Op-ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Sept. 26 – As the United States continues its preparations to exit Afghanistan, comments made by ex-U.S. forces suggest that an alternative power may have to step into their shoes. Stating recent attacks made by the mafia-styled Haqqani family, Marc Sageman, an ex-CIA officer who served in Pakistan has been quoted in the press as saying “Whoever is in power in Afghanistan will have to make a deal with the Haqqani’s. It won’t be us, we’re leaving and they know it.”
That China and Pakistan enjoy strong diplomatic and economic relations is well known, as are the certainties of a U.S. pullout. But Pakistan, facing a choice between being overrun by Taliban, giving up Afghanistan to India, or pulling in the Chinese, may only have the one viable option – major Chinese involvement, whether China likes it or not. It may also suit a war-weary United States to sit back and watch developments, including whether China can step up to the plate as a global citizen and maintainer of peace.
That China may well have to do so appears increasingly likely. Recent bombings in Kashgar and Khotan in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region seem to have been orchestrated by Islamic militants that received training in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a development that has sprung seven visits by Pakistan’s military chiefs to Xinjiang this year alone as they try and assure Beijing that they have the situation under control. With militants long coveting Xinjiang as part of a pan-Islamic state, China may find itself dragged into a conflict it does not want in order to protect its homeland, just like the United States has tried.
Pakistani Asif Al Zadari was in Urumqi just last month to attend the Xinjiang Expo, where a heavy Chinese SWAT style team was said to have uncovered several terrorist plots, including apprehending a passenger armed with a knife attempting to board a domestic flight from Urumqi. Following the Uyghur-Chinese disturbances in Urumqi in 2009, Zardari endorsed China’s policies in Xinjiang. On that occasion, , Muslim Uighurs had rioted against Han Chinese residents in Urumqi, killing at least 197 people, most of them Han, although Islamic institutions suggest that Muslim fatalities were far higher than stated by official media. Just that statement alone will have inflamed passions among Muslim fanatics, who want to see the Han Chinese leave Xinjiang.
The options for China are limited. With no U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan may not have the resources or political will to deal with Islamic insurgents also intent on securing access to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Intent was shown two years ago when the Taliban invaded the Swat Valley and progressed to less than 200 kilometers away from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. That Beijing was concerned about that development is understating it. Islamabad has regular direct flights to Urumqi and Beijing, and any increase in militancy towards China’s presence in Xinjiang could turn very nasty, very quickly.
As U.S.-Pakistan relations continue to deteriorate, the increased involvement of India, which enjoys booming U.S. relations, within Afghan politics will also alarm both Pakistan and China. India already has a significant military presence in Kashmir, which at one side is right up against Pakistan’s border, and to the east, with China. India has long claimed territories held by both as its own, and gaining military influence in Afghanistan suits its objectives to place both Pakistan and China under pressure on these borders.
Pakistan is almost certain to rely on China for weapons and military support to deal with both its internal instability and the threat of a resurgent Indian presence on their doorstep.
Such a scenario will also involve Iran, as the regime has funded much of the Afghan insurgencies against the United States. China enjoys good relations with Tehran, Pakistan less so as it is aware that the Iranians would dearly like to be more involved with controlling large parts of its territory.
Squeezed out of the equation Pakistan may well be, and it seems likely that Sino-Iranian deals will start to become much more in favor of Tehran’s bilateral trade with China as a result, as Iran twists the key to obtain concessions from China in return for ceasing to arm militants. Only time will tell if an Iran-Pak-China military triumvirate will succeed where the United States has left an inheritance. Afghanistan could become more stable if Iran ceases its involvement, but this could be ruptured if intent towards Pakistani territory becomes apparent. This is, after all, a country that fought a seven year war with Iraq.
But should violence in Xinjiang start to increase, such support may well lead to a short cut into direct Chinese military involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Chinese won’t like it. But with the United States watching from the wings, it may now only be a short time before China has to step up, get into Afghanistan, and see what it really means to limit Islamic insurgents on its own borders.