Recently, this author was invited to a track 1.5 China-Afghanistan-Pakistan symposium on “Tackling Terrorist Threats, Jointly Safeguarding Regional Security” in Beijing. The rare trilateral symposium was welcomed by the three sides as a good opportunity to exchange views and to offer tangible, policy and operational solutions for the consideration of their respective governments to help them address jointly the intertwined threats of terrorism, extremism, and criminality in the region. The discussions were so constructive on the seminal role, which major regional stakeholders can play to stabilise Afghanistan, that the absence of an Indian delegation was needfully felt around the table.
Afghans consider China and India to be their traditional friends and trustworthy neighbours — ones which have increasingly proven to share their wisdom and wealth with others, who need them the most.
The trilateral dialogue was a manifestation of China’s ongoing efforts to build confidence, friendship, and consensus among its neighbours for the pursuit of win-win goals against an entrenched zero-sum mentality towards a shared future of sustainable peace, security, and stability throughout the region.
Over the past 17 years, we have learned from international security cooperation in Afghanistan that without sincere, results-driven regional cooperation in the fight against terrorism with no distinction, it would be hard to secure the peace in Afghanistan. Indeed, a collective failure to defeat terrorism and to win the peace in Afghanistan would consequently entail adverse spillover effects, which could easily transcend borders, destabilizing the region and the world at large. But this shouldn’t be allowed to happen: China and India can help identify the challenges that confront regional stability and global peace and work with Afghanistan and other regional and international stakeholders to cease many existing opportunities to address them together.
The common security threats
First, however, it is imperative to assess the security threats facing the region and the world at large and to reach a common understanding of their nature for joint, coordinated action to tackle them. From the Afghan perspective, the security threats that contribute to increased instability in the region also extend to the rest of the world, because they emanate from a dangerous nexus of violent extremism by transnational terrorist networks (TTNs), organized crime by transnational criminal networks (TCNs), as well as state sponsorship of terrorism.
Indeed, the symbiotic relationships among these lethal networks of terror and crime involve mutual benefits in the form of such facilities and capabilities as protection, logistics, financing, training, arms, intelligence, and safe havens. In the Afghan case, these enable the Taliban and the Haqqani Network to destabilise Afghanistan. And the ensuing regional instability has provided an enabling, operational environment for such terrorist networks as Al Qaeda, DAESH-ISK, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and others to launch targeted terrorist attacks in the region and beyond.
Sadly, protracted insecurity in Afghanistan has long sapped the country’s precious, few resources for sustainable development, while weakening its governance and rule of law institutions. In turn, the detrimental effects of uncontrolled demography and climate change have worsened the severity and deadliness of war and violence, leading to a sharp spike in the Afghan poverty rate, which rose from 38 percent in 2011-12 to 55 percent in 2016-17. Consequently, Afghanistan is currently facing a complex humanitarian crisis—affecting more than 10 million Afghans that constitute a large number of vulnerable groups, including women, children, and youth. They have been forced to flee their places of origin to seek protection, food, water, and shelter in urban areas where they have unfortunately faced new challenges due to a lack of employment opportunities and exposure to new security threats, including frequent suicide attacks.
Hence, this environment of widespread human suffering and insecurity has enabled such criminal networks as drug-traffickers, human-traffickers, and weapons-smugglers to thrive in the region. And it has equally allowed the Taliban and terrorist networks to exploit Afghanistan’s vulnerable human terrain, recruiting among the country’s destitute, jobless youth to fuel their ruthless, violent campaign across Afghanistan.
That is why the war in Afghanistan is not a civil war. It is rather a complex war principally fed by external state sponsorship of terrorism, which enables transnational and regional terrorists and criminals to operate in and out of Afghanistan—hitting targets in places of their choice across the world.
It is for this reason that terrorism should never be associated with Islam, which as a religion of peace, harmony, tolerance, and co-existence forbids any justification of civilian bloodshed. One should be reminded of the fact that most victims of terrorism are Muslims, not the “unbelievers,” whom terrorists seek to harm. In the first six months of this year alone, 5,122 innocent Afghans—including poor children, women, youth, and the elderly—were killed and wounded by terrorist attacks in urban and rural Afghanistan. And hundreds of civilians have been killed and wounded in Pakistan, especially in the run up to their recent general elections.
Therefore, in accordance with the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, the UN member-state must never make a distinction between good and bad terrorism. Doing so has so far rendered regional and global counter-terrorism efforts fruitless. But Afghans have done their honest part, fighting complex terrorist threats with no distinction on behalf of the region and the world over to help ensure regional stability and maintain international peace and security. In this continued endeavor, however, they have not been alone, as more than 40 countries in and out of the NATO have contributed to the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan over the past 17 years.
Afghan peace process
Against this backdrop, the Afghan government re-launched the Kabul Process for Peace and Security in Afghanistan in June 2017. Through this Afghan-owned and Afghan-led process, a results-oriented peace strategy has been laid out, the key purpose of which is to engage in unconditional, direct talks with the Taliban. The peace strategy aims to separate reconcilable Taliban insurgents from transnational terrorist networks. But to succeed in this endeavor, the Afghan government relies on honest and tangible regional cooperation, foremost on the closure of the sanctuaries and other forms of support, which the Taliban enjoy in the region.
The centerpiece of the United States Strategy for South Asia and Afghanistan also focuses on this imperative, since unless the Taliban are politically and militarily pressured to engage in peace talks, they have been reluctant to do so. Despite this, however, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani unilaterally announced a weeklong ceasefire from June 12-19, ending on the fifth day of Eid-al-Fitr. He extended the truce for another ten days, giving reconcilable Taliban another chance to set aside bloodshed and enter peace talks with the government.
The Afghan people welcomed the unilateral ceasefire, showing once again the burning desire of and demand by every Afghan to see an immediate end to years of imposed war and violence in their country.
The Taliban leadership reciprocated this genuine gesture for peace, and their rank-and-file fighters poured into cities, embracing Afghan forces and civilians. This showed that most non-ideological Taliban fighters are also tired of a war, which they will be unable to win against their own suffering people, who only wish to see their new democracy and the hard-earned gains of the past 17 years consolidated and institutionalised.
At the same time, international consensus and support for peace through dialogue have strengthened. From the meetings of the Kabul Process and Tashkent Conference to the national, trilateral, and international Ulema conferences for peace and security in Afghanistan, state and clerical representatives from more than 100 countries and international organizations have repeatedly called on the Taliban to accept the unprecedented peace offer made by President Ghani.
The Ulema of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia issued a Declaration last May, condemning any violence to be carried out in the name of Islam and urging the Taliban to opt for peace over more violence and targeting of innocent civilians. Their message was reinforced by Ulema from around the world, who gathered in Jeddah and Makkah in July, asking the Taliban to end violence against their suffering people and to engage in direct peace talks with the government of Afghanistan.
APAPPS in pursuit of common goals
As the Afghan government continues implementing its peace strategy, it has striven to engage with Pakistan on a state-to-state basis to secure the country’s cooperation both in fighting terrorism with no distinction and in persuading the Taliban leadership to participate in the intra-Afghan peace process for a political negotiated settlement. In this regard, the inaugural meeting of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) took place in Kabul in late July, as the APAPPS five working groups discussed issues of counter-terrorism, intelligence-sharing, peace efforts, trade and investment, and refugees. For their part, the Afghan side firmly committed to working with relevant Pakistani institutional stakeholders to implement the key goals of the five working groups, in line with the core principles of the APAPPS agreed between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Afghanistan’s collaboration with Pakistan constitutes an integral part of the former’s counter-terrorism (CT) and counter-narcotics (CN) strategy, which it pursues in parallel to its peace strategy. The two strategies mutually reinforce one another, as Afghan CT and CN efforts not only contribute to similar efforts at the regional and global levels but also advance Afghan peace efforts by increasing the number of reconcilable Taliban, who otherwise would refuse to discontinue violence.
However, for Afghanistan’s joint CT and CN to bear fruit given the nature of intertwined security threats transcending regional borders, regional stakeholders—including China, India, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and others in the region—should adopt a common CT and CN strategy for implementation through well-coordinated action plans. Indeed, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel, as they can use existing mechanisms of regional security cooperation—such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—to execute the strategy underpinned by their international obligations—including the UN Counter-Terrorism Strategy and related UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.
Moreover, in the second meeting of the Kabul Process last February, Afghan National Security Adviser Minister Haneef Atmar proposed the adoption of action plans with Afghanistan’s Islamic partners to share CT and CN intelligence and to deal with foreign fighters, threat-financing, countering terrorist ideology, as well as providing support for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). With their neighboring countries, the Afghan side also proposed to sign bilateral CT and CN cooperation agreements, in addition to:
• negotiating bilateral extradition agreements;
• jointly reviewing foreign fighters that hail from the region;
• working to identify sources of threat-financing; and
• further enhancing international cooperation among Ulema to organize a process of public education and Fatwas to reject the hate ideology of terrorists, including their campaign in Afghanistan and the world at large.
The way forward: China and India in Afghanistan
With the above challenges and opportunities for regional cooperation in mind, what can China and India do more to help ensure regional stability and secure the peace in Afghanistan? A relevant response to this question was articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 18th SCO Summit in Qingdao. The President said: “We need to actively implement the 2019-2021 program of cooperation for combating ‘three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism;’ continue to conduct the ‘Peace Mission’ and other joint counter-terrorism exercises…We need to give full play to the role of SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group to facilitate peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan.”
President Xi added that “Countries are increasingly inter-dependent today… confronted with many common threats and challenges that no one can tackle alone. Only by enhancing solidarity and partnership, will we be able to achieve lasting stability and development.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who addressed the Summit as the newly admitted member-state of SCO, echoed his Chinese counterpart, floating the concept of SECURE to underpin the work of SCO: ‘S’ for security for citizens, ‘E’ for economic development, ‘C’ for connectivity in the region, ‘U’ for unity, ‘R’ for respect of sovereignty, ‘E’ for environment protection. He highlighted instability in Afghanistan as an “unfortunate effect of terrorism,” noting: “I hope the brave steps towards peace taken by President Ghani will be respected by all in the region.”
Bilaterally, as their trusted neighbors and traditional friends, Afghans expect China and India to support the implementation of the Afghan CT and CN strategy, while investing in the natural resources sector and connectivity infrastructure of Afghanistan.
This combined security and development aid approach by China and India will go a long way in enabling Afghanistan to achieve self-reliance, in accordance with Afghanistan’s National Peace and Development Framework (NPDF) goals. Success in this endeavor will help China and India achieve their own goals of helping stabilize their surrounding region for increased “physical and digital connectivity.”
Moreover, since the security problems in Afghanistan are regionally rooted, China and India can do more to work bilaterally with each other and with Russia, Iran, and Pakistan to help stabilise and develop Afghanistan. In this connection, Afghans have welcomed the Informal Summit between President Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Wuhan last April when the two leaders agreed to cooperate in Afghanistan, co-implementing economic projects that can boost economic growth and strengthen human security in Afghanistan. Needless to point out, China-India joint stabilisation and development efforts will have achieved their shared longer-term goal of increased connectivity across the new and old Silk Roads, the heart of which is Afghanistan.
Trilaterally, China can do more to use its good ties and leverage with Pakistan to encourage the country to deliver tangible results on the peace and security progress, which Afghanistan and Pakistan have so far made “on the paper.” For example, the trilateral Afghanistan-China-Pakistan foreign ministerial meetings can serve as an effective mechanism to enable Afghanistan and Pakistan to make tangible progress on the key goals of the APAPPS: on the part of Pakistan to help ensure a significant reduction in violence by the Taliban across Afghanistan and to persuade the Taliban leadership to initiate or respond positively to a substantive ceasefire that enables results-driven peace talks for a durable negotiated political settlement.
Multilaterally, China and India have a major opportunity to exercise fully their global leadership potentials by effectively engaging with the member-states of the SCO and the NATO to help translate the emerging regional and international consensus for peace in Afghanistan to end the imposed war there. In the Shanghai Spirit, China and India can work with other SCO member-states to facilitate and expedite Afghanistan’s full SCO membership, following the recent full admissions of India and Pakistan into the SCO. At the same time, China and India can help fully operationalise the Afghanistan-SCO Contact Group to support the Afghan-led peace process and to provide long-term resources for the sustainable development of Afghanistan with a focus on full-spectrum connectivity for regional peace and prosperity.