Move over US
Pak is now China’s frontline state
By H K Dua
Geography has always been a cause of Afghanistan’s troubles. Other countries have used its position on the map to their advantage, played games, great and not so great, along its mountainous terrain.
The British and the Russians were engaged in wars in Afghanistan nearly two centuries ago. The Soviet Union invaded it in 1979 only to be defeated by the Mujahideens backed by the United States. Moscow paid the price for its occupation in the collapse of its economy and of the Soviet regime.
In the post 9/11 situation, the US chose to fight the Taliban to destroy Al-Qaida’s sanctuaries in Afghanistan. American troops were there for 13 long years before deciding to go back, suffering from acute battle fatigue and without winning any major goal. Nearly 150,000 lives had been lost in the 13 years of the latest edition of the Afghan war.
Practically, the US has by now withdrawn most of its troops from Afghanistan leaving behind a token presence of 9800 troops and a stack of drones to guard its residual interests.
While Afghanistan has been a victim of its geography, Pakistan, on the other hand, has been a gainer because of its location. For Pakistan its location on the map became a sort of an ATM which it could always draw on. Rather than building the nation, it fell for easy ways, like a good rentier. Pakistan has been the United States’ frontline state for years.
Now when the US has pulled out most of its troops, Pakistan, as is its wont, has again become a frontline state —- this time of none else than its all-weather friend, China.
To keep it in good humour, Beijing has been giving Pakistan nuclear technology, missiles, submarines, military aircraft and critical weaponry. All-weather friend has become a brother in arms now and Pakistan a frontline ally across the Korakorum range.
The US pull-out from Afghanistan has created a sort of vacuum in Afghanistan, which the Chinese have been watching with interest.
The Chinese are practioners of hard geopolitics and never like to miss an opportunity to advance their interests.
Actually it is Pakistan, which has been eyeing the vacuum left by the US pull-out in Kabul with greedy eyes. What better opportunity for it now than to create a situation when a pro-Pakistan Taliban group can come to acquire a share of power in Kabul! In any case, Islamabad has an old self-proclaimed doctrine of strategic depth, which it wants to invoke in Afghanistan and install a regime convenient for its future needs.
Lately, it has not been using the term strategic depth, but the essence of its policy remains intact. It is not without reason Pakistan continues to provide hospitality to Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura and the support to Haqqani group and some other Taliban.
The links it has been sustaining with different factions of the Taliban have been useful for Pakistan to strike better bargain with the US which has been wanting safe withdrawal from Afghanistan. While Hamid Karzai’s government was trying to negotiate directly with the Taliban, his successor President Ashraf Ghani is more dependent on Pakistan for dealing with the Taliban and stabilising the situation in Afghanistan. No wonder, Ashraf Ghani has even gone in for an agreement between Pakistan’s ISI and Afghan security agency, ignoring his own security chief’s boycott of the signing ceremony. This is no mean gain for Pakistan.
While Pakistan has been making advances to Ashraf Ghani’s new regime, China too has been more active on the Afghanistan front. Ashraf Ghani’s first visit after election was to China. Significantly, two Taliban delegations have recently visited China – one to Beijing and the other to Uramchi, capital of Xinjiang.
Apparently, Chinese interests in the developing situation in Afghanistan is no longer confined to copper mines leased to it by the Karzai government. China’s decision to have direct links with the Taliban groups is also indicative of its concern about jehadi groups’ activities in Xinjiang and western China and Central Asia.
Apparently, Pakistan and China are moving in concert in the future of Af-Pakistan region. Pakistan knows it cannot have its way alone in the strife-torn nation. Hence it will be to its advantage if China, a trusted ally, takes more interest in the Af-Pak region and in Pakistan.
China’s agreeing to build an economic corridor — road, rail and a pipeline through Pakistan to the Gwadar Port in Pakistan — can be seen a part of Pakistan-China joint strategy designed by China to reach near the Persian Gulf. With Pakistan acting as a spearhead China wants to reduce its dependence on the Malacca Straits in the east.
Pakistan is unmindful of the cost a frontline state is to pay. Like the US, China will use Pakistan’s territory to reach the Persian Gulf to protect its trade routes and oil supplies. It provides China a window to study the emerging situation in the area arising out of ISIS’s attempts to establish a Caliphate. The ISIS is not going to be Beijing’s friend in Western China; and to counter it, Beijing would need Pakistan’s cooperation, and a pro-Pak Taliban regime in Kabul.
Apparently, Pakistan to be a frontline state of China, would be prepared to pay a price in losing some area of autonomy in handling its own foreign policy. It is forgetting that in the affairs of the nations, a frontline state can always become a front paw with little will to move on its own. Pakistan, even in a brother’s embrace, can earn some goodies, but when an embrace becomes too tight, it can make things difficult for any independent action. Pakistan, however, is used to it.
India cannot ignore what is happening in its North-West. Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on his China visit, New Delhi called the Chinese envoy to protest against the Beijing’s building projects through POK in its thrust to reach the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. The issue may also have figured at his talks in Beijing. But it is not clear what is going to be Indian policy to protect its political, strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan, once the US troops have been completely pulled out by next year. May be the Indian policy-makers will have to sit back and think of ways to ensure that India’s role in Af-Pak region doesn’t become minimal.
H K Dua is a senior journalist and a Member of Parliament. He has recently joined ORF, a premier think tank in Delhi, to work on international affairs and geo-political studies.
(This article has appeared in the Tribune on June 22, 2015)