As American troops pull out of Afghanistan as part of a wider long-term US retreat from South and Central Asia, China is waiting to fill the vacuum. But is China willing to play a mediating role between the Kabul government and the Taliban, provide sufficient funds to keep the Afghan economy ticking over and broker peace between warring neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan?
Moreover, does China have the incentive and the stamina for such a difficult role outside its borders—a role that has, in our lifetime, defeated the former Soviet Union and the United States? According to Sun Yuxi, China’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, China has just such ambitions. ”Afghanistan is facing a critical period,” he told me last December in London.
He continued, ”We are very grateful for President Ghani’s efforts because he visited Pakistan and China first to push forward the peace process. For the past 13 years, the US and NATO were playing a major role and we made our contribution and gave support to their effort but now, with the US leaving, Afghanistan is facing a very crucial period. We are ready to do more, we want to play a bigger role.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has already visited Beijing and asked China to play such a role—knowing full well that where the US failed only China now has the influence to persuade Pakistan to come on board and force the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership to open talks with Kabul.
China has already established its own secret contacts with the Taliban. ”We would welcome the Taliban in any neutral venue such as in China. We will make negotiations happen, but the process must be Afghan owned and Afghan led,” Yuxi added. In fact, a two-man Taliban delegation visited Beijing secretly in November.
The delegation came from Doha in Qatar, where the Taliban have an office and where its mediators are based. The last time the office was in action was three years ago, when Germany sponsored secret talks between the Taliban and the US. However those talks ultimately failed.
China’s other aim is to make sure that all the region’s countries support its peace efforts and see China’s role in a friendly light. To that end China is building regional support through a slew of group meetings. It has established a trilateral talking shop between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and another with the US. China is also hosting talks between a group of regional countries called 6+1 involving the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran (the “one” is Afghanistan). ”This group has already met twice,” said Yuxi.
Surprisingly, US officials say that Washington is not averse to a larger Chinese role in Afghanistan, if it can broker peace, keep out terrorists and help Afghanistan’s economy. In fact, Beijing has interests that directly coincide with Washington’s. China and the US are already cooperating in training Afghan diplomats, and the next step would be for both countries to host training for Afghan army and police officers.
China’s main reason for trying to stabilise Afghanistan is that it now faces a national security threat from Islamic radicals belonging to the Uighur ethnic group that live in Xinjiang province and train with the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of these militants are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is based in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. China is now infected with its own terrorism problems emanating from beyond its borders and it is desperate to end this threat—which is why it is pressuring Pakistan and Afghanistan.
China would also like to exploit the mineral and energy resources in Afghanistan that have been identified by the US, but have gone untapped due to the continuing civil war there. ”Our broader strategy is also economic development—the construction of the Silk Road, which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan,” said Ambassador Yuxi. Chinese investments in copper mining and oil and gas drilling have so far been largely suspended because of the fighting.
China is investing billions of dollars in a road and rail transportation network that will stretch from western China to Germany via a new Silk Road crossing a dozen countries. In early March the first goods train completed a journey from eastern China to Berlin and returned home, taking three weeks. China wants to help build a route that will take just three days.
It wants to build a railway in Afghanistan to carry minerals to China and a four-lane highway from the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Gulf across the length of Pakistan to the Chinese border. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already signed economic corridor projects with China amounting to US$ 45 billion over a decade.
Economic aid and money is the ultimate lure, making China’s chances of calming a region that has seen nothing but war since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 much greater than the Americans could offer. The US failed to build a sustainable economy in Afghanistan or convince the Pakistani army to stop backing extremism.
China’s economic plans and its need for raw materials could finally give Afghanistan and Pakistan an economic bonanza and provide the incentive to end state support for extremist violence in both countries. For any fragile nation state, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Whether both nations will grasp it is still an open question.
The Fierce Pressures Facing Pakistan
No one should be surprised to read that in Pakistan the army has taken charge, established military courts, derailed democracy, and brought television and other media under military control. Nor should one be surprised to learn that foreign policy and national security were being directly run by the army. Many similar situations have occurred in Pakistan since 1958, when the army first came to power in a gradual coup and declared martial law, then ruling for a decade. The country has for years been under partial military rule, outright martial law or military authority disguised as presidential rule.
But the arrangement that has evolved over the last six months is the strangest so far: the elected government remains in place but has few powers, and no longer rules the country. The media, opposition political parties, parliament and the intelligentsia are trying to resist the gradual military takeover but they are weak and ineffectual.
The single worst legacy of military rule since the 1970s—the time of the loss of East Pakistan (Bangladesh)—has been a ruinous foreign policy that has made enemies out of most of Pakistan’s neighbours owing to the safe havens that Islamic extremists from these countries have carved out in Pakistan. It is well known that such havens exist in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and Baluchistan, but they are also located in many other parts of the country, from Lahore near the Indian border to the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.
Because of its fear of India, Pakistan has been turned into a garrison state with a persisting paranoia about being surrounded by hostile countries and dominated by a demanding, belligerent United States. Yet the Pakistani army is the seventh-largest in the world, with some 642,000 soldiers, 500,000 reserves and an arsenal of 120 nuclear weapons. Still, since 11 September 2001, the army has often been ineffectual. Pakistani extremists have killed up to 30,000 Pakistani civilians and 15,000 members of the military. Pakistan is living in the midst of a partially self-created bloodbath of terrorism that is more comparable to Iraq and Nigeria than to India or Bangladesh.
That is one side of the picture. Another, equally true and supported by many, is that, between periods of military rule, Pakistan has generally declined under incompetent and corrupt elected governments whose politicians depend on patronage, bribes and a backward feudal culture to retain their seats in parliament while making sure that true democratic institutions never take root. Bereft of plausible leaders, the political class has for decades failed to articulate a vision for Pakistan; it has been unable to lift the country from its economic morass, wage its own war against Islamic extremism, and convince the military that coups were no longer necessary because civilians can govern effectively. The army, for its part, has frequently undermined elected governments, thereby rendering military coups that much easier.
Today the army may be about to embark on an altogether different and more productive strategy, or so some of its advocates claim. It took virtual charge of the government following the appalling Taliban attack on an army school in Peshawar on 16 December 2014, in which 145 students and teachers were killed, many of them the children of soldiers. Pakistani politicians say that the problem of terrorism was created by the military, which tolerated and in some cases supported the Islamist extremists and their allies, and only the military can crush or control them. That is what it is now promising to do.
Any such effort faces a very complex challenge. First, the army has directly supported a variety of violent groups fighting wars in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Central Asia; it hoped thereby to gain influence in each of those places. There are also dozens of foreign groups who receive no support from the army but have built up safe havens and sanctuaries in Pakistan as a result of the country being unable to police its borders. The extremist groups now hiding in Pakistan come from Iran, India, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, China, Russia, Chechnya and many Arab states. They include al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Uighur ETIM, and the Iranian groups Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl. This list does not include several Baluch separatist groups fighting for a separate homeland in Baluchistan. According to most estimates, between a quarter and a third of Pakistan has been turned into “no-go” areas by these groups.
The top military leaders now say that they have got the message and they promise to control all such organisations. Last year Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif insisted that the Taliban could be appeased by talks. The army chief, General Raheel Sharif (no relation), disagreed. In June the army, frustrated by heavy casualties suffered in fighting with the Pakistani Taliban, forced Prime Minister Sharif to support two major offensives in the North Waziristan and Khyber tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. The army cleared nearly 800,000 civilians from North Waziristan before it began bombing runs. These offensives against the Pakistani Taliban and others have still not had much success, despite having killed 1,500 extremists of different nationalities. The school massacre in Peshawar late last year led General Sharif to demand from the government much greater political support and a more determined pursuit of the war against terrorism. In late December, he presided over a ten-hour meeting with all political parties in which agreement was reached to reinstate the death sentence for terrorism; to amend the constitution to set up military courts for two years to try terrorists; and to strengthen a centralised national security agency, including all military and civilian intelligence agencies.
Military courts are opposed by many Pakistanis because they have in the past led to the imposition of martial law and have been used to intimidate politicians. However, the criminal justice system has broken down and there has been no attempt by the government or the senior judiciary to carry out reforms or modernise either the decrepit state prosecution service or police investigation methods. Judges and lawyers were easily threatened and often killed by terrorists. The military courts will now try some 3,400 suspected terrorists. A “National Action Plan” to defeat terrorism was also agreed at the ten-hour meeting. This includes plans to regulate the 20,000 registered and 40,000 unregistered madrasas, or religious schools, where three million children are enrolled. Many of them teach a jihadist curriculum that the army hopes to moderate. The Islamic parties in parliament—which hold less than 5% of the seats—naturally oppose any such move. So far there is no effective programme to re-educate the tens of thousands of young radicals and provide them with new skills, new programmes of study, and job prospects.
The future of Pakistan hangs in the balance, while its stability remains critical to global security. Two important books sum up what is at stake. Aqil Shah writes in The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan:
The military is at the center of the international community’s three most serious and interlinked concerns about Pakistan: the war-prone conflict with India, the jihadi threat, and the security of its nuclear weapons. The army sustains the ruinous security competition with India, directly or indirectly facilitates Islamic extremism and terrorism by harboring militant groups as a tool of foreign policy, and exclusively controls the country’s nuclear weapons.
Ayesha Jalal, a much-praised historian of Pakistan, takes a long-term view in The Struggle for Pakistan:
The rise of the military to a position of enduring dominance within Pakistan’s state structure is the most salient development in the country’s history and has deeply influenced its subsequent course. … The suppression of democratic rights during extended periods of military rule wreaked havoc on political processes and the delicate weave of Pakistani society. … An overwhelming fear of continued chaos and violence, if not outright disintegration, has made it difficult to arrive at balanced assessments of a disturbing present in order to plan for the future.
The central question is whether the army will seriously confront extremism or continue to play its familiar double game. That game has meant accepting some of the West’s demands to fight terrorism while selectively supporting some militant groups, especially those fighting India. Visiting Islamabad on 13 January, US Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that he wanted concrete reforms and would no longer trust assurances. In the National Action Plan, the army and the government jointly articulated for the first time a common programme against extremism, but the army must first confront and get rid of some of its contradictory policies.
For years the military has followed a policy of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” Taliban—the bad being those who attack the army, while the good include the Afghan Taliban who kill only Americans or fellow Afghans. General Sharif now repeatedly says that all terrorists will be treated alike. Recently, acting like a de facto foreign minister, he has visited London, Washington, Kabul, Beijing and the Arabian Gulf states to deliver the same message. This is the closest the army will come to admitting or apologising for its past policies. No public acknowledgements will be made. The army leaders have also begun a long-overdue process to improve relations with Afghanistan and gain the trust of its new president, Ashraf Ghani. The Pakistani army is loathed by the Afghans for supporting the Afghan Taliban in the past and allowing its leader, Mullah Omar, to remain in Pakistan ever since 11 September. General Sharif claims that he is now looking at ways to set up talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, end the Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan, and so end the war in Afghanistan. In return he wants to eliminate the bases that the Pakistani Taliban have set up in Afghanistan.
China, Pakistan’s closest ally, is secretly and critically involved in these arrangements. It recently welcomed a Taliban delegation in Beijing and urged its members to open talks with President Ghani. It has also got tough with the Pakistani army because hundreds of Chinese Muslims (Uighurs) are fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan and launching attacks in China’s Xinjiang region. However, relations with India remain extremely tense—partly because the right-wing government in New Delhi refuses to talk to Pakistan, but largely because many of the most dangerous enemies of the Indian army are established in the Pakistani province of Punjab, which borders India. According to the Pakistani interior minister, 95 groups in the Punjab—many of them armed and trained in the past by the Pakistani army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—are determined to wage endless jihad against India and retake the disputed territory of Kashmir.
The largest extremist group, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LET), functions like a regular party and its leaders appear on television and organise mass meetings—both would be impossible without the permission of the ISI. Much to Indian and American anger, Pakistan has also been procrastinating over the trial of seven senior LET militants accused of planning the 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 164 people, including six Americans. Another Punjab-based Sunni extremist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has been killing Shias and non-Muslim minorities in Pakistan, yet its leaders are free.
Punjab is the heartland of Pakistan, and the source of 70% of the army’s recruits, but its proximity to India has made it terrorism’s front line. In late January, as President Obama visited Delhi and US pressure to control jihadists increased, Pakistan imposed a ban on the LET. General Sharif’s message is that he will deal with the subversive forces in the Punjab, but one target at a time. Many Pakistanis want to believe him. General Sharif’s biggest task is to ensure the loyalty of the army. Rogue Pakistani soldiers have taken part in numerous attacks by the Pakistani Taliban on military targets. Some serving and some retired members of Pakistan’s military have given valuable secret information to the Pakistani Taliban. Most of the two dozen convicted terrorists who have been hanged in Pakistan so far were former members of the Pakistani military. General Sharif’s claims that he will not compromise are being put to a difficult test and it’s far from certain he can carry them out.
If Pakistan is to emerge from its downward trajectory, it has to confront the awful realities of the past, the wrong course it has taken, and the question of how a decent future can be achieved. The recent killings in Paris and the public executions carried out by ISIS are intensifying global concerns about terrorism. Pakistan ignored similar warnings after 11 September and continued flirting with extremists. It cannot afford to do so again.
This is an edited version of an article in The New York Review of Books, and appears courtesy of the author.