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Time for a New Bloc

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Zakeria Hashimi—AFP

Will China, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan find common ground in opposition to the U.S.-led Quad?

There is growing unease in Afghanistan’s neighboring states as the Taliban continue to sweep through the war-torn nation, advancing from a “peripheral” strategy of targeting outlying districts to challenging big urban centers. After months on the back foot, the Afghan National Army has finally decided to avail U.S.-supplied air power against the insurgents, but the indiscriminate airstrikes risk damaging innocent lives and infrastructure alongside the militants, prompting Afghans with the means to look toward fleeing the country, even as neighboring states mull over steps intended to boost security.

Pakistan—despite earlier claims by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi of a new, “enlightened” Taliban—is also having to revisit policy decisions as the insurgents continue to expand their control. Last week, the Taliban closed the Pak-Afghan border crossing at Chaman, demanding an end to visa requirements and “free movement” for all Afghans, a blatant violation of Islamabad’s much-vaunted border fencing operation. This has all played out as Kabul continues to accuse Pakistan of funding and facilitating the Taliban in their bid to oust the elected government of Afghanistan.

There can be no doubt of Pakistan having to live down its historical role in Afghanistan. It is no secret that Afghan warlords were based in the erstwhile tribal areas, from which they staged attacks across the Durand Line. These same warlords eventually weakened Pakistan’s own internal sovereignty by empowering the Pakistani Taliban. The incumbent government of Pakistan, however, claims it has no “favorites” in Afghanistan, stressing that its wire-fencing operations are intended to curb illegal cross-border movement and ensure that its soil is not used against any other country. A recent surge in attacks from across the border, claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, has already exposed the deficiencies of this policy.

Looking to CPEC

Both Pakistan and China are rightly worried by the potential impact of the Taliban on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Once intended to include Afghanistan as part of a larger trading bloc, Pakistan has made no bones about seeing the project as essential for its economic survival—even as China’s investment into related projects in Iran has hit $400 billion against the $62 billion invested here. Sensing the wariness, the Afghan Taliban have claimed they would not interfere in CPEC, which no one believes. Central Asian states fear an ethnic-cleansing of non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan’s north: Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. There is also little confidence in the Taliban talking peace, as is obvious from the Central Asian Republics asking Russia to aid them against extremists in their states. Key to all concerns is the question: will the new Taliban government be different from the one led by Mullah Umar?

Under Mullah Umar, the most influential Taliban leaders were Abdul Ghani Baradar, Akhtar Mansur, Muhammad Rasul and Hibatullah Akhundzada, who is the current leader. The prevailing fear is that the “new” Taliban will harken back to Umar’s rule, boosting their numbers with Arabs of the Gulf through Al Qaeda and Daesh, and lashing out all “undesirable” residents.

Tehran, especially, is concerned about the Taliban targeting Shia Hazara and is looking to fortify its border with Afghanistan. Turkey, too, is worried about the Turkic tribes of northern Afghanistan and has announced a limited troop presence in Afghanistan even after the exit of NATO forces. India, as a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation of which Afghanistan is also a member, also looms large, with Pakistan repeatedly alleging it has “financed acts of terrorism” across the Durand Line and urging Kabul to ensure this practice comes to a halt.

China, Iran, and the Taliban

Economic powerhouse China is undoubtedly a major player, and appears to have reached some kind of agreement with the Taliban during a visit of its senior leadership to Beijing. The widely publicized meeting saw the Taliban pledging peace—if that has any value—and vowing to not allow any separatists (Uighurs) from establishing bases on Afghan soil. The Taliban also see advantage in China’s Belt and Road project, as well as profit from the world’s second-largest copper deposit, which Beijing bought the rights to develop for $400 million against potential earnings of $1 trillion.

Professor Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran recently summed up Iran’s roadmap for 2021: “Iran’s foreign policy decisions are pretty clear. Iran will be putting less emphasis on Western nations, especially European, and more emphasis on the Global South, the East, the neighboring countries—and of course that will include China and Russia.”

Tehran has already accepted the Taliban as an “alternative” to the current Kabul government, echoing the actions of the Americans and the Chinese. Last month, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif hosted Taliban chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanakzai after “the failure of the U.S. in Afghanistan” and voiced concern over the restive situation. Like Pakistan, Iran also hosts nearly 3 million Afghan refugees, and is worried about a new influx if the Taliban target the Hazara Shia community of Afghanistan.

Imitative reflex

At the time of Partition in 1947, Pakistan inherited a largely centralized state from the British Raj; by contrast next-door Afghanistan remained “uncentralized” and couldn’t be called a normal state. It also had a porous border and lacked infrastructure. Pakistan’s blinkered focus on India to the east likewise left it exposed to terrorism and unrest, forcing it to implement a National Action Plan “to crack down on terrorism” and restore state’s authority.

Pakistan, at nearly 75, is on the path to a “normal” state, but still has some road to travel. Its decision to mainstream the erstwhile tribal areas was long-overdue, as earlier the various tribal agencies were left to the mercy of warlords who spread terror with impunity. Despite the mainstreaming, some parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa remain restive; Balochistan is likewise without a proper writ of the state despite CPEC’s development of the Gwadar Port, whose electricity is still supplied by Iran and drinking water by Chinese “guests.”

Anti-China Quad

The uppermost reflex in the U.S. is that of withdrawal, but President Joe Biden is also focused on China’s advance in the region: Beijing is now the largest trading partner of Arab states in the Gulf and the largest infrastructure investor in Iran and Pakistan. In response, Biden created the Quad, comprising the U.S., Australia, India and Japan, to counter Chinese dominance of the Asia Pacific region, leaving out Russia against India’s wishes, and ensuring Central Asia Republics’ facilitation of the Belt and Road Initiative. Afghanistan is difficult to guide in any positive direction because of a lack of internal sovereignty, per the U.S., which is also partially the problem with Pakistan.

This polarization is likely to impact Afghanistan the most in the immediate term. The burgeoning U.S.-China competition will likely center on the dysfunctional Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran trio next, with Pakistan, as the most Western-oriented country, set to suffer at that stage. In the past, American Democrats tended to dislike Pakistan’s “dictatorships,” but the Republicans overlooked them due to anti-Soviet “Cold War realities.” Today, both parties are converging on the new Cold War against China. And Pakistan is on the wrong side.

If Pakistan feels the discomfort of being cut off from the West, the non-Pashtun communities of Afghanistan will face the anger of the Pashtun Taliban returned to power. China will not be able to prevent the re-invigorated Taliban from persecuting the minorities in Afghanistan. Pakistan under its revamped educational system will travel away from Western orientation, the use of English language declining further. The only hope is economic: that the inauguration, by China, of an international trade route through Pakistan will dilute the latter’s obsession with ideology and compel it to pay attention to the welfare of its population.

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