The Taliban’s return: New battlefronts for China, Pakistan!

In one fell swoop—suddenly withdrawing its army overnight from Afghanistan—America has completely changed geopolitical equations against China. The resurgent Taliban may become Beijing’s nemesis and Islamabad’s graveyard, the way mountainous Afghanistan had become the graveyard for the British, Soviet and American forces.

Utter confusion in the two ‘all-weather allies is showing up in both China and Pakistan; they do not know how to recalibrate their policies about Afghanistan…and India.

Pakistan, in particular, has a sense of betrayal not only from Beijing but also from fellow Islamists of the Taliban it created, funded, sponsored, armed, and launched against enemies. On its border with India, it is petrified of the substandard Chinese military supplies; on its border with Afghanistan, it is paranoid with the unpredictable Taliban.

Recent media reports indicate the level of distrust between China and Pakistan as well, despite their protestations to the contrary.

One report said that Beijing has sold substandard equipment to the Pakistan Army, making it vulnerable to any Indian attacks. Another report said that China, distrustful of Pakistan, has sent it’s own ‘armed workers’—soldiers carrying AK-47 rifles—to finish incomplete infrastructural projects, in the midst of terrorist attacks against them.

The first report indicated that China is not properly responding to the Pakistani Army’ concerns that their air defence systems deployed on the eastern borders with India was endangered due to technical failures.

The Chinese-built portable air defence systems, artillery rocket systems and surface-to-air missile systems, worth millions of dollars, are riddled with technical and operational deficiencies. Because of this, as many as 850 man-portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADs), both launchers and missiles, have become dysfunctional, leaving a serious gap in air defence on its borders.

The Chinese-made FN-16 MANPADS were designed to intercept low altitude and ultralow altitude air targets like enemy helicopters and low-flying aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles under visual conditions. But most of these systems are handicapped by defective surface-to-air night aiming and battleground signalling systems. Without these systems, the MANPADs are literally blind.

The Chinese manufacturer, Wuhan Infrared Co. Ltd, instead of quickly replacing or repairing the systems, has appointed an allied firm, Valiant Technologies, to sort out the mess. Equally serious problems afflict over 500 QW 18 MANPAD launchers imported from China.

These systems were supposed to counter aerial threats and have a range of 6 km with a speed of 600 metres per second. It boasts of high anti-jamming and multi-tracking capability.

The MANPADs form part of a larger contract of supply of 1,300 systems with China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC). About 500 of these systems were inducted into the Pakistan Army in 2016. Numerous deficiencies were found in these systems during biennial functional testing of these systems at the army base workshops since July 2019. The army has asked CPMIEC to replace at least 47 of these systems along with one base control unit and one training simulator.

The story of multiple launch artillery systems, A-100, also bought from China, is similar. It was manufactured by the China state-run Aerospace Long-March International Trade Co (ALIT).

The A-100, incidentally rejected even by the Chinese Army, was inducted into Pakistan Army. During field trials, the Pakistan Army found it wanting in many respects. Even the Chinese manufacturer concluded that the systems had to be replaced as they were beyond repairs.

These problems are causing a serious headache in the forward air defence positions of the Pakistan Army which comes on top of the persisting issue of the defective Chinese-made LY80 surface-to-air missile systems.

These reports of substandard Chinese supplies to Pakistan have come at a time when the Taliban are about to take back control of Afghanistan after the sudden withdrawal of American troops, something neither Islamabad nor Beijing were ready for. The American move has made both Xinjiang vulnerable to China and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) to Pakistan.

For, they fear, under the new global realignment of forces, the Taliban may become Washington’s militant arm against Beijing the way it was against Moscow two decades ago. That is why China is trying to coax the Taliban to shun terrorism and recalibrate adjustment.

The Taliban now control nearly 250 districts, out of 400, in Afghanistan, and Beijing is apprehensive of their designs in Xinjiang, imperilling the entire Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), whose flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through the restive regions like POK and Baluchistan.

Afghanistan is a key link between China and Central Asian republics, and Beijing envisions a “Pamir Group” of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan, with a new Silk Road linking the Caucasus to western China.

However, America’s masterstroke in arranging the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan has drastically changed geopolitics and put paid to China’s global ambitions. Apparently, the US has successfully persuaded the Taliban to join hands against China, the bigger foe, which has not only tried ‘genocide’ of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang but also attempted to wipe out the identities of even mosques and churches across the country.

Now, China is paranoid about insecurity overspill from Afghanistan and fears that it could become a safe haven for Xinjiang terrorists, whose trouble could further spill over to Central Asia and the Chinese mainland.

With China’s relentless efforts to blot out Islam from across the land, Beijing genuinely fears that Afghanistan could become a launchpad for the revengeful Taliban and for separatist activities targeting the iron rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Xinjiang.

For long, Beijing has been blaming the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a shadowy group it accuses of seeking Islamic rule in Xinjiang, of fomenting trouble in the restive, Muslim-majority province. Recent reports suggested that hundreds of ETIM terrorists were being trained by the intrepid Taliban in the Badakhshan area bordering Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China. China and Afghanistan share a 76-km-long border which Beijing knows is porous for Uyghur fighters.

The CPEC was supposed to be extended to Afghanistan as well. This extension included projects like a motorway linking Peshawar and Kabul, and a trans-Afghan highway joining Pakistan to Central Asia. Afghanistan could have become a promising notch in the BRI.

As in Pakistan, where China is alarmed by attacks from militant groups like the Baluchistan Liberation Army, it fears uncontrolled attacks against Chinese interests in Afghanistan as well. The July 14 terror attack, in which nine Chinese workers and six Pakistanis died in a dam project, have heightened China’s fears, despite the Taliban’s ‘assurances’ as Beijing knows they are as unreliable as itself!

This particular incident has prompted China to deploy its armed men as ‘construction workers’ in the CPEC projects.

And Pakistan is in no position to say no to Beijing!