It’s a long way from landlocked Afghanistan to the South China Sea, but…
The May 21, 2016 U.S. assassination by drone of Mullah Mansoor, the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban, would have seemed to be a bad thing for the People’s Republic of China.
Mansoor, after all, was the chosen instrument of the Pakistan intelligence services for its preferred solution in Afghanistan: a regime dominated by the pro-Pakistan Taliban.
The PRC has a vested interest, not limited to its $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor, in a Pakistan that is reasonably secure and in control of its western flank, and sees a friendly Afghanistan, i.e. a joint Pashtun Taliban/Pakistan ISI project able to keep an effective lid on the activities of anti-PRC Muslim militants in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as a near-existential strategic priority.
Killing Mansoor was a U.S. gambit to upset the Afghan chessboard and make it less favorable to Pakistan. The operation was foreshadowed by expressions of disgust and indignation at Pakistan’s coddling of Afghan Taliban leadership, and providing them with havens inside Pakistan.
President Obama announced that the death of Mansour was “a milestone”. The killing overjoyed President Ghani of Afghanistan, who had washed his hands of the Quadrilateral Talks (talking shop of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and the US meant to lure the Taliban into political engagement). He is apparently counting on the US to transform its Pakistan policy from “tough love” to “frank hate” and force the Pakistan army and security service to limit if not end their covert support for Taliban intransigence.
I am not inclined toward the opinion that Pakistan colluded with the US in eliminating Mansoor as an excessively unruly and disobedient asset. The ISI, I would imagine, has ways of dealing with such issues that don’t involve the U.S. declaring open season on Taliban senior leaders via drone attacks in Balochistan.
All in all, a brisk kick in the behind for Pakistan, and just the latest in a series of signals—including a Congressional resolution that the U.S. would not provide financing for Pakistan’s planned purchase of F-16 fighters– that the U.S. is accelerating its tilt away from Pakistan and toward India as its preferred South Asian partner.
The “everyone but Pakistan and China” narrative was reinforced by a visit by Prime Minister Modi to Iran on May 23 to confirm India’s participation in the Chabahar port project, regarded as a necessary alternative to Gwadar and Pakistan for linking Central Asia with the Indian Ocean.
President Ghani of Afghanistan also joined the summit to signal Afghanistan’s preference for the Chabahar corridor, which would finally offer Afghanistan an alternative to Pakistan obstruction and delay in the transport of goods and military materiel via Karachi or Gwadar.
Events are definitely presenting the picture of the United States ditching Pakistan as punishment for its pro-PRC tilt, as exemplified by Pakistan’s commitment to the CPEC Gwadar-Kashgar economic corridor as a geostrategic lifeline. Instead, Ash Carter has gone over the top wooing India as a military ally, apparently going all-in on a narrative of Pakistan-encirclement, Taliban neutralization, and China-containment by the US-India-Afghan axis.
However, the response of the PRC was remarkably muted as its only ally, Pakistan, and its preferred geostrategic solution, Afghanistan under the thumb of the Taliban and Pakistan, were kicked to the curb with the Mansoor assassination.
The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson stated “We have noted relevant report. China hopes that the Afghan peace and reconciliation process can continue to be pushed forward and relevant parties remain committed to peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.”
That’s it, as far as I can tell. No bluster, no ministerial statements, no anxious/belligerent op-eds in Global Times.
It’s possible that the PRC was simply shrugging off a desperate and futile US gambit.
Certainly, the assassination had a few problems. Afghanistan itself, to be frank, is a problem.
For advocates of a non-Pakistan solution, the biggest problem is that 1) the Afghan Taliban are Pakistan-friendly and 2) an important reason they are Pakistan-friendly is that they are largely Pashtun and the majority of Pashtun reside in western Pakistan and 3) Pashtuns form the plurality in Afghanistan.
Here’s an instructive map that shows what the Durand Line–a piece of British imperial mapmaking that now serves as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan–did to the Pashtun community. 13 million to the left of the line in Afghanistan; 30 million–yes, 30 million–to the right of the line in Pakistan. Total: 43 million Pashtuns. Population of Afghanistan: 30 million.
The Taliban controls as much Afghan real estate as it ever did post-2002, possibly more, and is waiting out the United States, which has telegraphed its disinterest in pouring more money and effort into the bottomless pit of Afghanistan.
Interested readers will notice a considerable overlap between the range of Pashtun ethnicity and the strongholds of the insurgency. Consider the Taliban insurgency the western wing of a drive by the Pashtuns–the region’s dominant ethnicity, supported by a major South Asian military power, Pakistan– for self-determination in the political space of Central Asia.
The U.S. strategy for dealing with this unfavorable disposition of forces was exemplified by the warning uberspook Richard Armitage delivered to Pakistan after 9/11: turn on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan or prepare to be bombed “back to the stone age”.
The U.S. persisted in the delusion that it armtwisting Pakistan into confronting the Afghan Taliban, demanding Pakistan security sweeps against Taliban harboring in Pakistan frontier areas, and droning Taliban units inside Pakistan was a winning strategy.
In August 2008, I looked at the latest, “surge-y” iteration of this strategy (which the US military sold to President-elect Obama) and wrote:
American planners originally hoped that Musharraf’s armies would be the anvil upon which Western forces crushed the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan.
Pakistan is more like a rotten melon that will fly apart under the hammer blows of a U.S. counter-insurgency campaign in west Pakistan.
Well, guess what. I was right.
The Taliban insurgency failed to evaporate despite the carrots dangled and sticks brandished before Pakistan, Pakistan’s milsec establishment continued to provide clandestine support, and the Afghan war ground on, with alarming blowback effects inside Pakistan as Pashtun militants pushed back against wavering Pakistan government resolve in the U.S.-led fight.
The US originally announced it was leaving Afghanistan at the end of 2016; when this started to induce the Vietnam effect, i.e. emboldening the enemy and accelerating the collapse of our client regime, President Obama fudged and said we weren’t leaving…but we do plan to draw down.
Once more into the breach, therefore, for American COINistas determined not to admit the Afghan problem has them licked.
The not-so-good situation in Afghanistan occasioned a chest-thumping op-ed by General Petraeus, agitating for a massive Iraq/Syria style bombing campaign to turn the tide against the Taliban : Take the Gloves Off Against the Taliban.
“Taking the gloves off” involved killing some folks—nothing new here—but killing them for some rather sketchy reasons.
I am, for instance, unaware of any previous occasion upon which the United States killed somebody because “he was an obstacle to peace and reconciliation”, the justification that U.S. Orwell-speak-person Peter Cook gave for the assassination of Mansoor.
The strategic deep thinking was ostensibly that the killing would sow disarray in the Taliban, perhaps fuel a catastrophic power grab by the Haqqani faction, and either cripple the organization or elevate a more cooperative figure than Masoor to the leadership and lead to a fatal outbreak of sincerity in the Taliban concerning participation in the Quadrilateral Peace Talks (which Mansoor had boycotted, occasioning his execution).
Rosa Brooks expressed her doubts about how killing this guy was going to solve our Afghanistan problem in a piece titled The Magical Thinking of the Killing of Mullah Mansoor.
As it transpired, the Taliban elected a new leader in a couple days, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, a guy that nobody ever heard of, and one who has as yet expressed no desire to participate in the peace negotiations. Victory!
PRC diplomacy in Central and South Asia in the period surrounding the assassination offers an interesting counterpoint to “rest of world closes ranks against Pakistan and China.”
On May 15-18, the PRC hosted the Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah for a visit that resulted in several agreements, and a statement by the PRC that Afghanistan supported the PRC on the South China Sea. The PRC endorsed an “Afghan-owned Afghan-led” peace process and “call[ed] on all Afghan armed opposition groups to participate in the reconciliation process.”
On May 26, India’s President Mukherjee concluded a state visit to China with a meeting with Xi Jinping (for the official photo, Xi broke into a full smile instead of his usual tight-lipped simper; hmm) and said nice things about the importance of the relationship.
It should be noted that Mukherjee and Abdullah, though both distinguished public servants, are nevertheless second bananas in their respective countries. While Mukherjee was in China, Modi was in Iran signing the Chabahar agreement. While Abdullah was in China, Ghani was presumably burning up the wires with the Department of Defense finalizing the assassination of Mansoor.
Glass half empty for PRC: Afghanistan and India are putting more of their strategic eggs in the U.S. basket. Glass half full: PRC still commands their attention thanks to its military and economic heft, and its leverage over Pakistan.
To shift to a poker analogy, not a strong hand but playable.
Clearly the PRC decided to put some distance between itself and Pakistan on the Mansoor matter, acknowledging the assassination but not making a big issue of the violation of Pakistan sovereignty, or pointing out that the killing might not bring any major improvements to the Afghan scene, or for that matter griping that the it cut off the Quad Talks process at the knees.
The likely scenario is that the United States notified the PRC at some late date, maybe after the attack to preserve operational security, that Mansoor was done. And the PRC, figuring that the assassination wouldn’t do much more than provide a new point of failure for the US strategy in Afghanistan, said OK.
That assumes that the DoD is in command of South Asian policy and Ash Carter just wants to stick it to the PRC and Pakistan. In that case, I would say Buckle Your Seatbelts, because I honestly doubt that the United States, the Kabul government, India, and Iran have the muscle to stabilize Afghanistan if the Taliban, Pakistan, and PRC are not part of the plan.
It’s possible there’s a different dynamic at work, one that exploits the PRC’s desire to enhance its South Asian leverage and options, at Pakistan’s expense if necessary.
The PRC is rather desperate for opportunities for strategic engagement with the United States, to serve as bargaining chips as it tries to counter the de facto US China containment regime. There’s not that much left on the table. With the Iran agreement pocketed, the PRC no longer plays a valuable role. In North Korea, the crisis is mainly an opportunity for the US to berate the PRC for not doing enough.
And then there’s Afghanistan, where the US took a big step toward gutting the Quad Talks, the PRC’s forum for engaging with the US, by killing Mansoor.
But maybe the Obama administration offered the PRC a new opportunity to show it was a team player, that it wasn’t just backing Pakistan’s hand as the Taliban hoisted Ghani on a cleft stick: endorse Mansoor’s assassination.
So the PRC thought about it and decided, OK. That’s something that will restore some initiative to the US in Afghanistan, give President Obama a PR lift, strengthen his hand against the China hawks at the Pentagon, and show that the PRC is a useful partner in Afghanistan.
Kill Mansoor. We won’t complain. And we’ll help smooth things over with Pakistan.
Maybe the PRC even proposed the hit in the first place.
Hardnosed realpolitik, but it wouldn’t be the first time. The PRC threw Iran under the bus in spectacular fashion in 2010, turning its back on the Brazil-Turkey proposal to fuel the Tehran research reactor and pushing through a deal with the US to pass UN Security Council sanctions that were crucial to President Obama’s Iran negotiations strategy.
Looking at the rather muted official griping in Pakistan concerning the sovereignty-affronting and red-line-crossing assassination of Mansoor in Balochistan, and the blatant interest of the U.S. in sidelining it in the Afghanistan equation, perhaps PRC suasion is at work.
But possibly at the same time Pakistan has signaled its unhappiness in its time-honored fashion, through the statements of Islamist proxies.
On May 28, 2016, Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed, a leader of the hardline Pakistan Islamist group Jamaat-ud Dawa (allegedly linked to the LeT and the notorious Mumbai attack, well, pretty much the deniable political arm of the LeT),criticized the PRC’s policies toward Islam, particularly with respect to a purported statement by Xi Jinping that Uyghurs should shun Islam in favor of “Marxist-Atheism”.
Sayeed said that this statement by the Chinese leadership was a “challenge to the Islamic way of life” and, he called upon the Pakistan Government to “show some courage and direct China to stay away from hurting Islamic sentiments “.
The hardline leader told his followers that he plans to meet the Chinese Ambassador in Islamabad to lodge his protest.
A rather remarkable development, given the backing the PRC has given to the Pakistan at the UN Security Council in stalling sanctions on LeT-affiliated individuals, as recently as two months ago in the case of Masood Azhar.
A report I saw on twitter said the JuD leadership had subsequently walked back Sayeed’s statement, which makes it look like a shot across the bow at the PRC.
I’m wondering it Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s dissatisfaction with the PRC had less to do with Xi’s purported statement and more to do with the PRC’s passive attitude (or worse) to Mansoor’s assassination. JuD’s Mansoor sympathies are quite unequivocal; on May 30 it organized prayer remembrances for Mansoor across Pakistan.
As far as I can tell, by the way, the “Xi: Shun Islam” report, looks suspiciously like psyops or even disinfo propagated through the Indian press to make trouble between the PRC and Pakistan; getting into the weeds here, maybe Indian intelligence saw this piece of mischief as appropriate retaliation for the PRC hold on the Azhar designation. The possibility that Sayeed latched onto a piece of RAW psyops when casting around for a pretext to bash China is rather interesting.
The PRC could also note with some quiet anxiety that the Turkestan Islamic Party (Uyghur-led fighters dedicated to fighting Han rule in Xinjiang) also issued a statement of condolence for Mansoor, demonstrating their ties of sympathy etc. to the Afghan Taliban.
As for the quid pro quo?
Landlocked, US-allied Afghanistan’s willingness, at least as asserted by the PRC, to back the PRC position on the South China Sea, gave me pause. Was this a reward/incentive for the PRC to distance itself from Pakistan?
The PRC is determinedly if not frantically working every global angle to avoid getting boxed in diplomatically if/when it loses the UNCLOS arbitration and refuses to accept the judgment. The US and its allies will inevitably excoriate the PRC, but the key test will be how aggressively the US pushes a confrontation with the PRC over enforcement of the judgment. China hawks are going public with their concern that the Obama administration will be “weak”.
Maybe the PRC hopes the sacrifice of Mullah Mansoor—and the promise it offers to the US of the PRC playing a positive, supportive role vis a vis Pakistan and Taliban—provides another good, if not decisive reason for President Obama to exercise restraint when the next South China Sea crisis rolls around.