Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, attends a peace and security cooperation conference in Kabul on June 6, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Omar Sobhani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, attends a peace and security cooperation conference in Kabul on June 6, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Omar Sobhani

China has offered to mediate between Afghanistan and Pakistan to defuse spiraling tensions between the two countries. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to visit Kabul and Islamabad soon, where he will discuss ways to improve Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.

The Chinese offer comes amid a sharp deterioration in Afghan-Pakistani relations. It also comes ahead of a likely expansion of US troop deployment in Afghanistan.

Surging violence

On May 31, a truck bomb went off in Kabul’s diplomatic district, killing more than 150 people and injuring 400 others. Three days later, suicide bombers attacked the funeral of the son of a Jamiat-e-Islami Afghanistan leader; 15 people were killed.

The Afghan government blamed the two attacks on the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-linked group with close ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. At an international peace conference in Kabul on June 6, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani did not mince his words; he accused Pakistan of instigating an “undeclared war of aggression” against Afghanistan.

While accusations and counter-accusations are a routine part of the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship, the recent war of words is worrying as it comes amid a dangerous escalation in bilateral tensions. Border clashes in May that have been described as “warlike” claimed the lives of scores of Afghan and Pakistani soldiers.

In addition, Ghani’s government is in serious trouble. Its public credibility has dipped to an all-time low, especially after the May 31 attack, which underscored Ghani’s inability to provide security even in the capital. His government is badly divided and is under serious pressure from the Jamiat, which has intensified efforts to topple his regime. It is demanding the dismissal of all the security chiefs.

It is in the context of the multiple crises gripping Afghanistan and Afghan-Pakistani relations that China’s recent offer to mediate between Kabul and Islamabad must be seen.

China’s concerns

An unstable Afghanistan undermines China’s Belt and Road Initiative and threatens Chinese investment in Afghanistan. It has the potential to inflame the situation in China’s restive Xinjiang region too. Stabilizing Afghanistan requires Pakistan’s support for peace talks and a negotiated settlement to the Afghan conflict. This will not be possible so long as Afghanistan and Pakistan are at loggerheads with each other. It is with this in mind that Beijing has offered to defuse tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.

While this is the first time that China has offered to facilitate talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Beijing, which has generally maintained a low profile in Afghanistan, has been attempting to broker a peace settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban since 2014.

Within weeks of his assuming the presidency in September 2014, Ghani reached out to China and Pakistan in the hope that they would help bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Since then China has engaged the Taliban in talks, even hosting Taliban representatives in Beijing at least a couple of times.

China’s advantages

Unlike the other big powers, China has never intervened militarily in the Afghan conflict and thus carries no negative baggage from the past. It also enjoys the confidence of the Pakistani and Afghan governments to varying degrees.

Importantly, it is Pakistan’s closest ally and perhaps the only country in the world that could persuade Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. China is also in a position to offer the conflict parties the incentive of economic development of the region to lure them away from armed conflict.

Unfortunately, China has not put the requisite pressure on Pakistan to end its support of violent activities by the Taliban and their allies. Of course, Pakistan and the Taliban may not want to lose their battlefield advantages before concrete talks begin or a deal is struck. Still, China should press Pakistan to desist from attacks on civilians at least.

This reluctance on the part of China to persuade Pakistan to halt backing terror attacks in Afghanistan is likely to stand in the way of Beijing playing a meaningful or productive role as mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Many Afghans believe that China is adopting Pakistan’s position in the peace process rather than pursuing the cause of lasting peace. So long as Beijing continues to do so, its role in mediating between Kabul and Islamabad and brokering a settlement to the Afghan conflict will remain impossible missions.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.

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