Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From China to Afghanistan: the Wakhan corridor

Last year, I posted on this blog an article  about Afghanistan and China.
It was about a French General Vincent Desportes who was to retire a few days later (he was then serving as Director of the Interservice Defence College in France). He had dared to speak out what many civilians and defence officials believe in France. 
The General gave an interview to the daily newspaper Le Monde in which he stated that the conflict in Afghanistan was ‘an American War’. He also said that the sacking of General McChrystal, the Commandant of the NATO forces in Afghanistan should “open a debate on the tactic decided [by President Obama and the NATO]”. 
Now, it is the just-retired Indian Chief of Army Staff, General VK Singh who is warning us of the increasing presence of the Chinese in Afghanistan and the opening of a new gate to China through the Wakhan corridor.
For Desportes, the situation on the battle field was extremely bad (already last year). For him, President Obama had chosen “a Middle Path which does not work” and said that it was time to review the NATO strategy.
The Chief of Defence Staff and his Minister, Hervé Morin were not amused. Though General Desportes was due to retire a few months later, he was punished for telling the truth.

Since then, President Francois Hollande has decided to recall the bulk of the French troops by December 2012. It was his electoral promise and last week, he travelled to Afghanistan to announce it personally to the officers and troops.
The question is why is it 'retiring' generals who inform us about the real situation in Afghanistan?
Last year, I had mentioned the Chinese angle:
But there is now a new angle to the Afghan imbroglio.
Washington disclosed that its surveyors have discovered more than one $1 trillion worth of in mineral deposits in Afghanistan. The New York Times noted: “it is far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself.”
Gen. David H. Petraeus, commanding the United States Forces declared: “There is stunning potential here …There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”
Not surprisingly, one of the first countries to react was China. Xinhua commented on the Pentagon announcement: “it may function as a double-edged sword for the Central Asian country, and it will likely justify continuous US engagement in Afghanistan's rebuilding process.”
The Chinese themselves are interested to get a share of the cake. In April, Christian Le Mière, the Editor of Jane's Intelligence Review  put it thus in Foreign Affairs: “The possibility of cheap resources on its border is of significant interest to Beijing. China has already made the largest single foreign direct investment in Afghanistan: $3.5 billion in the Aynak copper field in Logar province.”
In January 2010, Russell Hsiao and Glen E. Howard in The China Brief of the Jamestown Institute mentioned some Chinese moves in the strategic Wakan Corridor: “A recent Chinese report has shed light on three major Chinese developments along the Wakhan Corridor that reportedly began in 2009, which highlight preparations in regional infrastructure along that border.”
The report speaks of a 75 kilometers-long road, extending up to 10 kilometers from the China-Afghanistan border. The road, built by the Chinese Ministry of Defense is badly needed for the transportation of military supplies to Chinese frontier guards. Further, the Chinese have constructed a supply depot to improve the “food quality standard for the police forces”.
The third development is a mobile communications center which would permit the operation of mobile devices along the border. Earlier border troops had to depend on satellite communications. Russell Hsiao agrees that China is not ready to play a ‘strategic’ or military role in Afghanistan.
With the ‘discovery’ that Afghanistan is a rich country (not only for its poppies), cynicism is bound to increase. Many believe that we are witnessing the beginning of a new Great Game, as during the 19th century.
Let us hope that General VK Singh will quickly bring new evidences about the 'outflanking move' of the Chinese, though the question remains, what will India do about it.
Probably, nothing!

VK scents a Chinese tunnel
‘Outflanking move’ near Afghan border with interests for India: Ex-chief
The Telegraph
New Delhi, June 4: China is opening its narrow border with Afghanistan with roads and probably a tunnel under the Pamir ranges skirting Jammu and Kashmir with strategic implications for India, former army chief Gen. V.K. Singh has told The Telegraph.
“It is an outflanking move,” the general who retired last Thursday said. “India risks losing the influence it has in Afghanistan because of a China-Pakistan link that is getting stronger and is seen in evidence here,” he said.
Since retirement four days ago, the general has said he was giving top priority to writing his PhD thesis on “Fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Geo Strategic Significance of the Wakhan Corridor”.
Singh registered as a PhD candidate as army chief in 2010 with the department of defence and military sciences of Bhopal’s Barkatullah University.
The Chinese connection to Afghanistan, he says, is through the Wakhan Corridor that skirts the northern areas of Jammu and Kashmir, territory that India claims but is under Pakistani occupation. But for PoK, India would have had direct access to Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor.
India does not have transit rights to Afghanistan through Pakistan. Most of its shipping to Afghanistan is done through the Iranian port of Chabahar.
“China’s objective is to increase connectivity with Afghanistan where it already has considerable presence along with India in development and other projects,” the general said.
“This connectivity would be physical. And it is interested in this comparatively quieter area (the Wakhan Corridor) through which it would facilitate the exploitation of natural resources in Afghanistan,” he said.
As chief, the general red-flagged the presence of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, mostly engineers, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The building of the Karakoram highway abutting the Siachen glacier to its northeast through Shaksgam valley in Aksai Chin — India-claimed territory that Pakistan has ceded to China — is also a strategic concern of the Indian Army.
A “panhandle” of territory in Afghanistan’s extreme northeast, the Wakhan Corridor or Wakhan Tract is at most 220km long and 64km at its widest. It separates Tajikistan (to its north) with PoK (to its south). At its eastern extremity, it has only a 76km-long border (half the distance between Calcutta and Kharagpur) over high mountains at the top of which is the 16,100-feet Wakhjir pass that has no road through it.
Despite being adjoining countries, Afghanistan and China do not have a border crossing since the Wakhjir pass was shut after Mao Tse Tung’s communist forces took over China in 1949.
The Wakhan with the headwaters of the Amu Darya (Oxus river) borders Xinjiang province’s Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County that has a Muslim majority. This is the area popularly known as the “Pamir Knot”.
Through the wars that have ravaged Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion (1979), the sparsely populated Wakhan has been largely peaceful.
To its west, the Wakhan emanates from the northern parts of Afghanistan where India has counted on a largely Afghan Tajik population whose leader was Ahmed Shah Masood before he was assassinated in 2001, two days before 9/11.
Singh said that in the course of his research, he has found evidence of military engineering activity on the Chinese side of the border. On the Afghan side, the nearest roadhead is close to 100km from the Wakhjir pass.
The former army chief was still researching his topic and did not want to go into the evidence behind his findings. It would be safe to assume, however, that he would utilise considerable technical, human and academic resources.
The Wakhan Corridor was a creation of “The Great Game” when Britain and Russia competed for strategic space. It roughly defined the border between British India and the Russian Empire in the late 19th century.
The Wakhjir pass itself remains closed for nearly half the year. A tunnel under the mountains would be an engineering feat — rivalling the kind that China has demonstrated with its railway line through Tibet — that would ensure all-weather access.
In December 2009, the US was reported in the Chinese media to have requested Beijing to allow access from its territory to the Wakhan Corridor (and Afghanistan). The US wanted to use the route as an alternative supply line for Nato forces because of an increase in attacks on the convoys in Pakistan. So far such access, if any, has not been visible.
Singh’s suspicion that such a tunnel was being built by the Chinese boosts the “garland of pearls” strategy — that China is surrounding India with bases and logistics centres — stretching from naval outposts in littoral countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives, to ports like Gwadar in Pakistan and Hangyyi in Myanmar to the high Himalayas north of Kashmir.

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