The China factor in Afghanistan

China's Premier Li Keqiang and Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (L) pose for pictures at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing October 29, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

China's Premier Li Keqiang and Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (L) pose for pictures at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing October 29, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Ghani-Abdullah government has not been able to quell Taliban insurgency after the assassination of Mullah Mansour on May 21. The drone strike not only targeted the militia’s elusive leader but also the so-called peace process. Washington and Kabul had hoped to see a weakened militia marred by leadership woes, but it was obviously another gross miscalculation. Instead, the unity government further exposed its failure.

Last night, Taliban drove a truckload of explosives into a heavily guarded facility providing life-support services to foreign military personnel. The attack claimed one life while injuring half a dozen policemen. Frequent security breaches prove that Taliban choose timing and target at will with little resistance from elaborate counter-terror machinery in place. The latest target was adjacent to the US-run Bagram air base north of Kabul. Meanwhile, a district headquarters in Afghanistan’s Helmand province has been seized by Taliban as helpless Kabul awaits US air strikes.

China praises Afghanistan for fight against Chinese separatist group

The terrorist act came a day after Taliban’s Qatar-based delegation’s visit to China. Being one of the key investors and stakeholders in the region, Beijing is trying to mediate between Kabul and the militia for resumption of stalled peace talks. Though the Chinese side has neither confirmed nor denied Abbas Stanakzai-led Taliban team being its guest from July 18 to July 22, the Afghan government has publically expressed its displeasure.

China, the United States and Afghanistan are attempting to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The killing of Mullah Mansour has sunken any prospect for a political solution, at least for the near future. Beijing has previously held direct talks with Taliban officials. The contacts go as far back as 1997-1998.

Speaking to a Pakistani TV channel on July 24, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani launched a scathing attack, branding the state-to-state ties with Islamabad a bigger challenge than dealing with the al Qaeda or Taliban.

The Afghan leader insisted Pakistan was providing a safe haven to terrorists besides training, arming and funding them. The very same time his interviewed was aired, Pakistan’s advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz and Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani agreed in Tashkent to establish a high-level bilateral mechanism to coordinate on security issues and address border-related matters. Afghan National Security Adviser Haneef Atmar was also present there. “It will also have a joint technical working group to deal with the concerns of both countries,” the statement said.

Islamic State expanding foothold in Afghanistan

Three days later, Pakistan’s top diplomat met his American counterpart on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Vientiane, Laos. The duo spent much of their time discussing Afghanistan’s situation and the prospects of reviving Kabul-Taliban talks. Washington-Islamabad ties are far from normal, given a host of irritants at hand.

Owing to the multitude of factors and developments, China is assuming a pro-active role in Afghanistan. The most recent China visit of Taliban’s Doha-based political negotiators signals it will keep all channels of communication open while continuing its clandestine operations inside Afghanistan. China’s unusual mediatory diplomacy is faced with the challenge of ceasefire from either side. The revenge attacks triggered by the drone strike on Pakistan-Iran border can’t be stemmed unilaterally. The militants need firm guarantee before committing themselves to a ceasefire. Will the US back the Chinese move with a similar pledge? Obviously, the US and Afghanistan have not been able to fight out the militia after Mansour was killed over two-and-half months ago.

Afghan Taliban reach out to China for joint ‘anti-invaders stance’

The second impediment for China is Afghanistan’s aggressive tone against Pakistan. The successive governments in the landlocked war-torn state have been using Islamabad as a coat hanger for their internal problems. Can Beijing seek Kabul pledge to conduct diplomacy through institutional mechanisms instead of media channels? Given their warm relations with New Delhi, the Afghan leadership may find it hard to adopt a more sober approach to its complex ties with Pakistan, which may not extend agreement to keep 3 million Afghan refugees beyond December.

Naveed Ahmad is a Pakistani investigative journalist and academic with extensive reporting experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He is based in Doha and Istanbul. He tweets @naveed360

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