By M K Bhadrakumar
The United States, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan may be finding themselves on the same page all over again, sooner than one would have expected, with regard to the revival of the Quadrilateral Cooperative Group (QCG), their moribund initiative on regional security, especially reconciliation with the Taliban. Kabul urged Pakistan earlier in the week, presumably with green signal from Washington, to implement the QCG’s commitments on eliminating terrorism, implying a shift in its thinking. Islamabad lost no time to signal readiness. The Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday,
Pakistan has remained committed to Afghan peace and stability. We believe QCG is an important mechanism, which has done significant ground work for preparation of roadmap for Afghan peace process. Pakistan has therefore, continued to emphasize the need of working together in the QCG for the objective of lasting peace in Afghanistan. It seems that finally Afghanistan is also enunciating its willingness to move forward in our engagement in the QCG and address the important issues of peace and security through this process. We believe that such an approach would augur well for peace and security in Afghanistan and the region.
Kabul made the move following a phone conversation between US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about the deteriorating security situation. Putting alongside the recent statements from Washington against the backdrop of rising tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, it can be seen as Washington stepping in to tamp down tensions even as President Donald Trump will take a call soon on the future strategy toward the Afghan situation.
The revival of the QCG will be a welcome development for both Pakistan and China. For Pakistan, it means engaging with the US after a gap of over six months during the last phase of the Barack Obama presidency when things were put on hold. The new US administration works fine for Pakistan. It has two key officials Mattis and the new national security advisor HR McMaster who are known to the Pakistani military. Importantly, much as the Donald Trump administration may reaffirm support for the National Unity Government (NUG) in Kabul, the fact remains that Ghani is not its protégé. Nor is Chief Executive Officer Abdullah.
In fact, McMaster served on a special assignment in Kabul as the US military’s chief corruption buster and ought to have a fairly good idea of what the DNA of the Afghan political elites is like and how politics is conducted in Afghanistan. It seems highly improbable that Trump will get into “nation-building”. Thus, Pakistan will have a big problem restraining itself from inserting at some point if it transpires that there is daylight possible between Trump’s team and Ghani’s set-up. The QCG becomes a useful forum to take the pulse of the Afghan-US equation. China, too, will have good reasons to welcome the resuscitation of the QCG format as the principal tool of conflict resolution in Afghanistan.
For one thing, QCG brings Beijing to get down to working together with the Trump administration at a practical level on a problem that is a top priority for both. Again, working together with the US is a preferable option for China, given its interest in a comprehensive partnership on regional and international issues with the Trump administration that would have a stabilizing effect on the overall relationship.
At any rate, as I have pointed out earlier, China may not feel comfortable with a Russia-led peace process on Afghanistan, although it may go along with it halfheartedly as better than nothing at all. Russia may use the Afghan problem to “engage with” the US. Also, the Chinese and Russian interests intersect in Central Asia. For Russia, Afghanistan is as much an issue of Central Asia’s integration under its leadership as an issue of terrorism or drug trafficking. On the contrary, China’s interests lie in the consolidation of the independence of Central Asian states with whom China has forged strong relationships at the bilateral level.
On Wednesday, the Afghan problem figured prominently in the talks between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and Pakistan’s advisor on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz who paid a daylong visit to Tehran. Aziz went to Tehran primarily on a mission to shore up mutual trust and confidence in the Pakistan-Iran relations at a sensitive juncture when Tehran has voiced complaints regarding cross-border terrorism originating from Baluchistan. Clearly, Pakistan is going the extra league to ensure that Iran will cooperate in the Afghan endgame.
In all likelihood, Trump administration can be expected to resume the effort to reconcile the Taliban. In a candid commentary this week, Voice of America noted that it is political expediency that prompts the US to blacklist the Pakistani Taliban as terrorist group, while excluding the Afghan Taliban from such a categorization. It said, “the deterring factor has long been a concern that applying the terror label to the group would restrict U.S. and Afghan government diplomatic contacts with the Taliban, making peace talks more difficult.” Curiously, Afghan government too has refrained from demanding that Taliban be designated as a terrorist organization.