Lufthansa is a good way to fly to Berlin, provided you can connect at Munich. But, both ways, in and out, we had to do a 100 metre dash, fingers crossed. Negotiating long queues for security and immigration required commando skills. And the Germans are very serious about both currently. Germany’s mainstream political parties are embroiled in post-local election traumas, being overwhelmed by the new nationalist and anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany. Given such turmoil within, will the country lose its political and economic clout in Europe to France? Or will it become ‘great’ again? Wait for 2019.
Berlin is the venue for our trialogue between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, never a convivial meeting. Indians don’t trust the Pakistanis, nor do the Afghans, and vice versa. Pakistan feels Afghanistan and India will gang up to shake hands across the Durand Line and eat into its strategic space.
The Afghan delegates explain with deep pain their most violent—and three-year delayed—second parliamentary election. Taliban’s merciless suicide attacks killed and maimed more than 500 people. Of the 2,565 candidates, 416 were women, vying for 250 parliamentary seats. The Taliban onslaught has been particularly severe this year. Attacks against provincial and district capitals demonstrate their strength. The security situation is extremely distressing, with casualties among security forces incredibly high. No army in the world can absorb such attrition. President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban in its capture of the city of Ghazni in August. Earlier, at the Brussels Nato summit, Ghani had told Trump that without US and Nato support, a strategic collapse could become a reality. The present situation proves wrong the certification given in 2015 to Afghan security forces by the US Training Mission, which says that they could hold their own against Taliban and required only air support. Pakistanis around the table were in denial about Taliban sanctuaries and the ISI’s complicity in the violence affecting the region. The stalemate with Taliban can only be broken through talks. But the Taliban takes its orders from Pakistan and will only engage in power-sharing when Rawalpindi is assured of its strategic depth in Afghanistan. That foreign forces must leave before talks with the Afghans, a precondition of the Taliban, is contradicted by the Pakistani army’s media wing, which says that foreign troops should leave only after there is peace in Afghanistan.
The China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) has become a lifeline for Pakistan. It was focused on in a public panel discussion at one of the Stiftungs in Berlin. It seems Pakistan has put all its eggs in the China basket. For Beijing, Gwadar is the crown jewel—it offers strategic access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, bypassing Malacca Straits’ choke point. A former Pakistani minister emphasised that China is one country which has consistently supported Islamabad. He also said that only Chinese banks were involved in providing loans to the country and the connectivity projects were buttressed by the energy projects, which would have economic benefits for Pakistan. The Chinese have labelled these as livelihood enterprises. When asked, he could not provide figures of Pakistan’s debt to China. His colleague quoted Pakistani army’s Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, who had said that the army was the custodian of the CPEC, “as it is of Pakistan’s core values”. The Afghan delegate said that an MoU had been signed with China to connect CPEC with Afghanistan. India had ab initio objected to CPEC, for lack of transparency, debt entrapment and sovereignty issues. But not all Indian delegates agreed with the carte blanche rejection of CPEC.
China’s revised stand on Afghanistan is revealing. Before the US combat mission ended in 2014, Beijing’s policy was characterised by four Noes: no criticism of the US; no interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs; no use of the northern distribution network; no boots on the ground. Now, China and Russia are convinced that the US will not leave Afghanistan. Since 2014, China has played a more prominent role in the peace process, talking with the Taliban. It will train and equip an Afghan Army brigade to be deployed in the high mountain reaches of the Wakhan corridor that links Afghanistan with China to prevent Uighur (ETIM) terrorists from accessing Xinjiang. China held its first trilateral with Afghanistan and Pakistan last December in Beijing. It seems China is shifting from development to security projects. Kabul is most disappointed with the joint India-China training of Afghan diplomats instead of a mega energy/infrastructure/agriculture project, which they had expected. China does not show its deep pockets in Afghanistan as it does in Pakistan or Sri Lanka.
When Indians, Afghans and Pakistanis meet, hot stuff is exchanged on the sidelines. While most Indians sniff for single malt, all Afghans are ascetic and many Pakistanis will down/drown in high octane.
(The writer is a former major general and a strategic-affairs expert)