By Baheen Sultan Ahmad
As a global and regional power, China has played a prominent role in political developments in Afghanistan, particularly in terms of its relations with Islamabad. The holding of the second Afghan-China-Pakistan foreign ministers’ meeting in Kabul in mid-December is encouraging news for the Afghans in the harsh cold winter at the year-end.
The meeting focused on building trust and discussing the process of reconciliation in Afghanistan, security challenges and counter terrorism in the region. The question that needs to be answered is whether China as a global power and regional influencer will be able to improve frosty Kabul-Islamabad ties and build trust between the two countries.
Considering the Beijing-Islamabad relationship, we would discuss the role of China in improving Afghan-Pakistan relations on the issue of counter terrorism, and the reconciliation process within the Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral ministerial dialogue.
Mistrust in Kabul-Islamabad relations, which dated back to the establishment of Pakistan, is one of the main factors behind the lack of cooperation in the fight against terrorism and reconciliation in Afghanistan as well.
Afghanistan did not recognize Pakistani independence and voted against it in the United Nations. After 2005, the Taliban reemerged and waged a furious insurgency, launching suicide attacks against military and civilian targets in Afghanistan by using tribal area as safe haven, and setting up recruitment and training centers around the Durand Line that divides the two countries. It’s a common belief in Afghanistan that the Taliban receives support from Pakistani establishments and the leader of the group lives in cities like Quetta and Peshawar.
Considering China a good friend and neighbor and strategic partner and taking into account the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan, Afghanistan has been requesting Beijing to bridge relations and help increase trust between Kabul and Islamabad.
In 2010, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai called on China to help improve Kabul-Islamabad relations. This request led to tripartite meetings, and so far such talks have been held three times at the level of department heads, twice at the deputy foreign minister level, and last year for the first time at the foreign minister level, hosted by China. The second round of trilateral meeting focused on how to overcome the so-called trust deficit, as the Pakistani foreign minister called it.
17 years of presence of international forces has not only been unable to end the violent conflict, but has resulted in a rise in Afghan casualties in the last four years. In the last few years, 28,000 members of security forces had been killed and every year the number of civilian deaths is becoming larger. More than 8,000 have been killed this year.
The fact that war is not a solution and reconciliation is the only way to put an end to the Afghan conflict has not been lost on any one. But many Afghans believe that it is the Pakistani military establishment which uses the Taliban as a tool of foreign policy and provides extensive support to the group that kills innocent people. Therefore, Pakistan can play a crucial role in the improvement in the situation in Afghanistan.
China, as an all-weather partner of Pakistan, and as a good and strategic partner of Afghanistan, can help build trust, encouraging Pakistan to cooperate more in the fight against terrorism and pushing the Taliban to join the reconciliation process in Afghanistan. A Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) consisting of China, the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan is one of the important steps in the process.
With a new momentum in the Afghan peace process over the past few years, the complexity and competition between regional and global powers has also increased, and each nation is trying to establish contact with the Taliban and be part of the Afghan peace process. The creation of various parallel mechanisms, such as Moscow Format, the Tashkent Summit, EU efforts and the 6 + 1 mechanism, are among the main efforts to realize reconciliation in Afghanistan. Furthermore any attempt to legitimize the Taliban and give it the status of a state is one of the main concerns of the Kabul government that is not helping the process as an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” one.
The recent tripartite meeting once again supported the Afghan leadership and Afghan government, which are not subject to any preconditions, and mentioned the QGC as an important mechanism for bringing peace to the violence-ravaged country. But how can we overcome the “trust deficit” between Kabul and Islamabad?
The process over the past eight years has had a positive impact .Trust and expectation among Afghans is a factor in the success of the process. What was achieved at the meeting, if implemented, is an important step. But suspicion remains in Kabul, as Afghan Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani said, “The near future, in weeks or months,” will show what Pakistan will do to decrease violence in our country.
People of both countries want to see changes in their life. A project that brings changes and interdependence between the two countries is an effective way of building trust. Both are China’s friends and have signed on jointly participating in projects under the Belt and Road initiative which could help the countries reconcile and gradually become partners.
The author is former Afghan ambassador to China.
Originally Posted in Global Times