Chaos in Afghanistan Threatens CPEC

The security situation in Afghanistan is becoming worse by the day as U.S. troops continue with their withdrawal. The Afghan Taliban, although they already held sway in rural parts of Afghanistan, have now come completely out of hibernation in a bid to rule the roost in the war-torn country. As a result, the Taliban have gained ground in several key towns and border crossings, and now claim to control over 80 percent of the country. Fears are growing that it is only a matter of time before the Taliban hoist their flag in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

With the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan once again, the security situation has gone from bad to worse. Instead of playing a mediating role, the regional and international powers are contributing to the conflict by pursuing their own narrow security interests. A militaristic approach has never solved a political question anywhere in the world, and Afghanistan is the perfect example. Yet it seems the regional and international powers haven’t learned this lesson. The key players continue to intervene in the country, which is why Afghanistan is being thrown back into a state of chaos reminiscent of the 1990s. And just like in the past, the roiling violence in Afghanistan is highly likely to contribute to the instability of the entire region.

Afghan leaders themselves have played a part in the problem. Rather than resort to a good-faith political process to work out a lasting solution, they continue to seek advantage from external players – giving an overt opportunity to other forces to fish in troubled waters. Any lasting solution in Afghanistan has to begin with the Afghans themselves. Unfortunately, if the suspended state of the talks between the Taliban and Kabul is any indication, that does not seem likely to materialize in the near or distant future. Afghan citizens have been bearing the brunt of this insecurity for three generations, but there is no end in sight to their interminable sufferings.

Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan has become distinct over the decades, thanks to its strategic interests. Above all else, Pakistan is concerned about Indian influence in Afghanistan, which it sees as its backyard. This is why Pakistan helped the Afghan Taliban throughout the 1990s to seize power in Afghanistan. That support provided Pakistan with leverage to counter the influence of India, its archrival. The Taliban’s theocratic rule also served to isolate Shia-dominated Iran in Sunni-majority Afghanistan, to the benefit of Pakistan, itself a predominantly Sunni state.

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has been a key element in in Pakistan’s Afghan policy to establish strategic depth through ethnic and religious connections. This is why both Afghanistan and Pakistan have been viewed through a single prism, particularly in the eyes of West.

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Pakistan has gone to great lengths to pursue its goals in Afghanistan, which is why the Afghan conflict has spilled over to its own borders. In this context, noted Pakistan journalist Zahid Hussain rightly argues in his latest book, “No-Win War,” that “in fact, the Taliban had established a strategic depth in Pakistan,” thanks to its increasing interventionist policies in Afghan affairs.

Among other things, the current wave of the Afghan conflict has got the potential to threaten Chinese interests, particularly the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project in Pakistan. CPEC is the crown jewel of Beijing’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to build infrastructure, expand trade links, and deepen ties across Eurasia and Africa.

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Ever since the announcement of CPEC in 2015, Beijing has been looking to expand CPEC to Pakistan’s neighboring countries, including Afghanistan. To pave the way for it, Beijing has been pushing Pakistan to open border points with Afghanistan in order to increase trade with an eye toward CPEC. As a result, Pakistan announced plans last year to establish 12 border markets with Afghanistan, versus just six border markets with Iran.

Yet due to a combination of domestic politics, internal security, and financial corruption, the CPEC projects in Pakistan itself have become slowed. The greatest threat to the CPEC has come first from the Baloch separatists opposed to the projects inside Pakistan. Over the years, they carried out several attacks in Balochistan against CPEC projects and Chinese personnel. The Baloch separatists, later on, were joined by Sindhi separatists from Pakistan’s Sindh province. As a result, with logistical support and succor from their Sindhi counterparts, Baloch separatists expanded their range for attacking Chinese interest to Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh and former capital of Pakistan. For instance, last year, militants from the Baloch Liberation Army said they were behind a grenade attack on the Pakistani stock exchange in Karachi.

But perhaps the most ominous development took place this year. In April 2021, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) detonated a bomb at a luxury hotel in Quetta, the provincial capital of southwestern Balochistan province. The assault reportedly killed five people and wounded 12. Initial press reports suggested that the target was Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Nong Rong. The Pakistan Taliban did not mention the specific target and the ambassador was not present in hotel at the time of the attack, even though he was believed to be in Quetta at the time.

The TTP has its roots in the Afghan Taliban, and thus its rise and fall is intimately connected to the situation across the border in Afghanistan. In recent months, even as the Taliban gathered strength in the wake of a peace deal with the U.S., the TTP announced the merger of its various splintered groups, which have been carrying out largescale attacks inside Pakistan. In this context, independent Pakistani analysts are concerned that the TPP will pose obstacles and security issues for CPEC projects inside Pakistan.

Over the years, through military actions in its bordering areas with Afghanistan, the Pakistani Army has pushed the TTP elements out of the country and into Afghanistan. The TTP has been using Afghan soil for operations and support. Despite Pakistan’s protests, the Afghan Taliban have not taken action against their Pakistani brethren, despite a growing number of attacks in Pakistan. The TTP has been infiltrating through the porous borders between the two countries, driving Pakistan to begin fencing its border with Afghanistan.

Ever since the U.S. troop withdrawal began, the TTP and other nationalist elements have carried out attacks in Pakistan to show they are still operational. Overall, as the United States prepares to leave, their targets have shifted to Chinese investments, including CPEC.

The success of CPEC, and by extension, the entire BRI, now depends on Afghanistan, which is expected to become a new battle ground.

Just last week, a terrorist attack targeted Chinese workers involved in a CPEC hydropower project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – the TTP’s traditional stronghold. The group has denied responsibility for the attack, but acknowledged that a splinter faction may have been involved. Nine Chinese engineers are reported to have been killed in the attack on a bus that was transporting workers to a construction site. Following the attack, the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan issued a statement reminding its citizens, enterprises, and projects in Pakistan to stay on alert, pay close attention to the local security situation, strengthen security protection, take strict precautions, and stop going out unless necessary.

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The more China has invested in Pakistan, the more Beijing has pushed Islamabad to exterminate militancy of all kinds, whether through force or dialogue. Despite Pakistan’s attempts to quell the violence through military operations, attacks have cropped up regularly. As a result, it has opened the doors for negotiations. The Chinese authorities have been pushing their Pakistani counterparts to negotiate with separatists in Balochistan, where CPEC originates in Pakistan.

Although the Afghan Taliban have reportedly said they will not harbor militants that seek to strike other countries, groups opposed to both Pakistan and China, especially following its heavy investments in CPEC, have long found refuge in Afghanistan. Whether due to fear of reprisal or kinship ties, the Afghan Taliban have not been willing to take action against the groups that threaten Chinese interests in Pakistan. The TTP and other militants will continue to pose a threat to Chinese interests on Pakistani soil – and as instability in Afghanistan increases, so will the danger for CPEC.