Rival empires vie for supremacy in a central Asian nation peopled by warring tribes. Sound familiar? If the Great Game was about England and Russia duking it out in the mountain passes of Afghanistan, the second iteration could be said to have taken place in the 80’s, when the United States took on the Soviet Union through its proxies, the mujahidin, which were armed and trained by our Pakistani allies. These days the battle continues, with a new nation entering the fray: China. But this time, Pakistan may be switching sides. The Wall Street Journal reports that “Pakistan is lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him instead to look to Pakistan—and its Chinese ally—for help in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding the economy.”
At an April 16 meeting in Kabul, according to Afghan officials that spoke to the Journal, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani “bluntly told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the Americans had failed them both” and that “Karzai should forget about allowing a long-term U.S. military presence in his country.”
So what’s this all about? China has long been eyeing Afghanistan’s mineral resources—they bid, and won, the rights to develop the country’s Aynak copper mine, which is thought to be one of the largest in the world. And China is certainly none too happy about having a permanent U.S. military base in its back yard.
The Journal reports that American officials were aware of the meeting, but that they assumed the leak was a negotiating tactic. The idea of China taking the lead in Afghanistan “was fanciful at best,” they said.
That may be so. More worrying is the prospect of a stronger Pakistan-China alliance that elbows aside the U.S. Just days after returning from Washington D.C. for what appears to have been a heated conversation about the use of predator drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir is now on a trip to China. A foreign ministry spokesperson said the discussions were about ‘bilateral, regional and international issues,’ but an unnamed Pakistani official informed the English language daily Express Tribune that the visit may have had more to do with the rise in tensions between Pakistan and the United states over a drone strike that killed dozens of civilians and the Raymond Davis case.
“Under these circumstances, the foreign secretary’s visit to China has assumed greater significance….We have excellent relations with China but the time has come to take the ties to the next level where we should have less reliance on the Americans.”
Of course, it may also have something to do with wounded pride. In his harshest words yet, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen told Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper last week what everyone else has known for years: that the country’s premier spy agency “has a long-standing relationship with” with a militant group run by Afghan insurgent Jalaluddin Haqqani. “Haqqani is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners. And I have a sacred obligation to do all I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Pakistan may not approve of everything that the Haqqani network does, but it is clear that they want to keep a hand in Afghanistan as a bulwark against rival India even if it means maintaining secret ties with a militant group. At that same April 16th meeting, according to Reuters Kabul and Islamabad also agreed to include Pakistani intelligence officials in the council seeking talks with the Taliban, which would give Pakistan a formal role in any peace agreement. Which is exactly where Pakistan wants to be—backing the Taliban as a proxy against a rival power.