The change of regime in Afghanistan has not been good news for neighboring Pakistan. The country’s law and order situation has been exacerbated, terrorist activities have gathered pace and bilateral ties have, once again, deteriorated. Such developments are not just a concern for stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan but also for regional powers (i.e. China) that eye connectivity in South Asia.
Pakistan has witnessed a 51 percent rise in terrorist activities in the past year or so and, much like in the past, the country’s insecure western border is being held responsible for most of the terrorist infiltration. The Pakistani authorities have communicated their concerns to the interim regime in Afghanistan. However, the security situation has not improved much and bilateral ties have also stagnated.
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Understanding the matter better
Such a downturn in bilateral relations is also not something that political observers in Pakistan anticipated after the Taliban took over Kabul to form an interim government in 2021. It was rather a common perception in Pakistan that the Taliban government would lead to the reduction of bilateral hostilities given Islamabad’s history of influence over the former. Pakistan has rather witnessed a sharp spike in terror attacks after the assumption of power by the Taliban and border skirmishes have become a new normal.
The Afghan forces have engaged in the disruption of border fencing on which the Pakistani side has spent billions of rupees. Islamabad considers this an act of aggression and a challenge to the pillar of the country’s recent national security policy. For the Afghan side, such is an act of reaffirmation of their age-old rejection of the Durand line. This suggests that change in the government has not changed much concerning bilateral relations. Alone in the first nine months of 2022, Pakistan experienced a sharp rise in terror attacks which led to the killing of more than 450 people in the country.
Since then, both the frequency and magnitude of terror attacks have risen. Just recently, the militants were able to target Islamabad after eight years in a suspected suicide attack that killed a security official.
The Taliban government’s spokesperson has committed to not allowing any terrorist activity from the country. Yet practically, there is little chance that the Afghan Taliban would take substantial action against Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) since the latter takes inspiration from the former and also share the same ideological inclinations. Furthermore, the lack of action against the TTP chief who applauded TTP fighters involved in the attack on the ‘Bannu Counterterrorism Facility’, from his safe haven in Afghanistan, has further strengthened the fear that the Afghan Taliban are not proactively addressing Pakistan’s concerns.
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Terrorism, if allowed to gain stranglehold, would not just restrict to Pakistan and Afghanistan but would, parasitically, spread across countries. The world cannot afford another war against terrorism and thus needs to play an instrumental role in curbing terrorist activities of all sorts. The U.S. State Department, in a recent development, has offered unconditional support to Pakistan in the fight against TTP and other terrorist organizations. It may, however, be hard for the superpower to play a substantial role in reducing Pak-Afghan tensions given the former’s existing trust deficit and history of relations with the Afghan Taliban. China, on the other hand, can be expected to play the aforementioned role.
Beijing also carried out mediation between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the past. In February 2012, China hosted the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue and since then the dialogue has been a common practice. Beijing also enjoys conducive relations with the Afghan Taliban and was one of the few regional states that embraced the latter with open arms despite the West’s repugnance. In the OIC Summit (March 2022), China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi while referring to the incumbent regime in Afghanistan announced that the PRC “supports Islamic countries to use Islamic wisdom to solve current issues” and later, in April, the Afghan Embassy also re-opened in Beijing.
The China factor
With regard to the facilitation of the Interim regime in Afghanistan, China has done everything other than offering formal recognition. The Taliban government also seems eager to deepen trade and investment ties since the great power’s support would help reduce the economic burden of the regime. China delivered several batches of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and, in June 2022, started the first technical training program for the interim Taliban government.
Beijing is the biggest foreign investor in Afghanistan and has acquired an extraction contract worth $4.4 billion to develop the Mes Aynak Copper field in the Logar province. It has won the bid for oil exploration in the Amu Darya, established the Sino-Afghanistan Special Railway transportation project and the ‘Five Nations Railway Project’ connecting China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Also, the future of China’s ambitious BRI depends, immensely, on peace in the South Asian region and one of the biggest threats to regional stability is deteriorating Pak-Afghan relations.
China’s former ambassador to Afghanistan Yao Jing stated, in 2016, that without Afghan connectivity, there is no way to connect China with the rest of the world. Also, a peaceful and terror-free South Asia is indispensable for the prevalence of peace in China. With the increase in economic activities, Beijing’s stakes in the region have significantly risen and, thus, needs to take more interest in the developing situation in Afghanistan. Playing a part in lowering the Pak-Afghan escalations would enable China to present itself as a regional peacemaker (a reputation that even the U.S. has failed to achieve even after decades of presence and spending trillions of dollars in Asia). Thus, conducive Pak-Afghan relations would not just benefit the two but also be fruitful for China’s future endeavors in the region.