The Chinese recipe for Afghan peace


Regional powers finally chipping in to sort the mess?


Troubled with conflict and war for the past 34 years, Afghanistan is set to brace another peace dialogue effort as the international community is making another quiet effort to engage the Taliban leadership into the peace discourse. But this time around the new effort is being spearheaded by China and is being backed by the US, Pakistan, India, Iran and other countries of the P5+1 group.

The previous attempt for peace was a Qatar-based initiative led by the US and assisted by Pakistan, which failed to broker peace with Taliban insurgents because it was sabotaged by the shrewd Hamid Karzai, the former Afghan president.

However, after removal of Karzai from the political scene, this time around Beijing and Islamabad are jointly peddling another quiet dialogue effort, far away from media focus, with blessings of the United States. The new Afghan president, Dr Ashraf Ghani, is also supporting the peace dialogue. This initiative also has support from India, Iran and other regional and global powers.

If all parties are ready to play a role, China is willing to provide a platform for the reconciliation process – a long-term demand by the Afghan Taliban for negotiations. The new initiative would be replacing Taliban’s Qatar office, which had to be closed after Hamid Karzai’s government voiced concerns in public to torpedo the dialogue process.

In this regard, China’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Mr Sun Yuxi, has met with Afghan Taliban negotiators more than once in Peshawar – thanks to the Pakistani establishment which is playing a key role in the talks. Moreover, China wants to give due role to the Afghan government in talks.

Since economic development and peace are interlinked and interconnected, the security situation in Afghanistan would improve significantly once the formal dialogue process starts. For the time being, Taliban are the major fighting force in Afghanistan and they represent more than 60 percent of the Pashtun population. Hence, their return to the dialogue table would strengthen peace in the war ravaged country.

As quid pro quo for laying down arms, the Afghan, Pakistani and Chinese governments have apparently assured the Taliban of participation in government, even without elections

Officials in Islamabad and Beijing look optimistic about a positive breakthrough despite the history of failed dialogues. However, it seems that the fast changes taking place in the South Asia region and around the globe have pushed the otherwise stubborn Taliban leadership to rethink and revise their strategy.

“China has also made a very attractive offer to the Taliban – we don’t send guns and bullets to our friendly neighbours. Even if turbulence continued, China will never send a single combat troop to Afghanistan as we believe in respecting the sovereignty of our friendly states. Rather, wherever we go, we take development as we believe in sharing the fruits of development. We are working with the Taliban to help them return to the political process and these efforts have been positive. So we have assured the Taliban leadership that we will bring development and prosperity to Afghanistan,” China’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Mr Sun Yuxi, made this startling revelation while talking to Pakistan Today in a recent interaction in Beijing.

“Yes, we are engaging the Afghan Taliban to help bring peace and normalcy in the war-torn country. I have personally held meetings with the Taliban in Peshawar,” he maintained.

This is an offer very close to the hearts and minds of the Afghans, and so is the case with the Taliban fighters who must be sick of decades-old fighting against world’s two super powers – the Soviet Union and the US.

As quid pro quo for laying down arms, the Afghan, Pakistani and Chinese governments have apparently assured the Taliban of participation in government, even without elections.

“Chinese government plans to allocate a huge budget for development in Afghanistan. China is ready to send its investors to Afghanistan and the number of investors may cross the magical digit of 100,000,” he added.

The Chinese government believes that not only US and Pakistan but India also has to play its role for bringing peace in Afghanistan. He said that the Chinese government believed that Pakistan, India, Iran and the members of the P5+1 group must be given their due role in solving Afghanistan crisis.

Asked whether following the US withdrawal, Afghanistan may again plunge into civil war and Taliban may be marching toward Kabul, Mr Sun Yuxi looked optimistic about the prospects of peace, expressing the hope that it would not happen this time around.

He said that all partners are making serious efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan and based on their interactions with the Taliban and the Afghanistan government, one may hope that a new history would be made soon.

“No big country has any conflict over peace in Afghanistan. After US withdrawal, Afghanistan would not plunge into war like Iraq. For Taliban, they should work with the new Afghan government for peace,” he added.

He said that the US withdrawal plan from Afghanistan was flexible and the US may extend its pullout if turbulence continued in the war ravaged country. He said China was ready to impart training to Afghan forces to help maintain peace and the development plan would follow soon.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is yet to form a formal panel for holding talks with the Taliban. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, had formed the Afghan High Peace Council to hold dialogue with the Taliban. However, this forum failed to deliver after successive attempts as the Taliban did not respond. Even High Peace Council head, former Afghan President Dr Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated in a terrorist act on September 20, 2011, along with four associates who also were also members of the council.

Rabbani himself was a former freedom fighter hailed as a hero for playing a key role in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. His Jamiat-e-Islami were the first Mujahideen fighters to enter Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal in 1992.

Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the dialogue table is crucial but even Pakistan cant force them and only a practical and workable formula can work. What Pakistan can do is encourage the Taliban for peace talks

With the departure of Karzai from presidency, the Afghan High Peace Council is no more functional. So Mr Ghani would have to unveil his team for dialogue sooner rather than later. The trust gap between the Afghan Taliban, Karzai government and the US was a major hurdle in the way of the peace process.

Another major problem in dialogue has partially been crossed by the international community as the Taliban wanted a definite timeframe for US withdrawal. After the announcement of President Obama’s pullout plan by 2016, the Taliban leadership must be relieved as one of their demands has already been met.

However, the US administration would keep their exit plan flexible as the regional players want the US to stay till the peace process makes a breakthrough. They think that once the US pulls out its troops, it would be difficult for the Afghan army to control Taliban fighters.

Here comes role of the Chinese government to help Afghanistan stabilise economically as 40 years of conflict and war have greatly damaged its infrastructure, its economy and development process. There is no opposition in Afghanistan to China’s role for peace talks and the leaders of Afghan Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami respect the Chinese government.

Pakistan’s role in bringing the Taliban to the dialogue table is crucial but even Pakistan cant force them and only a practical and workable formula can work. What Pakistan can do is encourage the Taliban for peace talks.

Afghanistan government would have to bridge the trust deficit with the Taliban as well. However, one must understand that instability and conflict would further harm the entire region including Pakistan and China.

The dreams of development in Pakistan and the expansion of trade of China to central Asian states would not materialise until peace is brought to Afghanistan. Once Afghanistan is stabilised, China can use China-Pakistan-Afghanistan rout to get its trade to the entire world in the shortest time and with minimal expense.