US report highlights Pakistan-China ‘closeness’ in Afghanistan

Published February 5, 2021
In this file photo, Prime Minister Imran Khan shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. —Reuters/File
In this file photo, Prime Minister Imran Khan shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. —Reuters/File

WASHINGTON: A bipartisan report to the US Congress claims that there’s an understanding between China and Pakistan on how to protect their interests in Afghanistan and Islamabad enjoys a leading role in this strategy.

“The increasing closeness of the China-Pakistan relationship means that, for the most part, Beijing’s Afghanistan policy has hewed closely to that of Islamabad, with Islamabad taking the lead,” the report adds.

The report, sent to Congress on Wednesday, recognises Pakistan’s key role in the Afghan peace process and urges the Biden administration to work with Islamabad to end decades of war and destruction in Afghanistan.

The report also urges new US leaders to postpone a May deadline for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, warning that an early exit would allow terrorist groups to reemerge.

A US-Taliban agreement signed in Doha last year calls for a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan by May. But the report from the Afghanistan Study Group, commissioned by Congress in 2019, recommends an “immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current May 2021 withdrawal date in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.”

Explaining the change in the US attitude towards Afghanistan, the report argues that “the Taliban are not an international terrorist organisation, and there is no evidence that they have any intention to attack the United States.”

The report claims that even within the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, “there is broad regional support for a US withdrawal that is responsible rather than precipitate and chaotic”.

Underlining Pakistan’s role in the peace process, the report notes that “Pakistan has generally supported the US effort to negotiate with the Taliban,” a role also publicly acknowledged by US officials.

“Many countries in the region, especially Pakistan, have influence over the Taliban and other participants in the peace process,” the report claims, adding: “They should actively use this influence to make the peace process successful because they will ultimately benefit from its success.”

But the report clarifies that while Pakistan has influence over the Taliban, “it does not have total control over the movement.” The report notes that while Islamabad has always tried to maintain a close relationship with the United States, this did not prevent it from maintaining ties with the Taliban as well.

“There are, however, indications that Pakistan is reevaluating some elements of its strategy, given the economic opportunities that would arise from a more stable Afghanistan and the possibility of the Taliban gaining a meaningful share of power,” the report adds.

Yet, the report argues, a fundamental change in Pakistan’s Afghan policy, “particularly in the strategic thinking of Pakistan’s politically powerful army and intelligence services,” seems unlikely.

According to this report, an unstable Afghanistan risks destabilising the entire region, particularly by “exacerbating the rivalry between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed powers.”

The report points out that Afghanistan sits in a dangerous region as “three of its six immediate neighbors (China, Pakistan, and Iran) are actual or potential nuclear powers. Two other regional powers, Russia and India, also possess nuclear weapons.”

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2021

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