US, Pakistan, China Meet On Afghanistan, India Out
China in, India out
NEW DELHI: The recent meeting involving representatives from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the United States on a roadmap to peace in Afghanistan must have come as a reality check for India, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a high profile visit to Kabul in a bid to demonstrate India’s continuing interest in the conflict torn country.
The four countries met in Islamabad on Monday morning, with the meeting beginning with words of caution from the host country. Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the Pakistani prime minister on foreign affairs, warned against prematurely deciding which Taliban factions are ready to talk, urging instead "confidence building" measures to get even the recalcitrant Taliban to the negotiating table.
The talks are aimed at putting together a roadmap for rebuilding Afghanistan, where a peace dialogue with the Taliban plays a crucial role. The dialogue had gotten off to a nascent start, till the news of the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar dealt it a severe blow last year, with the Taliban stepping up violence in response and Afghan-Pakistan relations again dipping as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani pinned the blame on Pakistan for not doing enough to reign in cross-border terror. Pakistan’s direct link to terror in Afghanistan is a widely held view in Afghanistan, with analysts believing that US pressure is the reason behind Ashraf Ghani reaching out to Pakistan and singing a different tune to his predecessor Hamid Karzai.
This is why analysts believe that even though four countries may be talking, the crucial role in the path to peace will be played by Pakistan, which continues to exert control over a large faction of the Taliban. That said, it is important to remember that the Taliban is not a homogenous group, as militants who were opposed to a peace dialogue with the Afghan government reneged on their pledge to new leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who is seen as close to Pakistan. The BBC, in fact, quoted a Taliban spokesperson saying that newly appointed leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour had not been appointed "by all Taliban", going against Sharia law. A breakaway faction appointed another leader -- Mullah Mohammed Rasool -- and vowed to push on with their fight against the Afghan state.
Nevertheless, Pakistan does exert some influence on the Taliban, and its role in pushing for dialogue will be crucial -- a step it seems to be tentatively willing to take as General Raheel Sharif travelled to Afghanistan unaccompanied by ISI representatives -- who are seen as the force behind the Taliban -- recently.
Further, although the Taliban were not invited to Monday’s talks, a representative of the militant group who has chosen to remain anonymous said that two Taliban delegates, currently headquartered in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar, will meet "soon" with China's representatives. The meeting will also include Pakistan and will take place in Islamabad.
Notably absent from all the above developments is India, even though the country has indicated that it has interests in Afghanistan as evinced by PM Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Kabul, and the resumption of ties with Pakistan so as to allow for Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Pakistan and India’s participation in the “Heart of Asia” Conference on the future of Afghanistan.
India’s exclusion, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise. In September last year, The Citizen had drawn attention to a little-reported meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly co-convened by the US, China and Afghanistan, which signalled a major change in the power politics in Afghanistan, as months of efforts by Pakistan and the US to bring China on board finally bore fruit. In the first meeting of its kind, in the chair were the Chief Executive of Afghanistan Abdullah Abdullah, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani. Those who participated in the talks were ministers from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran,Australia, Italy, Norway.Kazakhstan. Pakistan was represented by National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz. There was no sign of India, clearly not even invited as a participant.
China has thus stepped in where India seems to have been afraid to tread. In that it has expanded its role from economic and financial assistance to a clearly strategic partnership, sitting on the same side of the table as the US on this issue. In the process that India, which seems to be happy with the “fondness” that the common Afghan reportedly has for Indians, is now completely out of the picture as even two major competitors join hands to tackle the challenges posed by Afghanistan, and the fast deteriorating situation there.
India’s strategic---if it can be called that---is limited to exchanging dossiers on terrorism with Pakistan, and threatening war through media channels every other day. The absence of dialogue, or as a senior retired diplomat said, even basic strategic thinking has pushed India out on the periphery with even that position----as the meeting above indicated--now under serious threat.
PM Modi’s visit to Kabul was nothing more that quips reiterating support to counter-terrorism, lobbying for investment, and providing the media with great photo-opportunities.
The cooperation on Afghanistan with China now sharing the grand high table with the US is clearly a major move forward. China’s interest in Afghanistan shifted from the financial to the strategic about two years ago according to experts here. In fact the Wall Street Journal taking first note of the shift wrote: During Afghanistan’s tumultuous political transition last year, Chinese security officials began visiting Kabul regularly, and expressed concerns about militant havens, according to a former senior Afghan security official.
Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union envoy to Afghanistan, said he first noticed increased Chinese interest in Afghanistan in 2013. “They have been looking for an area to expand their foreign policy toolbox,” he said, “but also doing it in a way that would not be seen strategically threatening to the U.S.”
During an October conference on Afghanistan in Beijing, a Chinese general surprised some U.S. participants by suggesting the Pentagon inquire about a joint effort with China to train Afghan security forces, say people familiar with the matter.”
This was followed by a secret meeting of the Taliban in China in May last year, with the news being leaked at the time to the Wall Street Journal in the US. Top officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan were present at the meeting, that really became the turn point for full blown Chinese participation in the Afghan peace process. The US has been in close contact with Beijing with Secretary of State John Kerry speaking highly of the new found cooperation with China on various occassions, going as far as to describe China “as a country that understands very deeply the cross currents in Afghanistan.”
Relations between China and Pakistan are close and strategic, leading to discomfort in New Delhi and also Washington, that the latter has clearly overcome. The Wall Street Journal quoted Hu Shisheng, an Afghanistan expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank linked to the Ministry of State Security saysing that the training of Afghan forces outside Afghanistan by both US and China was seen as “feasible and realistic.” The two countries are jointly training diplomats as well.
Pakistan is supportive, with a foreign ministry statement from Isalamabad maintaining earlier that the Sharif government will work closely with China to support the Afghan peace process. US media reports also suggest a lowering of tensions with senior officials being quoted as saying that they do not see China as a competitor to its relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan. This recent meeting is a clear example of this major shift in policy, with close coordination being the key word even as India is eased out. Or as a source said, eases itself out of the Afghan peace process altogether.