Friday 19 April 2013

India, China moving closer on Kabul (PO)

M D Nalapat

Friday, April 19, 2013 - Since the late 1970s,China backed the US in its efforts at weakening Moscow, providing assistance that was very useful in ensuring that the Soviet leadership was constantly kept off balance. The Afghanistan theatre was important in such efforts, with China joining hands with the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in backing the insurgency against Moscow-backed governments in Kabul. Rivals of the USSR rejoiced at the decision by Mikhail Gorbachev to (a) continue the earlier policy of avoiding taking the war into Pakistan territory, the way the US is now and (b) hurriedly withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan in line with his policy of passive non-violent non-resistance to anti-Soviet activities. The defeat in Afghanistan provided the first clear indication that the USSR under Gorbachev had lost the will to resist its enemies, and was on the way to downfall.

During the 1990s,when President Clinton implemented his policy of assisting the Taliban to come to power in Kabul, much help was given by Beijing - usually through Pakistan - to ensure such an outcome. The Taliban was from the start backed by the same constellation of countries that had been active in the anti-Soviet armed struggle in Afghanistan earlier, although Beijing and Washington did not join the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in recognizing the Taliban government in Kabul which took office in 1996. Clinton was wise in camouflaging his support to the group, as later on, after 9/11,he was able to escape all responsibility for the growth of the Taliban, placing the blame entirely at the door of Islamabad.

However,the fact that Benazir Bhutto, under whom the Taliban was given massive assistance, remained a favourite of Washington showed that her policy of backing the militia had not only the concurrence of the US, but was in response to a command from Washington. In the US, several corporate groups saw in the Taliban a pathway towards using Afghanistan as a gateway to Central Asia, especially in the matter of oil and gas pipelines. Indeed, several key policymakers in both the Clinton and Bush administrations were employees of Unocal, an oil giant with substantial influence among policy-makers in the world’s largest economy and self-declared “leader of the free world”

Amid all the bustle, Beijing stood by its word to Washington that it would remain a reliable ally against the USSR, including support to the Taliban. Oddly, for a country that at that time was still under the shadow of the Kemalist (and therefore resolutely secular) Turkish military, Ankara too backed the Taliban. It could be argued that the Turkish military’s support to the NATO policy of backing for Wahabi elements worldwide may have diluted its capacity to resist the (ultimately successful) efforts of the “Wahabi Lite” Erdogan regime to push the men in uniform into a tight box, with many top generals in jail or in the courts. Since Erdogan’s triumph in reversing the policies of Kemal Ataturk, Ankara has joined with Doha in joining the Wahabi coalition, most recently in the Syrian theatre, where both are battling to ensure that the Shia dynasty of the Assads gets replaced with a governance structure that, as in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, is Wahabbi-controlled. Since 2011 in particular, the Wahabis have made significant gains in geopolitical terms within West Asia, although by now, their ascent has led to disquiet in capitals such as Washington and Berlin, if not as yet London and Paris. In a changed context of seeing the growth of Wahabism and its armed manifestations as security threats rather than opportunities, Beijing may be reconsidering its policies towards Afghanistan. While Islamabad has reverted to the pre-9/11 policy of wholehearted backing for the Taliban in Afghanistan, seeking to secure for them the dominant role in any post-2014 government in Kabul, this time around Beijing is no longer cheering the militia on. Problems in Xinjiang and a sharp increase in radical sentiments even within Han communities such as the Hui have led to the pressing of the “pause” button on the question of resuming assistance to the Taliban.

This has brought Beijing closer to Delhi, to whom the Taliban continues to be anathema. Should India and China work together in Afghanistan to help block extremists from coming to power, the two countries would prove decisive in enabling Afghan moderates to win back the space that they have lost since 2005,the year when NATO began to revert to the pre-9/11 policy of backing for elements ideologically aligned to the Taliban. Discussions are due between the military and security establishments of India and China, and the question of a policy towards Afghanistan will be high up on the priority list. Should Beijing join hands with Delhi in seeking to promote the interests of Afghan moderates at the expense of the extremists, that could be a game changer not only for Afghanistan but for Sino-Indian relations.

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