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Afghan Taliban visit to China

THE elimination of Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a US drone strike upended the Quadrilateral Coordination Group on Afghan reconciliation and effectively froze the nascent Afghan dialogue process. As a result Pak-Afghan relations plunged and the Pak-US relationship hit fresh turbulence, though efforts by at least Pakistan and the US since have somewhat stabilised the triangular relationship. As ever, Chinese diplomacy was careful and anonymous through most of the discord. But now, there are reports that the Chinese hosted an Afghan Taliban delegation from the group`s political office in Qatar two weeks ago, and so the China-Taliban connection has once again come into the spotlight. What is China attempting, and who is it aligned with on the Afghan question? In the immediate term, it is likely that the Chinese diplomacy has been triggered by a closer alignment with Pakistan on what needs to be done in Afghanistan for regional stability. That renewed Pak-China conversation may have been triggered by the growing ties between New Delhi and Washington and the understanding between the Chinese and Pakistani establishments that a growing convergence between India and the US regionally, including in Afghanistan, can have adverse consequences for the strategic interests of China and Pakistan. However, there are other impulses too, not least the understanding, as Chinese President Xi Jinping made clear to his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani, in a June meeting, that `Afghanistan`s peaceful reconstruction and reconciliation process ... is the only way out for Afghanistan to achieve permanent peace`. Towards that end, China has ratcheted up its cooperation with Kabul, while simultaneously keeping open channels of communication with the Afghan Taliban.

The long-term Chinese interest in Afghanistan has been two-fold: deny separatist Uighur militants space inside Afghanistan and protect Chinese investments in the country. That twin goal has been pursued since the Karzai era and appears to be the cornerstone of Chinese policy on Afghanistan. Given the long-term and more immediate Chinese interests in Afghanistan, Pakistan should leverage its relationship with China to get the Afghan dialogue process back on track. Where Afghan officials may not be willing to heed the advice of Pakistan, China`s opinion may carry more weight.

And if the Afghan Taliban are truly resistant to cajoling by Pakistan, the addition of China`s diplomatic heft globally, especially its clout in the UN, could cause the Afghan Taliban to consider returning to the negotiating table. Ultimately, however, Pakistan should regard international diplomacy as a complementary effort to the core Pakistani policy of reducing the space for the Afghan Taliban inside the country and encouraging them to return to dialogue at the earliest. If that process can be managed within the QCG, it may help diplomatic coordination. But Pakistani policy should be not be predicated on actions by other countries first. If political reconciliation in Afghanistan is necessary, Pakistan should take the lead confidently and with little hesitation.