Asian solution for Afghan drama
THE graveyard of empires is about to bury one more. This time, it seems like it is going to be the American empire.
Preceded by the Soviet empire which met its demise in 1989, it took the mighty American empire two whole decades to go under. The British empire had met the inevitable in Afghanistan long before the sun had finally set on it.
Who is going to be the next victim? The resurgent Taliban, following mountain tracks on the Afghan side, could soon reach, the Wakhan corridor leading to Xinjiang in China, presumably an empire in the making.
Meanwhile, some well- informed observers see the American ‘retreat’ as a kind of ‘repositioning’ to create conditions for its current challenger, China to walk into the graveyard to try its fortune as most empires and empires in the making try to do if properly goaded.
At least 650 “US forces” will be protecting the US embassy in Kabul. Add to that possibly 500 Turkish troops – which means NATO – to protect the airport, plus an undeclared number of “contractors,” mercenaries actually, and an unspecified number of special forces.
These assets are expected to be “supported” by a new, special Afghan office in Qatar with powers to bomb Afghanistan whenever the US feels like it.
Those who know how the Americans work refuse to accept that they were there in Afghanistan all these two decades to defeat the Taliban or fight for “the freedom of the Afghan people.” The key motives, in their opinion were to keep a crucial, strategic forward base in the underbelly of “existential threats” from China, Russia, an N-ambitious Iran and a nuclear Pakistan; to be conveniently positioned to later exploit Afghanistan’s enormous mineral wealth; and to process opium into heroin to fund CIA ops.
According to Pepe Escobar (A Saigon moment in the Hindu Kush, published in Asia Times dated July 7, 2021)Beijing, said to be in close contact with the Taliban since early 2020, essentially wants to extend the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – one of the Belt and Road Initiative flagship projects – to Afghanistan.
“The first, crucial step will be the construction of the Kabul-Peshawar motorway – through the Khyber Pass and the current border at Torkham. That will mean Afghanistan de facto becoming part of CPEC.
“It’s all about regional integration at work. Kabul-Peshawar will be one extra CPEC node that already includes the construction of the ultra-strategic Tashkurgan airport on the Karakoram highway in Xinjiang, only 50 kilometres away from the Pakistani border and also close to Afghanistan, as well as to Gwadar port in Balochistan.
“In early June, a trilateral China-Afghanistan-Pakistan meeting led the Chinese Foreign Ministry to unmistakably bet on the “peaceful recovery of Afghanistan,” with the joint statement welcoming “the early return of the Taliban to the political life of Afghanistan” and a pledge to “expand economic and trade ties.”
These circles believe that Taliban will not refuse the Chinese drive to build infrastructure and energy projects geared towards regional economic integration – their side of the bargain being to keep the country pacified and not subject to jihadi turbulence of the ISIS-Khorasan variety capable of spilling over to Xinjiang.
The Chinese gameplay is said to be clear: The Americans should not be able to exert influence over the new Kabul arrangement.
It’s all about the strategic Afghan importance for Belt and Road – and that is intertwined with discussions inside the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which for years has advocated for an “Asian solution” for the Afghan drama.
The discussions inside the SCO regard the NATO projection of the new Afghanistan as a jihadi paradise controlled by Islamabad as not more than wishful thinking nonsense.
According to Salman Rafi Sheikh (The terror group China fears the most published in Asia Times dated July 6, 2021) China fears the most is a revival of the fundamentalist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and its cross-border agitation and terrorism in China’s volatile Xinjiang region.
“The ETIM, also known as the Turkistan Islamic Movement, is an ethnic Uighur militant group active in Afghanistan that has long sought to achieve independence for Xinjiang, which it envisions as a future “East Turkestan.”
“Curiously, the former Donald Trump administration removed ETIM from America’s terror list in November 2020, saying at the time there was “no credible evidence” that ETIM still exists.
“For Beijing, however, the concern is not merely the spread of radical ideas among Uighur Muslims in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Rather, it is the threat a resurgence of extremism could pose to its strategic Belt and Road Initiative in the region, not least in Pakistan.”
Four of China’s six so-called Silk Road networks, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), emanate from or pass through Xinjiang.
Those roads aim to connect China with Russia, Central, Southern and Western Asia, reaching the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite the Trump administration’s denials, a recent United Nations Security Council report confirmed that ETIM not only exists and operates in Afghanistan but is also pursuing a “transnational agenda.”
According to the report, ETIM is among the “foremost” foreign terror groups operating in Afghanistan.
The report says ETIM is situated mainly in Badakhshan, Kunduz and Takhar provinces and that Abdul Haq (Memet Amin Memet) remains the group’s leader.
The UN report says ETIM collaborates with Lashkar-i-Islam and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, two banned Pakistani militant groups.
It also said ETIM “has a transnational agenda to target Xinjiang, China, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as well as Chitral, Pakistan, which poses a threat to China, Pakistan and other regional States.”
While it has offered Kabul to train and advise its security forces, with reports in the Chinese media even indicating a possible deployment of Chinese forces in Afghanistan to prevent ETIM fighters from using the Wakhan corridor in Badakhshan province to cross unchecked into Xinjiang, it has also offered Taliban “development” in exchange for peace.
Growing indications that Turkey – home to a sizable Uighur population including thousands who have fled persecution in Xinjiang – may play a direct military and diplomatic role in Afghanistan after America’s withdrawal also raises risks for China.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.