By Elenoire Laudieri-Until the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was little known outside Asia. In the West, it mainly attracted the interest of scholars of history and archaeologists as the landlocked country roughly coinciding with the ancient region of Central Asia called Bactria,which was invadedby Alexander the Greatin 329 BCE.
In a book titled “Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan”, the American historian and archaeologist, Frank L. Holt, makes a thought-provoking comparison of Alexander’s war in Bactria with those fought in Afghanistan by the British (1839-42; 1878-80; 1919), the Soviets(1979-1989) and the US(2001-present).
Similar to Alexander’s, the invasions of his modern counterparts turned out to be a quagmire. The severe weather and rugged topography, the deeply rooted ethnocentric mentality of the local population, and the unyielding belligerence from resistance fighters did not allow them to achieve full control of the region.
Eventually, like Alexander over 2300 years ago, the British and the Soviets had to withdraw, which is what is bound to happen, sooner or later, also to the US despite President Trump’s recent decision to further commit to what has become his nation’s longest war. Actually the Americans have already withdrawn nearly 90% of their armed forces during the latter period of the Obama administration when US troops were gradually reduced from a peak of 91,000 to 9,800. The addition of 3,000 apparently contemplated by Trump will do little to revert the constant expansion of the territories underTaliban control.
The inability of great powers to subjugate Afghanistan has earned this country the epithet of “graveyard ofempires” but its pugnacity has also generated profound divisions among its people. A close look at the last 35 traumatic years of intestine conflicts shows how the clash of divergent aims and objectives of several parties has plunged the country into a seemingly hopeless situation.
The problem is not only the endless conflict of the US-backed Afghan government against an unremitting Taleban insurgency, but also the fact that ethnic and tribal leaders in the government camp are often at war with one another.
Any attempt both from Kabul and the Taliban to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the hostilities has so far resulted in a dialogue of the deaf. The situation is further complicated by the shaky relations between the Afghan government and neighbouring Pakistan. They accuse each other of letting terrorists move across their border even if they both are not in a position to secure total control of their long frontier.
Innumerable attempts at international level to promote reconciliation and activate a peace process have failed to produce any significant progress. Since 2013 Russia has convened as many as five Afghan peace conferences and lately Uzbekistan, a close neighbour of Afghanistan and longstanding advocate for peaceful political settlement, took the initiative of hosting in Tashkent, on 26-27 March this year, an international conference which was highly successful in terms of the number of participating countries but, significantly enough, the Taliban were kept out of it despite, a month earlier, during another regional conference, called the “Kabul Process”, Afghanistan’s president Ghani had urged them to initiate talks with his government to end nearly four decades of conflict.
The Tashkent conference, however, made an important headway by bringing for the first time at the same table the US, Russia and Iran. The final declaration consisting in 24 points as a roadmap towards a peaceful resolution was adopted by all participants which also included representatives of China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, EU and UN.
Though the conference forged a consensus amongst so many countries on how to best handle the peace process, Afghanistan’s plight remains extremely difficult to overcome, if not more difficult than ever.
Nevertheless, a détente between Islamabad and Kabulis absolutely crucial to start disentangling the situation. In this regard, China can play and, as a matter of fact, is already playing (inconspicuously as it is in its style) an effective role as a mediator.There are two main factors that put China in the right position to play such role.
First, the strong ties between China and Pakistan and the good relations between Beijing and Kabul warrant both Afghanistan and Pakistan to trust China. Second, China is motivated enough to exert its constructive influence in the region by the need to preclude any obstacle to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and CPEC. On a related note, the $57 billion CPEC project has further strengthened China’s kinship with Pakistan and China is opened to include Afghanistan into the project.
Kabul is keen to be included as its intra-Afghan and inter-regional projects are very much aligned with the BRI and CPEC.
When he met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Astana in June last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his support for Afghanistan “playing a greater role in promoting the regional economic integration and connectivity”
On its turn, Pakistan is happy with Beijing playing an active role in Afghanistan because China’s involvement can decrease Indian influence.
The head of the Defense Committee of the Pakistani Senate has been reported saying that “China is in a good position to play the role of an honest broker or mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We welcome this role, just like the Afghan government has welcomed it.”
India won’t be pleased by the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan. New Delhi has publicly and officially opposed the project since it passes through Pakistan-administered and India-claimed Kashmir. However, Kabul says it is committed to co-operate with both CPEC and India’s preferred transportation route through the port of Chabahar.
Finally, the United States has no objection to Beijing’s mediation. After China’s Foreign Affairs minister Wang Yi’s visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan in June 2017, the US State Department released a statement which unequivocally affirmed that “the United States encourages all regional partners to play a positive role through engagement and support for the Afghan government […]. We share an interest with all regional states, including China, in seeing Afghanistan become increasingly secure, and politically and economically stable.”
All of this shows that China’s mediation is the best way forward.
The writer is sinologist, foreign Affairs writer and could be reached at twitter as: @ElaudierLaudier