would have to look elsewhere for protection. Therefore, the Russian fear to lose its influence on them should not be underestimated. It was very clear when Moscow seemed to panic over the proposal of a military bloc between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, made by General Fang Fenghui, the Chief of General Staff of the Chinese Army, in March 2016. The notion of this becoming a “Central Asian NATO” spread in the Russian media, with some Russian analysts seeing the Chinese proposal as a way to put Central Asia under its influence. The Chinese were able to calm such wild theories, but such a reaction proved that Russia is uneasy with China's rise. The fears caused in Central Asia because of the Afghan issue, and the fact that China is getting involved there, made it difficult for Russia to not do the same. Their previous approach did not help to make them more influent, and going against the Chinese involvement would make no sense, as China stays an important global ally to Moscow. Hence the only choice the Kremlin had was to strengthen its influence, reassure the Central Asians, and stay relevant on the Afghan issue. An evolution that looks a lot like the Chinese policy towards Afghanistan, as we will see in the second part of this analysis.
China: Looking for Peace in the Name of the “Big Picture”
China does not have a policy to mingle in another state’s internal affairs. It follows such a non-ideological vision of international relations much more strictly than Russia nowadays. Still, China showed concern and desire to influence positively the Afghan issue before the Russians themselves.
It is linked to concerns related to internal stability and security, most particularly in Xinjiang. It was clearly said by the Chinese Foreign Minister himself, Wang Yi, during a visit to Afghanistan in February 2014. The visit was as significant as its previous visit had been in 2002, when he was, then, the Vice Foreign Minister. It was the symbol of a rising concern to see Uyghur jihadists using Afghanistan to strike on Chinese soil. The local tensions in Xinjiang are manageable, and could be taken care of through police work against separatists and through the economic choices China has made to develop the region. Indeed, even if there is a fear of separatist/terrorist anti-China activities in Xinjiang, this territory is much more stabilized than North Caucasus in Russia. But the situation might become more volatile if “professional” jihadists/terrorists come from overseas. And they very much could. Li Wei, head of the counterterrorism research at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) said during an interview in April 2016 that 300 Uyghur jihadists were affiliated with ISIS. Uyghur jihadists have associated themselves with Uzbek radicals from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), who have been very active in Afghanistan, especially in the north. Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s leader, and al-Baghdadi, so-called “Caliph” for ISIS, have both recently declared that China was one of their enemies. It has been confirmed by propaganda videos made by Daesh and Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, respectively on February 25 and 27, 2017. Hence, the terrorist threat targeting China specifically has become more serious over the last few years; and China can only share Russia’s fears exposed above. Besides, during the same few years, Xinjiang has become even more important with the Silk Road Economic Belt project. This importance has been clearly proved this year, as the region’s authorities will inject no less than USD 24.8 billion in local infrastructure, mostly roads. It is more than the total funding for such infrastructure between 2011 and 2015. Clearly, Beijing is serious about making Xinjiang an important part of the One Belt, One Road Project. Hence, to counter any risk for its stability is of paramount importance.
In order to protect its own interests, China decided to push for peace in Afghanistan, still the best way to avoid the latter’s instability to be a weapon in Uyghur separatists and in Daesh’s hands. It seems Beijing carries the understanding that the Afghan Taliban are a part of the Afghan political spectrum, even after the fall of the “Afghan Emirate” (according to American sources like Foreign Policy). Since 2012 the exchanges between Chinese emissaries and the Taliban seem to have been more regular. At first to protect Chinese interests; then, from 2014, Chinese diplomacy has been an active force supporting a peace process between the Kabul government and the Taliban. The USA had failed to make its ideas of peace-talks a reality after Hamid Karzai, the then-president of Afghanistan, derailed American-led project in June 2013. Beijing clearly became part of such effort by being one of the states associated to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, with Afghanistan, Pakistan and the USA. It met officially the first time in January 2016, but seemed to have been clearly limited by different views on what the peace process should be, the Americans and part of the Afghan government having difficulties to accept a true negotiation with what it implies, i.e., finding a compromise. The fact that the Americans killed the then-leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mansour, in May 2016, a few days after the last meeting of the QCG, is proof enough of a difference of perception of how peace should be achieved. Nowadays it seems that China is the main power truly active to achieve peace in order to solve the Afghan issue. It continues to talk to the Taliban: a delegation led by the Taliban Qatar office chief Sher Abbas Stanikazai visited China in February 2017, to discuss with Beijing the possibility to revive the peace process.
A Positive Evolution for Pakistan
Of course, Beijing’s policy is clearly in tune with Pakistan’s national interests. China, contrary to the USA or India, does not put blame of Afghan problems on Islamabad. On the contrary, it works with Pakistan on its Afghan policy. From the Fifth Heart of Asia Conference in 2015, it became clear that Chinese officially considered Pakistani involvement in the peace process as necessary for such process to have a chance to work. It appears clearly that, contrary to part of the Afghan elites in Kabul and to the American leadership, Beijing has understood that Pakistan had knowledge and some influence over part of the Afghan Taliban at least, but no full control over them. This more subtle, less simplistic approach from the Chinese made them understand that the Pakistani idea opposing a fragmentation of the Afghan Taliban was the right approach, as Taliban with a weak leadership would be unable to impose peace on their rank and file. Broadly speaking, Chinese diplomatic victory in Afghanistan would also be a victory for Pakistan.
Actually, Afghanistan gives another opportunity for Beijing to work together, with their diplomacies strongly aligned. The military cooperation between the two countries is already strong, and seems to have been further strengthened by the Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa’s three-day recent trip to China. And, of course, there is the CPEC: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor at the core of the “One Belt,One Road Project" is itself at the heart of President Xi’s diplomacy. On this project, the shared Chinese-Pakistani initiative for Afghan peace is particularly important: a stable Afghanistan would be helpful to make the CPEC a success, and also to diminish the possibilities for Baloch separatists to find external support.
This changing evolution in Russia’s policy revolving Afghanistan problem has also been a good news for Pakistan. It should be remembered that the erstwhile USSR had been an antagonist for Pakistan. In 1971, the Kremlin gave weapons and helped organize training camps for guerilla forces against the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh, in 1971. And after the Cold War, the Russians continued to have an unbalanced foreign policy towards South Asia. Russian's recent evolution in foreign affairs does not mean that Pakistan and Russia would become “allies” in no time: this simplistic approach would not take into account the fact that pro-India forces in Moscow are still strong and active. But such evolution means that they should arrive to a point where India-Russia links do not pose hurdles anymore to a good Russia-Pakistan bilateral relationship. Since 2007, when the then Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov paid a three-day visit to Pakistan, there is a slow but constant positive evolution in the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Working on the Afghan issue together will strengthen this trend in the long term.
The regional environment nowadays makes it clear that the countries in Afghan neighbourhood are in agreement that there is a need of an Afghan peace process, as military force alone cannot change the situation. The only ones that seem to oppose such an approach, shared by Russia, China, Pakistan, as well as Iran, are ‘disconnected’ from Afghan reality. They see this country only through the lens of their opposition to other nations: India first, but also the USA. The former is on a quest to be the only great power in its regional environment. And to be more than an economic power, it needs to break the opposition of the other regional power in its neighbourhood, i.e., Pakistan. It sees China’s desire to gain back its role as a natural Asian Great Power as a threat to its own ambitions. As for the Americans, even if they gave their blessing to the idea of an Afghan peace process since the beginning of this decade, they seem unwilling to accept that other great powers could be capable of being “honest brokers” the USA was unable to be itself. Some, in Washington D.C. also have a problem with the Afghan policy designed in Beijing and in Moscow, as it includes Iran and Pakistan as part of the solution, not of the problem. Those two countries have often been used as scapegoats by Americans and some of their Afghan colleagues as an easy explanation for their common inability to win against the Taliban.
Hopefully, such division will soon disappear: with the danger that is Daesh, and the other hotspots in the world, to find a common ground for peace and stability in this region. The Americans, in particular, have lost 2300 soldiers so far in a war that has been costing the astronomical sum of 1.5 trillion dollars. Despite the temptation to oppose Russia and China, it should be easy for cooler heads to prevail. It would be good news for the Afghan regional environment as a whole, but also for the Afghan people itself.
The writer is the Editing Director of CAPE (Center for the Analysis of Foreign Policy). He is also a non-resident Scholar for IPRI (Islamabad Policy Research Institute). He is a specialist of geopolitical/security-related issues in Central Asia and South-West Asia (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan).