The visit of Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to China and later to Afghanistan towards in July have given rise to speculations about the probable coming together of the two powers to adopt an accommodative approach on various issues including Afghanistan…Though it is difficult to agree completely that the recent exchange of visits between Mullen and his Chinese counterpart Chen Bingden and signing of some of the agreements particularly in the areas of military exchanges and trust building will lead to agreement of both the powers on various issues including issues in Asia-Pacific, one thing can be assumed safely that both the powers have recently expressed mutual interests to develop relations with implications for the wider world. While Mullen argued that “there are crucial areas where our interests coincide, on which we must work together,” Bingden expressed satisfaction that the relations are moving smoothly and he is enthusiastic about prospects of bilateral cooperation.
Writing about his China visit in New York Times on 26 July 2011, Mullen mentioned various areas of joint cooperation including terrorism, piracy, weapons of mass destruction, Asia-Pacific and so on. He also emphasized the need for bilateral cooperation in issues like Pakistan and North Korea. To quote Mullen, “we both want stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Pakistan.” Alluding to the urgency of China’s cooperation adds significance to the US’ Af-Pak strategy. The US has stipulated 2014 as the year for final departure, with drawdown of forces starting in the last July. Despite its heavy investment, both in terms of men and money, the US has not been successful (the increasing Taliban attacks further dent the presence of international security assistance force). Does the US aims at enticing China to join its strategy in Afghanistan towards sharing the burden of security in the war-torn country? At present, things have not emerged clearly as the Chinese establishment has appeared reticent to elaborate official position on Afghanistan. The US has traditionally adopted a reluctant approach towards the involvement of other interested powers like Russia and China in the region.
Perhaps Mullen’s statement reflects a change of US strategy in Afghanistan. It may be possible that the compulsions of the circumstances motivate the US to take a further nuanced approach towards the Afghan issue. Afghanistan undoubtedly is not a peaceful place after the presence of the foreign forces for a decade. The Taliban organization has emerged stronger. With this scenario is added another interesting picture emerging in recent days. The areas which the foreign forces are ceding to the control of indigenous Afghan forces have witnessed increasing attacks by the Taliban. For instance, the southern Afghan city of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, handed over to Afghan forces on 20 July 2011, witnessed suicide attack near a police training centre on 31 July 2011, killing about twelve people. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Last month alone, the Taliban succeeded in killing the powerful half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and mayor of Kandahar. While visiting various bases in Afghanistan recently, Mullen admitted the difficult task of tackling the Taliban and the Haqqani network, a major patron and supporter of the Taliban. The network, like the Taliban, has strong bases in the border areas of Afghanistan-Pakistan. While arguing that ‘the Pakistan leadership understands that (the issue of tackling radicalism and terrorism),’ Mullen might have taken into account the recent deterioration in US-Pak relations.
The fact remains that after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the relations between US and Pakistan have gone down. The measures like postponement of the US aid, Pakistan’s actions like ordering US and UK officials to leave the country, etc. have further deteriorated the relations. In one of his recent interviews to BBC, the Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raja Gilani emphasized that US-Pak relations should not be linked with China-Pak relations. However, there is an increasing despondency on part of the Pak establishment towards the US as an all weather friend, and a significant section in the Pak establishment favour a strong China-Pak relations. In this background, it will be interesting to see how the US endeavours to develop collaboration with China in the context of Afghanistan pan out. China has adopted a kind of wait and watch policy. It has perhaps not equally matched Pakistan’s enthusiasm in this context. Though after the Abbotabad operation which killed Osama in last May, China came forward vigorously to support Pak contention against infringement of its integrity and sovereignty, the aftermath did witness any sustainability of the same policy. While China may have strong interests in Afghanistan, it may prefer an approach in which a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and friendly Pakistan may be more suitable to its interest than a volatile war-torn country.
There is another crucial factor that determines China-Pak relations. It is terrorism. China criticized Pak based terrorist groups for orchestrating attacks in Kashgar of Xinjiang province, killing at least twenty people. The Chinese official news agency China Daily on the 3rd of August blamed the terrorist attack “on a group of religious extremists led by militants who are part of the ‘East Turkistan Islamic Movement’and were trained in Pakistan.” The Pakistan daily Dawn brought the seriousness of the charge and could visualize the prospects of damage in bilateral relations the alleged links could bring. Its editorial wrote on 3 August 2011 wrote, “The news from Xinjiang is not good for Pakistan, as China, our closest ally, has claimed extremists trained here are responsible for two deadly attacks in the restive region.” The Chief of Pakistan intelligence agency ISI, Let. Gen. Shuja Pasha visited Beijing on the first of August to deliberate on various issues. While some analysts perceive it as a call from Beijing to express Chinese concerns at such links in stronger terms, some others argue that it is an exercise to further strengthen bilateral relations. Whatever may be the exact motive behind the visit, the official finger pointing of China at Pakistan in the context of recent attacks in Xinjiang may impact the bilateral relations with bearings on the politics of the Af-Pak region.
While terrorism may be a crucial issue in the whole South Asian region of which Af-Pak region is a part, the developments in Afghanistan and the equations between various powers in the context of Af-Pak will impact the politics of the region. With passing days, the Taliban as a dreaded organization is appearing to revive its old vehemence, while terror networks like Haqqani thriving in full force and other terrorist organizations and their supply lines remaining intact in the region, the tasks of the powers involved in the game of peace and security will be determinedly difficult. The end result may be: Afghanistan will be a scapegoat and returning to its old days of instability and chaos while other countries involved in the tangle will be squabbling for power and control. How the international players will play their cards in this one of the most crucial conflicts will determine the future course of peace and security in the Af-Pak region.
Source: Strategic Culture Foundation