Both China and Pakistan were excited about opening diplomatic relations with the Taliban following America’s withdrawal of forces. Afghanistan’s huge untapped reserves of lithium attracted China for its Lithium-Ion battery production. There is also a security reason. The East Turkestan Islamic movement (ETIM), the Uyghur Islamic extremist organisation, has roots in Afghanistan.
In the 2000s it used to get support from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. China apprehends that ETIM will gain strength in the new terrorist haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and retaliate against China for repression of Uyghurs. China needs the Taliban’s cooperation to prevent it. In addition to this, there is an undercurrent of an expansionist trend which cannot be discounted.
China is the greatest land-grabber in Asia. This is not a new phenomenon. It continued even after the emergence of Communist China. The invasion of Tibet and its incorporation into China in the 1950s is one example. Tibet was considered China’s right hand palm with five fingers on its periphery i.e. Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh. This perception triggered the ‘strategy of Five Fingers’ first adopted by Mao Zedong to claim authority over these areas.
China’s repeated failed attempts to intrude into Doklam, Galwan valley of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in recent times bear testimony to this legacy of territorial expansion. It has successfully lured a bankrupt Pakistan into its trap of economic transformation for colonizing the territory. But, how did an erstwhile client state of America allow all this to happen? As early as 1989, Pakistan, in a calculated move, lent support to the Chinese Communist party after the Tiananmen Square uprising. It paid a dividend.
Later, China promised infrastructural development which Pakistan welcomed thinking this would revamp its near-extinct economic structure. However, capitalising on this opportunity China started taking control of industry, jobs, almost everything in Pakistan. They ill-treated Pakistani workers. At the Karakoram International University, the Pakistani military is sponsoring Mandarin courses for needy students. Increasingly, Pakistani youths are taking to Mandarin for jobs.
Pakistan has surrendered to Chinese interests. The need for a new friend forced them to turn a blind eye to these colonizing trends. After the Soviet withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, Pakistan lost its job of siphoning US funds and arms to the terrorist organisations in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s ulterior motive, though, was to launch terrorist attacks on India from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The Soviet withdrawal forced Pakistan to go for a new plan of action. There was a domestic problem too. The Islamic fundamentalists reared in Pakistan for destabilizing India, were out to radicalize Pakistan. These extremist groups needed to be diverted to a place from where an anti-India jihad would be unleashed with renewed vigour. They, therefore, desperately tried to control the Taliban government to ensure safe haven in Afghanistan for the Pakistani terrorists deployed there.
Induction of Sirajuddin Haqqani in the Taliban government as interior minister bears testimony to Pakistan’s attempt to control the new Taliban regime.
The Haqqani network has close ties with the anti-India Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkare-Taiba. Pakistan’s latest moves drew flak from many countries, especially India. America did not react as Pakistan’s overtures to the Taliban did not clash with their expansionist interests in the region. George Bush’s War on Terror did not target Pakistan. Pakistan also showed no inclination to resist American soldiers entering their country to eliminate Osama bin Laden.
They were still friends. Distance between them grew as what the US was ready to offer after the US-Soviet rivalry lost steam hardly suited Pakistan’s plan of terrorist activities from Afghanistan, exclusively targeting India. In this case, China’s imperialist ambitions in Asia did not come in the way of such activities.
Pakistan, on its part, never showed any adverse reaction to repeated Chinese attempts at incursions into Indian borders thinking this would weaken India’s security. Their efforts to control the Taliban government did not deter China’s entry into Afghanistan. On the other hand, there is no indication that America would challenge the Chinese penetration of Afghanistan.
America resorted to pulling strings from behind the scenes as they had done before, to counter Soviet expansion. The hasty withdrawal of forces had drawn flak from the world at large as people of Afghanistan were thrown to the wolves once again under Taliban rule. President Joe Biden occasionally showed concern for the plight of Afghans to hide America’s real intentions.
America realized that to keep Afghanistan within its sphere of influence it could no longer use Afghan insurgency because the insurgents they sponsored were the new rulers. There was no question of continuing the fight against the terrorist organisations to build a modern, democratic Afghanistan. Pakistan-backed terrorists would never revolt against Talibanisation of Afghanistan.
Besides, neither the Soviets nor the Americans had ever an objective of eradicating fundamentalist forces. Their principal interests were control and expansion. The idea of directly confronting China’s influence in the region was not also practicable as it would have dangerous repercussions of a Sino-US war.
They had only one alternative left, to come to terms with the Taliban. US Defense officials argue that the present Afghan disaster of Taliban rule can be traced to the Doha deal. There was general concern in America about the safe return of the soldiers from Afghanistan. Donald Trump, we were told, whipped up a kind of American nationalism by working on this sentiment in his Doha promise of withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan.
Trump’s arch foe Biden carried forward this scheme of things. He even agreed to reduce the number of troops in April 2021. The real intentions behind the agreement signed in February 2020 in Doha were never disclosed. The Doha deal actually shaped future US strategies in Afghanistan. Through a compromise with the Taliban, America sought scope for undeterred influence in the region without getting involved in any direct clash.
All the stakeholders, in this way, indulged in behind-the-scenes stringpulling and Afghanistan, in the end, has been plunged into a bitter tournament of shadows, once again.
(The writer is former Head of the Department of Political Science, Presidency College, Kolkata)