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China Absolves Pak and ISI over Indian Consulate Attack in Herat

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by Bhaskar Roy
Published on July 14th, 2014

China’s interest in Afghanistan is well known, as is that of other countries including India. The American decision to totally withdraw forces form Afghanistan by 2017 has created an urgency among stakeholders in Afghanistan about the fate of the country.

The last time they were in Afghanistan, the Americans just washed their hands and left, leaving behind huge quantities of weapons which went to Pakistan and to the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar. The Taliban partnered with Al Qaeda led by the now deceased Osama bin Laden. The Al Qaeda-led attack on the U.S., known as the “9/11” attack woke Washington from deep slumber. It is now well known that the Al Qaeda and Pakistani agencies were deeply involved in the “9/11” plot.   

America promised it would not leave Afghanistan the way it did last time. But unfortunately no sustainable agreement could be reached, and part of the blame has to be borne by Afghanistan’s internal politics. Competing for the next Afghan President, the gap between the Pashtuns and Tajiks has increased. Outgoing president Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun himself, is keen to retain some influence in the next presidency and get accepted as an elder statesman in the mold of Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew. A recipe for more confusion? Singapore is not Afghanistan.

In the meantime, attacks by the Taliban on government targets have increased. For example, attacks on Kabul airport have sharply increased leading to reluctance by Indian civil airlines pilots to fly there. A recent car bomb in Kabul market killed nearly 70 civilians.

China’s concern is the activities of Uighur (Turkic origin Muslims) pro-independence separatist under the banner of East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Since last year, several incidents of Uighur militancy and protests have been reported, with Chinese security personnel stepping up crackdown on such groups and individuals. The government went so far as to prohibit fasting by Uighur Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

The Chinese appear to have decided that support to its Uighurs in Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the south comes mainly from Afghanistan. This may be true to a certain extent and the Chinese would have their own intelligence. There is no hard evidence to suggest that the Al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan are involved with the Uighurs, though there have been calls from Al Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East to fight China’s persecution of Muslims. Uighurs captured by American forces from Afghanistan had no links to Xinjiang activities, and were fighting for the Taliban against U.S. forces.

From 2008, the year that China hosted the summer Olympic Games, Chinese leaders have openly accused Pakistan of harbouring both Uighur terrorist/separatists and the Pakistan-based Islamic organizations supporting and training them. It is known that the Chinese conveyed to Pakistan at the highest level, as early as 1991, that the ISI was also involved in training Uighur separatists. China’s approach to some Pakistani Islamic organizations to placate them to cease support to Uighurs failed. Therefore, why this turn?

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman announced (Beijing, July 18) that Sun Yuxi, a diplomat who served in Afghanistan and India as ambassador, was appointed as China’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan. The Special Envoy’s assignment was to “strengthen communication with Afghanistan and all parties concerned to maintain the country’s and the region’s lasting peace, stability and development”, the spokesman said. Sun, it appears will be seen frequently in Pakistan, perhaps even Quetta, site of the Taliban’s current shura, and even in New Delhi.

In a press briefing in Beijing on July 21, Sun Yuxi made some astonishing observation that put large question marks on China’s sincerity to combat terrorism. Referring to May 23 terrorist attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, Sun said that he believed that the Pakistan government, or any responsible agency of Pakistan, will only fight against terrorism instead of being involved with any “terrorist groups”. He also described the ISI as a responsible force battling terrorism and dismissed any suggestion of the ISI being involved in the Herat attack. This, after Afghan President Hamid Karzai was emphatic that they had proof that the Laskar-e-Toiba (LET), a creation of ISI, was involved in the Indian consulate attack (Times of India, July 22). Sun Yuxi could not have made these observations unless cleared by the National Security Group headed by president Xi Jinping. This is so, because Xi Jinping has been loud on China-India partnership and has got Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi mesmerized by possible economic cooperation with China and investments from China in Indian infrastructure projects to accelerate the Indian economic development.

In one stroke Sun Yuxi absolved, from China’s point of view, any Pakistani or ISI involvement in the November 26, 2008 LET attack on Mumbai in which at least 176 people died. One of terrorists captured alive, Ajmal Kasab, gave details of ISI and Pak army officers training them for this attack. Sun’s observation also made the known role of Pakistani-American David Headly as an ISI agent, in surveying Mumbai in preparation for the attack, a collective fiction of the imagination of India, the U.S. and even some Pakistanis.

Despite his denial, Sun Yuxi cannot work without consultation with the Pakistani government, the Pakistani army and the ISI and devising a common strategy. 

Most Pak analysts are of the view that the Pak army’s policy of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan was a misconstructed strategy and has been discarded. That may be so but there is no indication that the army/ISI have accepted India’s due role in Afghanistan. The Indian Herat consulate attack, the earlier attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, and others are terror tactics to test India’s resolve. In fact, the goal of the Herat attack was to take some consulate officials hostage just before the swearing in ceremony of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India. It would have seriously undermined Pak Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who came to New Delhi for Modi’s ceremony.

It may be recalled that China enjoyed an undeclared but close relationship with the Afghan Taliban, though it did not accord official recognition to the Taliban government in Kabul, it conducted exchanges through the good offices of Pakistan. In that period the Chinese telecommunication and cyber technology company ZTE conducted business with Taliban including setting up initial structures in Kabul. The defeat of the Taliban at the hands of the U.S. and the Afghan Northern Alliance put paid to this project.

China has more than counter-terrorism interests in Afghanistan. While it certainly needs to secure and stabilize Xinjiang, Afghanistan is also a bridge to Central Asia and Europe, the land silk road. Russian influence over the Central Asia counties is weakening, and an affluent China is moving in. But the first important step is to get overriding influence in Afghanistan with the assistance of Pakistan, and reduce influence of India, the U.S. and Europe to the minimum. The China-Pakistan axis in Afghanistan would be a very significant part of the “Chinese dream’ or the restoration of China to its past glories, as dictated by President Xi Jinping. Pakistan can be considered already a tributary of China, and the next in this regional vision could be Afghanistan.

India will have to play its role very carefully. It has significant interests in Afghanistan, a historical and traditional friend. It is also a road head to Central Asia. But Pakistan holds the key to land connectivity from India to Afghanistan and has closed the door to India-Afghanistan land trade. The only other option is through Iran to Afghanistan on which work is in progress.

The challenge from China is far more wide ranging. These are the first indications of new China-Pakistan pressure arc on India. China’s support to International counterterrorism is as hollow as it always was. Only we refuse to see it. 

Note: The writer, an expert on China and Asia, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst and former senior Indian Government national security official. A version of this paper was first published by the South Asia Group on 14 July, 2014.

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