The Afghan National Unity Government’s ‘China Card’ Approach to Pakistan: Part 2

By Ahmad Bilal Khalil
The Afghan National Unit Government has been trying to get Chinese help in jumpstarting moribund peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. Kabul hopes to entice China to use its leverage on Pakistan, which hosts the Afghan Taliban leadership.

However, this is not the first time that an Afghan government turned to China for help in a desperate situation. There have been at least three other attempts in the past three decades; all of them in vain. As discussed in Part 1, the earlier lack of particular Chinese interests in the region (compared to the driving force of the Belt and Road Initiative today) made Beijing largely unresponsive to Afghan outreach. This time, as Chinese interests are expanding in the region, Beijing is now more ready to play a role in the Afghan peace process.

Since the establishment of National Unity Government (NUG) in Afghanistan in 2014, both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Afghan Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah have tried to use the “China Card” not only to influence Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table but also to get Beijing’s assistance on issues of security, economic, and regional integration. Abdullah’s requests in this regard are more particularly focused on asking China to persuade Pakistan to assist the Afghan peace process, while Ghani’s requests are broader, including economic interdependence, regional connectivity, and Chinese engagement in the peace process.


The NUG leadership saw China as a useful figure in these efforts due to four factors: China’s “very special” relationship with Pakistan; Beijing’s concerns over the “three evils” (separatism, terrorism and extremism) as well as drug trafficking; evolving Chinese interests under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); and China’s increasing ties with the Afghan Taliban.

Laying the Ground for a New Approach

To influence and persuade both China and Pakistan, the NUG did three things just after its formation.

First, it changed its foreign policy in the light of the 2014 U.S. drawdown of troops. The NUG’s new foreign outlook is based on a doctrine of “five circles,” wherein the first circle includes increased engagement with neighbors (the Islamic world, Western allies, Asian countries, and international organizations make up the other “circles”). Hence, Ghani visited China on his first foreign trip as president and then visited Pakistan before visiting either Iran or India.

Second, the NUG arrested and handed over Uyghur extremists to China and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban leaderLatifullah Mehsud to Pakistan.

Third, the NUG stepped up its outreach to Pakistan in ways unprecedented in bilateral history. That includes sending Afghan military personnel to Pakistan for training; a memorandum of understanding between the two countries’ intelligence agencies; and limiting Indo-Afghan ties (Ghani did not visit India for seven months after becoming a president and suspended Afghan requests for heavy Indian artillery). 
China responded positively. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory letter to Abdullah celebrating 60 years of bilateral ties on January 20, 2015, and told him that China is “willing to provide support and assistance to Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation.”

China and the Peace Process

It was expected that the first face-to-face talks with the Taliban would happen in March 2015. However, it did not happen. The misunderstanding gradually increased in Kabul over why Islamabad was not bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table as it had promised several times since the establishment of the NUG. Therefore, to remove suspicious, China stepped in. On May 10, 2015, the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan, Deng Xijun, met with Abdullah and told him that China “will make use of their good relationships with Pakistan and other countries for bringing security and stability and is ready to help Afghanistan in all directions.”

Shortly thereafter, Pakistan and China arranged a meeting between three representatives of the Afghan Taliban and members of the Afghan High Peace Council at Urumqi, China on May 19. It is reported that the former Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor even endorsed this meeting due to Pakistani pressure, but the idea was then rejected by the Taliban political office in Qatar.

The Urumqi talks enhanced the Afghan government’s belief that Pakistan can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Kabul continued to insist on its requests. To keep a more pro-Pakistan Ghani, Pakistan then facilitated and hosted a meeting between the top officials of the Taliban and the Afghan government in the presence of China and the United States on July 7, 2015. This meeting is now remembered as the “Murree Talks.”

Although it is considered the first face-to-face talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, it didn’t pave the way for another meeting as agreed, much less a final peace deal. Two factors prevented a more successful outcome: First, the news about the death of Mullah Omar leaked, and it was not possible for the then-Taliban leader, Mullah Mansoor, to continue a peace process. Instead, he focused on re-establishing his authority and securing allegiance oaths from Taliban followers. Second, from the Taliban’s perspective, Mullah Mansoor agreed with Pakistan to enter into the talks only if the news of the meeting was not made public.

After the Murree Talks, the Afghan peace process stalled. A bloody wave of bomb blasts jolted Kabul, while at the same time Kunduz, the sixth biggest city in Afghanistan, fell temporarily into Taliban hands. Both incidents impacted bilateral Afghanistan-Pakistan ties. The Chinese side, along with the UN and United States, once again played a role here through regular visits by Chinese officials to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao visited Kabul in November 2015; Abdullah told him that “Pakistan is a safe haven for terrorists, and they use this safe nest to invade Afghanistan. So, China’s assistance for the removal of nests of terrorism to support the goal of peace and stability in the region is vital.” Li responded that “his country is ready to help Afghanistan in the fight against terrorists” and “China supports Afghanistan as a bridge between the regional countries in the economic debate and is ready to assist in maintaining peace and stability to achieve this objective.”

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in a reaction to this visit, said that China “supports the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process, commends and supports efforts by the Afghan government to this end” and will “continue to play a constructive role in the Afghan peace and reconciliation process in line with the requests and wishes of the Afghan side.”

In the aftermath of Li’s visit, Deng Xijun, China’s special envoy to Afghanistan, also visited Islamabad and Kabul. During his visit to Kabul, he said that China supports peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and is ready to facilitate the peace process. Deng noted that peace in Afghanistan is vital for China too and promised that he would once again visit both countries in one month. That didn’t happen, however. Instead, Ghani met the Pakistani prime minister on the sidelines of the Paris Climate Conference and accepted the Pakistani proposal for a quadrilateral grouping bringing together Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States.

The Quadrilateral Cooperation Group

The first Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG) on the Afghan peace and reconciliation process was held in Islamabad on January 11, 2016, on the sidelines of the fifth conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process in Islamabad. In its first meeting, the QCG called the ongoing violence in Afghanistan “senseless” and identified an “immediate need” for direct talks between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives. In the thirdmeeting, a target was set for talks to be held in late February 2016; in the fourth meeting the deadline was extended. The Afghan government welcomed this development and was “deeply grateful to the United States and China for their continued support.” However, in the end, the Taliban’s statement rejecting participation in the QCG shattered hopes for peace talks.

It is important to note that the Afghan government saw three phases of the Afghan peace and reconciliation process: pre-negotiations, direct talks, and implementation. Importantly, if direct negotiations didn’t happen, then the members of the QCG should take action against irreconcilable groups, as agreed in the QCG Roadmap. However, direct talks occurred and neither did actions against the “irreconcilable groups.” Concerning the Chinese role, the Afghan ambassador and special envoy to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, made it clear that China is “not prepared to be involved in the military operation against insurgents.”

Later, when direct talks were still not forthcoming after the fourth meeting of the QCG, Abdullah visited China on May 15-18, 2016, where he met the top Chinese leadership. In his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Vice President Li Yuanchao, and Head of Foreign Relations of the Communist Party Sun Tao, Abdullah iterated the same requests: That China persuade Pakistan to sincerely help in the Afghan peace process and assist Afghan security forces.

Abdullah told Xi that the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group had fallen short of expectations, but said Kabul was still thankful for the Chinese efforts in this regard. He further said, “Afghanistan hopes that China will take its regional influences and would coordinate in a fight against terrorism and would persuade the regional countries to sincerely, fully assist and support the Afghan peace process.” Abdullah also noted that to defeat terrorists it is essential to assist Afghan security forces militarily.

Though in this meeting Xi did not say that China would persuade Islamabad, he did say that Beijing fully supports the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process and Kabul’s request to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and is ready to equip and support Afghan security forces.

In his meeting with Sun, Abdullah said that “regional countries should make efforts to ensure stability in Afghanistan” and asked China “to encourage Pakistan to fight against terrorism and not support the Taliban.” To further persuade China, Abdullah told Sun that without peace, “fighting against Uyghur combatants will be serious because the Taliban directly support them.” According to Afghan sources, the reply from Sun was positive — he told Abdullah that “they want Pakistan not to support and equip the Taliban and [instead] make them ready to be present in the dialogue process.” In the joint statement issued at the end of the visit, the Chinese side confirmed its support to play a “constructive” role and “encourage” the international community — without naming a specific country — “for their full cooperation to create favorable conditions for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.”

Beyond its relationship with Pakistan, China is also in direct contact with the Taliban. Taliban delegations from the political office in Qatar regularly visit China, and Deng Xijun has also visited Qatar to meet Taliban representatives. On February 5, 2017, Deng told Ghani in Kabul that “he has always underscored the legitimacy of the elected Afghan President and Government in contacts with Taliban, stating that negotiation is the only way forward. He added that they had coaxed Taliban into negotiations, urging Pakistan to revive quadrilateral dialogues.”

In 2017 and again in 2018, Abduallah requested Chinese assistance in persuading Pakistan to cooperate with Afghanistan in the Afghan peace process. On June 24, 2017 Abdullah told Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that he hopes “China would use its good relations with Pakistan to improve relations between the two countries and fight against terrorism.” He made a similar request in another meeting on December 15, 2018. However, the Chinese official account of these meetings does not mention Abdullah asking China to put more pressure on Pakistan.

Conclusion

Under the NUG, Beijing’s response to Afghan requests has varied. It regularly condemns suicide attacks and has been providing economic assistance, supporting Afghan bids for full membership in the SCO and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as well as its inclusion in the BRI. In regards to Afghan requests, China is showing more readiness to play a role, facilitating the Urumqi talks and taking part in the Murree and QCG talks. Also, for the first time in Sino-Afghan bilateral history, China provided military assistance to the Afghan Security Forces worth 480 million yen ($73 million), and even asked Afghan officials to provide a military wish list to China. Recently, Beijing has shown readiness to provide material and technical support for the establishment of a mountain military brigade in the Afghan Wakhan mountainous area.

With regards to the Afghan peace process, China is more interested in a multilateral approach and believes that the peace in Afghanistan correlates with warm Afghanistan-Pakistan relations. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang once told Abdullah that “peace and stability in Afghanistan were dependent on having good relations with Pakistan and Pakistan’s cooperation in this regard.” Hence China has preferred to act as a mediator between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including having arranged trilateral meetings between the three foreign ministers.

Yet even increased Chinese engagement has not led to sustained talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, much less a final peace deal. The “China card” played by so many Afghan governments through the decades may be less of a trump card than long envisioned.

The author is thankful to Halimullah Kousary, the acting director of Conflict and Peace Studies, and Borhan Osman of International Crisis Group for reading the first draft and their comments.

Ahmad Bilal Khalil is a Kabul-based Afghan researcher and has recently published a book on “Afghanistan and China: The Bilateral Ties (1955-2015)” in Pashto. He follows Afghan foreign policy, Islamists, regional geopolitical and geo-economic matters, and Kabul’s relations with its neighbors (especially China, Pakistan, and India), and tweets at @abilalkhalil
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