Even as we remain preoccupied with the impending General Elections, developments of great import affecting our country are taking place in our close neighbourhood.
Earlier this month, in an extremely unusual event diplomatic history of sorts was created when the visiting Afghan National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, while on American soil criticised the US administration to the extent of almost accusing them. He was highly critical of Zalmay Khalilzad, the US representative in talks with Taliban at Doha. He described these as surrender talks which were nothing but humiliating for the Afghan Government.
The US administration was quick to react expressing its displeasure over the remarks. An announcement has since been made that the US government would neither recognize nor have anything to do with Mohib. In fact, ever since the talks began between the Taliban and the US on the post-withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan, its government has reasons to feel completely bypassed and ignored.
While details of these talks in public domain remain quite sketchy, what comes out as a central point in their progress is the behind-the scenes role played by Pakistan in bringing the two sides together. It is understood that Pakistan has kept the Taliban leaders under immense pressure, to ensure their participation in the talks towards a predetermined agenda. And why not! This could be a very high point and a success story for the Pakistani diplomats.
On the other hand, China has been quietly observing from the wings and is waiting for an opportune moment. China missed its chance three decades ago but this time, with Pakistan in no position to resist it, Beijing may be able to achieve its objective sooner than later.
Chinese interests in Afghanistan date back to the late 1970s when the cold war was at its peak. After the Russian invasion, the US was actively promoting and supporting any and every tribal group that could be put up to face the Russians. Around the same time the Chinese who were fully aligned with Pakistan, even then, thanks to the 1963 treaty signed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Marshal Chen Yi on transfer of Shaksgam to China, had also been waiting for their chance.
According to our then Ambassador to Afghanistan, P. Ratnam, China had strengthened its ground forces and even the Air Force in Xinjiang and had begun to use areas contiguous to Badkashan for training counter revolutionaries. Attempts were also made to foment trouble in the Wakhan corridor for an intervention at an opportune moment, but USA beat them to it with funding as well as arms for the Afghan Mujahideen. Though Pakistan was close to China and had helped facilitate the presence of their instructors in some of the training camps for the Mujahideen, perhaps it was realized by them that obliging USA would be far more beneficial. Ultimately Pakistan’s position with a friendly China on one side and an over-dependent USA on the other, became virtually unassailable for more than a decade, which has been over a period of time leveraged in its various manifestations.
Besides the geo-strategic importance of Afghanistan, its unexplored mineral wealth has also been very tempting. It is known to have vast resources of natural gas besides rare and critical minerals like lithium, cobalt and tantalum. Copper, iron and gold are also found in abundance besides Lapis Lazuli. So far, their commercial exploitation has been extremely difficult on account of the competing economic interests of various tribal groups and that is where the role of Taliban as an overlord comes in. A pliable Taliban regime would help the cause of Pakistan – a country obsessed with a deep state syndrome and creation of a vassal state. In a way this may also facilitate addressing the problems posed by the Durand Line. In the long run such an arrangement would also suit the interests of the Chinese who have extensive investments in the region through CPEC projects as well as the BRI.
With competing interests of Pakistan, China, Russia, India, Iran and USA, all converging in Afghanistan, it is truly in a position to be known as the cockpit of Southern Asia. The sovereign governments of Afghanistan led earlier by Karzai and now by Ghani, have been completely marginalised and figure nowhere in these talks. Their only hope would be the elections which are due some time during the summer later this year. But where do all these developments leave India?
Earlier this month the first consignment of a few hundred tonnes of cargo of Afghan origin was received in India through the Iranian port of Chabahar. As such, for the moment, our economic interests and trading through this route courtesy Iran obviously needs to be given top priority and would need to be protected and promoted. At the same time there are feelers in the air for the physical presence of our men in case we have a long-term perspective on Afghanistan, an option which may be purely adventurist, particularly keeping in view contemporary history.
(The writer is a former Governor of Meghalaya and Uttarakhand and a former Commissioner of Police, Delhi)