Archive for September, 2022

This report was a long time in the making and in fact completed initially prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but needed a lot of tidying up afterwards. Thanks to RUSI for publishing it, and to my excellent co-author Eleonora for bearing with the lengthy process to get it over the finish line. Am not going to republish it all here, as you can see it in its splendid PDF form for free online here.

Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

By examining political, security, economic and cultural ties, this paper explores Russian and Chinese influence in Italy.

Italy has been one of the leading advocates in the EU of dialogue and cooperation with both Russia and China, and its longstanding political tradition of ‘trying to sit in the middle’ sometimes faces other EU states’ criticism. This paper seeks to explore the dynamics between Italy and Russia, and Italy and China, through an examination of political, security, economic and cultural ties. It also attempts to understand the degree to which Rome’s policy positions are shaped by external influences or internal choices.

While it is inherently difficult to demonstrate influence, this paper stresses Italy’s agency in driving the relationships forwards, though it is clear that interference attempts and the economic connections that exist between the three powers play a role in influencing Italian planning. Even if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is heavily impacting the relationship between Rome and Moscow, how this will play out in the longer term is hard to predict.

Another interview with La Repubblica, this time focused on my most recent book Sinostan and looking at Chinese foreign policy more broadly. Again in Italian so you will have to learn the beautiful language (or use Google Translate…).

Raffaello Pantucci: “La Cina? Un impero in espansione, ma senza una chiara strategia. E questo è un problema”

di Enrico Franceschini

Parla l’esperto di sicurezza internazionale per il Royal United Services Institute di Londra (Rusi): “Pechino sta diventando un impero accidentale che minaccia di estendersi in tutta l’Eurasia, ma senza una visione su cosa fare e come affrontarne i problemi. Una prospettiva che, a partire dalla tensione di questi giorni intorno a Taiwan, è molto pericolosa per gli equilibri internazionali”

“La Cina sta diventando un impero accidentale che minaccia di estendersi in tutta l’Eurasia, ma senza una chiara strategia su cosa fare e come affrontarne i problemi. Una prospettiva che, a partire dalla tensione di questi giorni intorno a Taiwan, è molto pericolosa per gli equilibri internazionali”. È il monito che Raffaello Pantucci, esperto di sicurezza internazionale per il Royal United Services Institute di Londra (Rusi), lancia dalle pagine di Sinostan, il libro che ha da poco pubblicato in Inghilterra con la Oxford University Press, frutto di tre anni di studi sul campo in Estremo Oriente.

La tesi del suo saggio è che sta per nascere un impero cinese, Pantucci?
“La Cina sta diventando la potenza più influente in Asia centrale e in gran parte dell’Eurasia: una vasta zona del mondo, piena di problemi, su cui tuttavia Pechino non sembra avere una chiara strategia. È la potenza che cresce di più in quell’area, ma non si capisce che intenzioni abbia”.

Per questo lo definisce un impero “accidentale”?
“Sì, perché la Cina è diventata una potenza economica regionale e anzi continentale, ma senza una vera strategia, bensì con tanti piccoli progetti. Naturalmente in quella zona si muove anche la Russia, ma Mosca ha bisogno di Pechino per contrastare l’Occidente e dunque la chiave della situazione ce l’hanno in mano i cinesi”.

Le esercitazioni militari cinesi davanti a Taiwan sono la prova generale di un’espansione militare in tutto il continente?
“La situazione è diversa rispetto all’Asia centrale, perché Pechino considera Taiwan parte del proprio territorio. Ma paradossalmente su Taiwan esiste un equilibrio strategico, mantenuto finora dal confronto fra Cina e Stati Uniti, mentre in Asia centrale e in Eurasia questo equilibrio non c’è: la Cina è praticamente sola o comunque in grado di condizionare l’altra potenza regionale, la Russia, che ha bisogno del sostegno di Pechino. Dunque in un certo senso è una zona ancora più pericolosa”.

Secondo lei la leader del Congresso americano Nancy Pelosi ha fatto bene o male a visitare Taiwan?
“Non ho una risposta sicura a questa domanda. Da un lato non capisco le tempistiche di una visita simile, in un momento così delicato. Dall’altro però credo anch’io che l’autonomia e la democrazia di Taiwan vadano protette con fermezza”.

Il ventunesimo secolo sarà il secolo cinese, come il ventesimo è stato il secolo americano e il diciannovesimo quello britannico?
“Nonostante le apparenze, non credo che sarà il secolo cinese in modo analogo a come il secolo scorso è stato dominato dall’America e quello precedente dall’Impero britannico. Penso che sarà un secolo di potenze multilaterali in competizione tra loro: la Cina e la Russia da una parte, l’America e l’Europa dall’altra. E mi auguro che questa competizione produca stabilità anziché conflitti”.

Come dovrebbe reagire l’Occidente democratico all’espansionismo cinese?
“Secondo me l’Occidente dovrebbe aiutare i Paesi presi nel mezzo a non sentirsi costretti a scegliere con chi schierarsi. Dovrebbe aiutarli a crescere economicamente, a consolidarsi, mantenendo una propria libertà di scelta sul cammino da fare. O noi o loro può diventare un aut aut controproducente dal punto di vista occidentale”.

Quanto è serio il rischio di un conflitto militare tra Pechino e Washington, o addirittura di una Terza guerra mondiale che cominci proprio dalle tensioni su Taiwan?
“Per ora non sembra che nessuno dei due voglia veramente la guerra. Ma il punto preoccupante è che il presidente cinese Xi ha detto di volere risolvere la questione di Taiwan nell’arco del proprio periodo al potere, quindi nei prossimi cinque anni o entro i cinque successivi se verrà riconfermato nell’incarico. Abbiamo dunque una sorta di conto alla rovescia”.

Perché Taiwan è così importante per la Cina?
“Perché i cinesi considerano l’isola parte della Cina, ma anche per un’altra ragione: riprendere Taiwan è una dimostrazione di forza per Pechino. Se Taiwan diventasse più indipendente, altre regioni della Cina potrebbero spingere per fare altrettanto e l’intero paese rischierebbe di andare in pezzi, senza contare che la popolazione potrebbe concludere che il partito comunista ha mancato i suoi obiettivi”.

Una teoria di alcuni anni or sono era che la Cina, con la crescita del benessere economico e di una classe media, avrebbe imboccato gradualmente la via della democrazia: crede possibile che questo prima o poi avverrà?
“Penso che non si possa escludere una evoluzione positiva, una Cina più aperta nei rapporti con il resto del mondo e più tollerante sul fronte domestico, ma credo che sarebbe comunque una forma di democrazia diversa dalla nostra almeno per ancora molto tempo”.

Still working through the backlog, this time a piece for the excellent Italian think tank ISPI on the anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul looking at the China-Afghanistan relationship. Lots more on this topic to come.

China in Afghanistan: The Year of Moving Gradually

Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 created a problem for China on the border of one of its most volatile regions in Xinjiang. While Beijing was not always entirely enthusiastic about a US military presence on its border, it could see the benefits of having someone else take on the security burden. It even went so far as to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan – something which stood in stark contrast to the rest of its relationship with the US. The Taliban takeover forced some re-calculations, and while Beijing has visibly leaned into its relationship with the new rulers in Kabul, the thrust of the engagement has remained not dissimilar to how Beijing was engaging with the Republic.

China’s primary preoccupation with Afghanistan has always been security. Beijing’s enduring fear is that the country becomes a base from which its enemies can plot against them. This has tended to focus on fears of Uyghur militants using the country to create instability in Xinjiang, a concern that persists, but has now been joined by a growing fear that other adversaries might seek to use Afghanistan as a base to target China or its interests in the wider region.

Under the Republic government, Beijing was relatively content with the security relationship it had in this regard. From the Republic government’s perspective, the Uyghur militants fighting alongside the Taliban were no allies of theirs and they were happy to hunt them down. Even the United States targeted them alongside the Taliban.

The Taliban takeover in Kabul has complicated this picture for Beijing. In the early days, the Taliban seem to have failed to keep control of a group of some 30 Uyghur militants the Republic was holding in prison who were freed when the Taliban emptied the prisons they found. While the Taliban have continued to say they will not let their country be used as a base for militant activities against others, it is clear that Uyghur militants under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) continue to gather there. In the most recent display, leader Abdul Haq showed himself celebrating Eid in the country alongside a few dozen allies and their family members. A report from the UN Monitoring Group in February highlighted member state reporting that there were some 200-700 fighters associated with TIP in Afghanistan. The report suggested that they had been moved from Badakhshan to Baghlan, a decision that was in other reporting meant to have been stimulated by Chinese sensitivities.

The most recent Monitoring report from July, however, suggested elements close the group had already disregarded this Taliban request and re-established a footprint in Badakhshan, including strengthening relationships with Tajikistan focused group Jamaat Ansarullah as well as the Pakistani focused Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This last element is particularly worrying for China as it illustrates a larger problem for China that has sharpened in the past year – the growing targeting of China by an ever-widening range of militant groups in the region.

Pakistan is the biggest locus of this threat, with the threat picture towards China widening from mostly separatist groups (Balochi and Sindhi’s) to now TTP and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) seeming to target China. In October 2021, ISKP deployed a Uyghur bomber to target a Shia Mosque in Kunduz, making specific reference to the Taliban’s cooperation with China in their claim of responsibility. ISKP’s propaganda has continued to highlight China as an enemy. July’s UN Monitoring report highlighted one member state reporting that some 50 Uyghurs had reportedly defected from TIP to join ISKP.

All of this serves to highlight the very different security support that China gets from the new leadership in Kabul. While there have been persistent rumours of China seeking to develop security relations with the Taliban – including being involved in meetings between Chinese, Pakistani and Taliban intelligence – very little public evidence has emerged of security contacts. It is also notable that while China is seemingly of greater interest to apparently much freer militant groups in Afghanistan, we have not seen reports of Chinese interests or nationals being directly targeted in the country.

This comes at the same time as China’s visible presence in Afghanistan has increased. Since the Taliban takeover, China has sent vaccine aid, earthquake relief, food aid (around the country, from the central government in Beijing, regional governments and companies). Chinese companies have returned to discuss possible projects, as well as explore new ones. This has come in the form of large state-owned enterprises that have long engaged in the country, as well as new ones exploring opportunities. Very little of this has so far actually moved forwards, though there has been a notable surge in low level Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen exploring opportunities in the country.

At a more tactical level, the government has supported the re-establishment of a pine nut air corridor to enable Afghan farmers to sell their products directly to the Chinese consumer market. They have also talked about finding ways of encouraging greater volume of sales of Afghan gemstones, saffron, almonds, fruits and other products. They have said they would drop tariffs on goods to zero, and re-started visas for Afghans eager to travel to China. They have spoken of linking Afghanistan up to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and of finding ways of integrating the country into the wider regional connectivity boom.

But while all of this is very positive, very little of it is entirely new. And it is unclear how quickly the big-ticket state-owned enterprise led projects will take to get going. All of these other pieces of the economic pie are positive, but ultimately quite limited: the long-term answer to stability in the Afghan economic situation comes from large-scale investment. And so far, it is not clear that China is pushing this that rapidly ahead. Whilst the Tunxi Initiative that Beijing pushed out (as part of a much wider set of regional engagements which built on the web of minilateral institutions that China has fostered across Eurasia) was high on positive sentiment towards engagement and encouraging regional connectivity with Afghanistan, it is not clear what metrics were established to move things forwards.

China’s increased activity in many ways is a reflection of the fact that China is one of the few big players still visibly present in Afghanistan. The western withdrawal left a gap which has highlighted more clearly China’s activity (in the absence of everything else). But it is not clear how much it has materially changed or increased to the level the Taliban government want. They continue to court multiple actors, and are eager to get projects going, but with the Chinese ones at least, still finding many of the same problems that the Republic government encountered. It is not impossible that the problems will eventually become unblocked, but it is clear that at the moment, there is still a sense of hesitation and uncertainty about what is actually going to happen on the ground and how much the Taliban are really in control of the entire country.

Where China has been far happier is in terms of using Afghanistan as a stick with which to rhetorically beat the Americans on the world stage. Highlighting the fact that their planes are bringing aid to Afghanistan, while the US is bringing more weapons to Ukraine. They continue to advocate for the US to unblock the Afghan government money which is tied up abroad, and call for the US to step back to fix the situation on the ground, blaming them for everything that has happened. While this is not an entirely surprising narrative given the global context, it is in fact a true shame for Afghanistan, which used to shine as a beacon of cooperation between the US and China. Great power conflict has quite clearly been brought back to the country.

More catch up on previous events, this time an interview with La Repubblica in the wake of the death of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.

Al Zawahiri, Pantucci: “La leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata”

di Enrico Franceschini

“Un successo dell’intelligence Usa. La minaccia del terrorismo non scompare ma il gruppo dirigente responsabile dell’attentato dell’11 settembre è stato eliminato”, dice l’esperto di terorrismo del Royal United Services Institute

Al Zawahiri, Pantucci: "La leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata"

Eliminare al Zawahiri chiude un capitolo nella storia di al Qaeda, anche se il libro del terrorismo rimane aperto”. È il giudizio di Raffaello Pantucci, esperto del Royal United Services Institute, il più antico think tank per i problemi della sicurezza, autore del saggio We love death as you love life (Noi amiamo la morte come voi amate la vita), un’inchiesta sui terroristi della porta accanto in Gran Bretagna, e uno dei massimi specialisti in materia. “Ora la leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata”, dice in questa intervista a Repubblica.

Come giudica l’operazione annunciata dalla Casa Bianca, Pantucci?
“È chiaramente un successo dal punto di vista americano. Dimostra la capacità di eliminare un capo terrorista in un luogo ostile in un momento scelto da Washington con la garanzia di poter ricorrere ai droni, quindi con la certezza di colpire la persona giusta. Per Osama bin Laden, l’America dovette mandare i commandos delle forze speciali, perché non era sicura della propria intelligence. Stavolta invece sì, significa che l’intelligence è migliorata”. 

Che conseguenze avrà nella lotta al terrorismo?
“A mio parere chiude un capitolo su al Qaeda. La minaccia del terrorismo non scompare e può sempre riemergere in qualche modo, la rabbia contro l’Occidente rimane, però il gruppo dirigente responsabile dell’attentato dell’11 settembre e di tanti altri ha perso il suo centro, è stato decimato. Il libro del terrore è ancora aperto, ma un capitolo sembra chiuso”.

Recentemente Al Qaeda aveva rialzato la testa?
“Non in termini di attentati specifici, ma negli ultimi tempi era cresciuta la retorica, Zawahiri lanciava minacce all’India e ad altri paesi, incitava a continuare la lotta, sostenendo che il ritorno al potere dei talebani in Afghanistan dimostrava che si poteva sconfiggere l’Occidente”.

Zawahiri aveva appunto ottenuto rifugio a Kabul, proprio come bin Laden: in Afghanistan allora dal 2001 a oggi non è cambiato niente?
“Sembrerebbe proprio così, purtroppo, ma la presenza di Zawahiri era già stata segnalata in luglio da un rapporto dell’Onu, il che vuol dire due cose: o la sua presenza non era un segreto ben tenuto o tra i talebani c’era chi aveva interessa a rivelarla. L’impressione è che i talebani di oggi siano più divisi, e con più problemi al proprio interno, rispetto a quelli andati al potere vent’anni fa: questo è cambiato”. 

Le uccisioni mirate, da parte americana e non solo, suscitano critiche: sono un’opzione valida nella lotta al terrorismo?
“Io sono del parere che in assoluto sarebbe meglio catturare i terroristi e processarli. Ma stiamo parlando di gente che vive in nazioni ostili, aiutati o protetti dal governo locale e talvolta sarebbe impossibile catturarli. Nel caso di Zawahiri, inoltre, non sembrano esserci stati danni collaterali. Nell’agosto di un anno fa, l’America rispose al grande attentato all’aeroporto di Kabul con un attacco che doveva eliminarne gli autori ma, come si è poi saputo, colpì e uccise per errore una famiglia innocente. Stavolta gli Usa erano sicuri di non sbagliare”. 

Si dice che morto un capo se ne fa un altro, ma eliminarli ha anche un valore deterrente?
“Sospetto di no, come deterrenza non funziona se ci sono militanti altrettanto fanatici. Ma funziona nel danneggiare un gruppo terroristico: un leader ha conoscenza e carisma. Una volta eliminato il capo, non è facile trovarne un altro con le stesse capacità”. 

Azioni del genere fanno alzare i consensi verso il leader che le ordina, almeno per un po’: il presidente Biden avrà agito anche con un occhio al voto di mid-term?
“Non credo. Certo, esiste sempre l’idea che, se un leader ha problemi interni, un’azione in politica estera può distrarre l’opinione pubblica e rilanciare un politico facendolo apparire forte e determinato. Ma a parte che le elezioni di mid-term sono ancora lontane, operazioni di questo tipo richiedono una lunga preparazione e coinvolgono forze speciali e intelligence. Sono questi ultimi a dire al presidente quando è arrivato il momento di agire, non il contrario”.

In generale a che punto è la minaccia del terrorismo islamico ?
“Dipende dove sei. In Africa la minaccia è piuttosto acuta. In Medio Oriente e in Asia esiste ancora, particolarmente in Siria, in minor misura in Iraq, in Pakistan. In Europa è per lo più rappresentata dal fenomeno dei lupi solitari, alcuni ispirati dalle idee di organizzazioni come l’Isis e al Qaeda ma spinti ad agire anche per altri problemi che hanno nella vita, per attirare attenzione su sé stessi. E negli Usa la più grande minaccia ora è il terrorismo domestico, le stragi e le sparatorie compiute da fanatici di estrema destra”.
 

Visto che Zawahiri era il capo di al Qaeda, quanto è serio il rischio di un attacco di grandi proporzioni come quello dell’11 settembre 2001?
“Non è del tutto impossibile, però oggi è molto più difficile che in passato. Al Qaeda è seguita e scrutinata intensamente dai servizi di intelligence e antiterrorismo. Altri gruppi puntano i loro attacchi su obiettivi più regionali, in Africa o in Medio Oriente. Organizzare un attentato contro l’Occidente sulla scala dell’11 settembre richiede un livello di preparazione che adesso sarebbe molto difficile da nascondere. Ciò non esclude che qualcuno ci provi o speri di provarci, per cui la guardia va tenuta sempre alta”.

Another book edited extract published a little while ago, this time in Foreign Policy drawing on the chapter on Afghanistan.

China Is Doomed to Play a Significant Role in Afghanistan

Beijing is desperate to avoid being trapped in Kabul’s politics.

For decades, Beijing has worried about security in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, Beijing worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. Then, in the early 2000s, Chinese workers were killed and kidnapped in the country. China also shares a remote but direct border with Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban takeover, increasing violence in the wider region gave China good reason to worry.

Despite this, China’s approach to its neighbor for a long time was, as prominent Central Asia analyst Zhao Huasheng1 aptly characterized it, essentially to act as an observer, leaving security questions to the United States and its allies. That changed in 2012, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he wanted to get Washington out of the conflict he had inherited. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal came into sharper relief, Beijing realized that it would have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. Even then—and even after security concerns rose once again after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021—China never fully came to assume that role.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 came after we had concluded writing our book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. But many of the trends and patterns we observed continued to hold. Although China has undeniably stepped into a far more prominent role than ever before, it has continued to hedge its bets and refused to take on a leadership role in the country. China’s unwillingness to take on that role, even though it is increasingly being thrust into it, serves as a perfect example of the central concept our book: China is doomed to play a significant role in the country, but is studiously avoiding it.

China’s clear, yet gradual, shift from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement in Afghanistan took place over the past decade.

The most visible and significant element of China’s newfound attention on Afghanistan was Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang’s visit2 to Kabul in September 2012—the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to Afghanistan since 1966.

But even earlier that year, when we visited Afghanistan, China was seeking to advance diplomacy with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In February 2012, Beijing hosted3 the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Then, in May 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department initiated a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. The group of a dozen young diplomats would get a 15-day experience in Beijing, followed by another 15 days in Washington.

That June, as China was hosting the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’ agreement with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and welcomed the country as an official SCO observer state. Just over a month later, then-Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Guo Boxiong met with then-Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak to ‘enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation.’

The signaling was clear. As Washington approached a drawdown, China was going to have to step in more, though the extent of it was unclear. Yet there were clearly dissenters in Beijing, and many of the security-focused Chinese officials and experts we met were quite clear that this was a problem of Washington’s making that China wanted little to do with.

All of this change in Chinese activity was, however, undermined by the fact that Washington did not leave. In the end, Obama did not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Although its presence shrunk considerably, the United States retained a capability to launch attacks and kept bases in the country.

Meanwhile, within China, security concerns increased. In April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang. This came after a tumultuous period where incidents linked to Xinjiang spread across the country—including a car and incendiary device attack on Tiananmen Square, a mass stabbing incident in Kunming, and escalating violence in Xinjiang itself. Just as Xi was leaving Xinjiang, attackers launched a knife and bomb attack4 on the train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

In his speeches about the threat in 2014, Xi made a clear link between what was going on in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Beijing’s answer to this concern appears to have been to push a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing escalated its engagement with the Afghan authorities, building on what was already being done to create a wave of bilateral and multilateral formats with other partners in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it strengthened its contacts with the Taliban, making sure it was covering its bases for all eventualities. It seemed as though China was going to take on a more active role in the country, aware of the fact that no matter whether the United States stayed or left, it was likely to be an erratic partner Beijing could not rely on.

In July 2014, China appointed Sun Yuxi,5 a popular former ambassador to Kabul, as its first special envoy for Afghanistan. His role was to serve as a point of contact and a coordinator for China’s engagement with the Taliban, and after his arrival, there was a noticeable uptick in public engagement among China, the Taliban, and the Afghan government.

When Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s president that September, he immediately signaled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his first formal trip abroad. During this visit, he laid the groundwork for formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early 2015, stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations; officials we spoke to in Beijing said they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting6 with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi. In July, another round of talks was held in Pakistan, at which Chinese participants also played a role.This was followed by more multilateral engagements.

The Chinese-supported peace track seemed to be bearing fruit, until abruptly, in late July 2015, news leaked that Taliban leader Mullah Omar7 had died back in 2013. This declaration scuttled the discussions and set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced over his successor. It also complicated China’s role, since it was not clear whom Beijing would engage with on the Taliban side.

Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan government to negotiate with full confidence or for Beijing to feel like it could do much. Chinese officials we spoke to at the time almost immediately fell back into stating that it was up to the United States to step up and support the Afghan government and its national security forces. They further noted that until there was greater clarity about who the main Taliban negotiator was, talks were unlikely to bear much fruit.

But it seemed that China maintained its contacts with the Taliban. In fact, Beijing has had a long history of contacts with the Taliban, dating to when the group was in power in Kabul before September 2001. At the time, China was one of the few countries that engaged with them, though this was largely through China’s contacts in Islamabad.

 Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque. Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on July 31, 2014, as China increased security in many parts of the province.Getty Images 

In the early days, Beijing seemed to focus its discussions on ensuring that any trouble in Afghanistan did not spill into China and that the Taliban maintained control over Uyghur groups. Some Chinese experts who visited Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s told us they were surprised during their visit to learn of large numbers of Uyghur militants in the country. Taliban authorities reportedly sought to reassure Beijing that they would stop these individuals from launching attacks against China, though it was never clear whether the Uyghur groups adhered to this and did not launch attacks or use the territory to plot against China. We later met individuals who had been to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and al Qaeda-managed camps who told us stories—corroborated by others—of Uyghurs in the camps in large numbers.

In 2015, it seemed as though China decided to use its contacts with the Taliban to help protect its longer-term interests in the country. Aside from seeking to broker greater discussions among the Taliban, Pakistan, and the government in Kabul, China also sought to bring the United States into the discussions. Around this time, Beijing was engaged in numerous bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral engagements concerning Afghanistan.

One senior Afghan diplomat told us during a session in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that he was exhausted from running between these different events, though it was not clear to him how useful they were. Other Afghans we spoke to were far more scathing about Beijing’s engagement behind closed doors. One former senior defense official told us that they had been forced to dispose of most of the equipment that China had handed over, claiming ‘it was full of bugs.’ Others said they had evidence that Beijing was paying off and providing military equipment to the Taliban to develop contacts and maintain influence, something that was partially confirmed to us by a Chinese contact who mentioned in passing being involved in handing over bags of money to Taliban contacts. We were never able to independently confirm this, but it did speak to a greater sense of confidence in Beijing about what China was doing in Afghanistan.

In March 2016, then-Chinese People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui visited Kabul, seemingly to help start a new minilateral regional organization. That organization, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), brought together the chiefs of army staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan ‘to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training,’ according to a statement8 by the Chinese defense ministry.

By bringing together senior security officials with all the countries that had a presence around the Wakhan Corridor, China was helping secure its own border and creating a format through which it could monitor it. The structure also formalized the People’s Liberation Army’s responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Alongside the creation of the QCCM, China started to make its security contributions to the other members of the group more public. In Afghanistan, Beijing revealed it had helped build a base and was providing funding for a mountain security force in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Locals reported seeing Chinese soldiers patrolling the region. Other reports highlighted how Afghan forces were being trained in China. In Tajikistan, China built around a dozen border posts for Tajik border guards as well as a base for its own forces in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. China was, in essence, creating a security buffer to seal itself off from direct threats from its border regions with Afghanistan.

Although the China-Afghanistan relationship continued to stay relatively strong over the next few years, in the dying days of Afghanistan’s government under Ghani, there was growing turmoil between the two countries. The first loud signal of trouble was the U.S. decision in November 2020 to de-list the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement9 from its list of terrorist organizations. It was a decision Kabul reportedly did not agree with and one that caused friction with China.

Then, in December 2020, a spy scandal erupted with the Afghan National Directorate of Security detaining a network of 10 Chinese nationals who, it claimed, were spies undertaking covert activities against the government in Kabul. The Afghan and Chinese governments worked to keep the story out of the media and rushed to get the spies out on a private jet back to China, denying everything, though the story was leaked in considerable detail to the Indian media.

But the Afghan government was very careful about how it handled the scandal. Unlike the United States that was now heading for the door, Kabul recognized that it needed to maintain a working relationship with Beijing.

It was later revealed that their counterterrorism relationship had also come under strain, with Kabul apparently stopping its regular repatriation of Uyghur militants it caught on the battlefield. This was made public when in the wake of Kabul’s fall, news emerged that some 30 or so Uyghurs who had been in custody were released when the Taliban emptied the country’s prisons.

But this revelation cut both ways: On the one hand, it showed how the relationship between Kabul and Beijing had broken down, but it was also an early indication of the Taliban’s lack of capability or interest in managing the problem of militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan to Beijing’s desires (highlighted by the fact that they freed them).

In current Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is no denying that China is more prominent. The Chinese Embassy was one of the few that stayed during the Taliban takeover. A number of Chinese businessmen are reportedly showing up to try their fortune. China has engaged with, participated in, and hosted numerous regional formats on Afghanistan. It has also sponsored some limited bilateral trade efforts and provided aid of some substance across the country, and Chinese state-owned enterprises have started to talk about restarting their projects with Taliban authorities. China has done everything except formally acknowledge the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan—a step it is unlikely to take until it sees others in the international community do so first.

But talk to Chinese experts, and the picture is more circumspect. They hold little hope for the Taliban to create an inclusive government, see instability on the horizon, and worry about the worsening security situation in the broader region.

Although China has spoken of Afghanistan as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and some recent trade has started, in reality, the tangible economic links between China and Afghanistan amount to the export of Afghan pine nuts to China and the construction of a fiberoptic cable down the Wakhan Corridor to help Afghanistan get on the internet. Talk about the BRI in Kabul, and people will say good things and hope for greater engagement, but they are still waiting for it to materialize. Afghan businessmen still find it difficult to get visas into China, flights are irregular, and COVID-19 continues to make travel to China difficult.

China is still concerned about its security interests in Afghanistan, but, as in the past, its answer has been to largely seal itself off, hardening its own and nearby borders. Through a web of multilateral engagements, China has offered itself as a host and discussant but never a moderator—in other words, China is willing to be involved but does not want to take the key role of confronting actors and forcing them to resolve their issues. Beijing is certainly doing more than it did before, but it is clear that it is not going to step into a leadership role. China has all the trappings and potential to be a dominant player but has made a strategic decision to continue to watch from the sidelines.  

[1]: https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-and-afghanistan

[2]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china/top-china-official-visits-afghanistan-signs-security-deal-idUSBRE88M02C20120923

[3]: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceus/eng/zgyw/t910391.htm#:~:text=From%20February%2028%20to%2029,Foreign%20Affairs%20chaired%20the%20dialogue.

[4]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27225308

[5]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-afghanistan/china-appoints-special-envoy-for-afghanistan-idUSKBN0FN11Z20140718

[6]: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[7]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33703097

[8]: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/31/sinostan-china-afghanistan-relations-taliban-history/including%20study%20and%20judgment%20of%20the%20counter%20terrorism%20situation

[9]: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/11/05/2020-24620/in-the-matter-of-the-designation-of-the-eastern-turkistan-islamic-movement-also-known-as-etim-as-a

A longer report I have been working on for some time which builds on work about the terrorist threat in the UK as part of a series run by the German foundation the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung looking at the state of the terrorist threat in Europe in general. Have another big piece on this have been working on forever, just need to find time to finish. The entire report is available free online as a good looking PDF, so am not going to re-post in its entirety here, but will put the executive summary to give you a taste.

Jihadism in the United Kingdom

The UK’s jihadist terror threat picture has evolved compared to the 2000s, when the UK was a key target of al-Qaeda, and even more since the collapse of ISIS’s caliphate in 2017. That year, in fact, marked something of a recent apex which has heralded a period of regular lone actor plots – some of which demonstrate an inspiration from ISIS, but others where it is unclear. This paper seeks to better understand this transformation and the evolution of the threat in the UK, as part of the “Jihadist Terrorism in Europe” series published by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in which renowned experts analyse the current state of the jihadist threat in various countries, as well as the related counter-terrorism strategies and political debates.

In the present study, Raffaello Pantucci looks at the UK, which most recently in January 2022 saw a radicalised British national launch an attack against a synagogue in Texas in advance of the attempted liberation of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the long-jailed female al-Qaeda member serving a lengthy sentence in a nearby jail.

› Although the UK jihadist threat has not produced any large-scale attacks recently, it has consistently produced lone actor plots.

› The paper outlines how the current threat links back to the past, and in particular the dangers posed to the UK by the reemergence of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

› The UK also still has a lingering problem of foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq. Passport deprivation – a preferred Home Office method of dealing with such cases – has not eliminated the problem but simply displaced it. Some individuals are still trying to return home, while others remain in Turkish or insecure Levantine jails.

› Authorities in the UK have consistently focused on trying to manage the threat through greater internal coordination.

› Larger problems around extremism continue to fester, though the degree to which they are linked to the jihadist threat remains unclear.

› The biggest problem for the UK is managing a problem which never seems to be entirely resolved, but only seems to grow in unpredictable and confusing ways, creating new cohorts of problems for authorities to manage. This, along with the growing problem of the extreme right wing, as well as sectarianism amongst South Asian communities points to a set of issues which will continue to trouble the UK.

Some time ago, the UK’s Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published a report which provided an evaluation drawing on intelligence community thoughts and assessments about the nature and scale of the extreme right-wing threat in the UK. Its main recommendation seemed to be the security services needed more capability to manage this threat, which seemed dissonant to me with the wider discourse about the threat at the moment. Inspired I wrote the following for my UK institutional home, RUSI.

Extreme Right-Wing Terrorism in the UK: How Concerned Should We Be?

Worrying trends: the scene of a terror attack near Finsbury Park Mosque, London on 19 Jun 2017. Image: WENN / Alamy

A recent report indicates some worrying trends in extreme right-wing terrorism in the UK, but also highlights how the threat can sometimes be a product of its response.

The extreme right-wing terrorism (ERWT) threat in the UK is difficult to gauge. Often referred to as the fastest rising threat, the number of actual attacks and casualties the UK has experienced over the past decade can mercifully be counted on one hand. While attacks are a poor indicator of threat, the recent Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on the ERWT threat in the UK shined a light on the problem and made the key recommendation that MI5 would need more resources to manage the threat. Yet it is not entirely clear what this resource growth should look like, or how acute the ERWT threat actually is.

Since April 2020, MI5 has taken on lead responsibility for managing the extreme right-wing terror threat (referred to now formally as ERWT as opposed to the previous XRW). The decision to transfer from the police was made in 2018 in the wake of reviews after the surge of terrorist attacks in 2017. While only one of these was linked to the ERWT (the murder of 51-year-old Makram Ali outside Finsbury Park Mosque on 19 June 2017), the attack came after the proscription of National Action and the murder of Jo Cox MP. The threat from ERWT seemed to be rising and required a stronger response.

According to the then independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Sir David Anderson QC, at the time, he found a ‘lingering attachment in parts of MI5 to the notion that XRW [Extreme Right-Wing] plotting does not engage their national security function in the same way as Islamist plotting does’. He disputed this assessment, and the security establishment largely agreed, leading to the transfer of responsibility for the threat to MI5.

Yet reading the ISC report, it does not seem as though the actual threat from ERWT has notably increased in security assessments. In July 2019, MI5 is reported as saying: ‘Whilst we assess the ERWT threat to the UK is on a gradual upwards trajectory, we have not observed a significant increase in specific mobilisation or radicalisation during this reporting period, and ERWT investigations continue to constitute a significant minority of MI5’s CT [counterterrorism] casework’. This ‘minority’ was clarified by MI5’s Director General recently, who told the media earlier this month that ‘around one in five terrorism investigations in Great Britain were linked to neo-Nazi, racist ideology or other related extremism’, a rate he was reported to have said remained steady.

But the ISC report suggests that this might be a calm before the storm. It highlights research that suggests the coronavirus pandemic has materially strengthened the ERWT threat. Looking at online material, there is no doubt that the far right has adopted and absorbed narratives related to the pandemic to a greater degree than violent Islamists. In continental Europe, there has been a worrying growth in attacks, networks and plotting quite directly linking ERWT and the pandemic – the cases of Jurgen Conings in Belgium in May 2021 and a German network called the Vereinte Patrioten (United Patriots) that was disrupted in April this year highlighted some worrying trends. The involvement of serving armed forces members, the targeting of officials linked to healthcare, references to anti-vax narratives, and the wider networks around the plotters all indicated a problem that is moving in a dangerous direction. Europol’s latest annual report on the terrorist threat picture in Europe highlights how the number of attacks and plots in continental Europe has plateaued at around three per year, while the number of arrests continues to grow year-on-year.

But it is not clear how much this reflects what has been seen in the UK. There have been cases of serving police officers and soldiers being linked to ERWT groups, but these have been limited. The UK has not had to disband entire military units because of concerns about extreme right ideology as Germany has done, nor has the UK seen mobs linked in part to far-right groups attempt to storm or occupy public buildings (as seen in all other Five Eyes partners, to very different degrees). The UK has seen some hate crime and incidents such as 5G mast burnings which appear to be linked to online conspiracy theories, but these are not clear ERWT attacks.

Rather, the conclusion articulated by the ISC report, which seems to reflect the view of the wider security community, is that the threat in the UK from ERWT is for the most part dominated by Self-Initiated Terrorists (S-IT). While a number of ERWT groups have now been proscribed in the UK, only one attack has been linked to them. An interesting question raised by the ISC report is the degree to which the lone-actor threat and the ERWT threat might in fact be the same thing – or whether the ERWT threat is in large part an articulation of the lone-actor threat.

The report also highlights the significance of youth, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and mental health issues among the ERWT caseload. While there is some internal dispute about these issues, the Homeland Security Group within the Home Office is quoted as highlighting how frontline services have reported an increase in ASD among their caseload, with a particular link to ERWT. The youth question is more obvious, with it becoming regular for very young teenagers to be arrested for ERWT offences (including most recently a 15-year-old boy from the Isle of Wight).

This poses a curious dissonance for authorities, who on the one hand have only seen actual ERWT attacks conducted by middle-aged men, while on the other hand teenagers increasingly dominate the arrest load. The question which was most recently alluded to by the Independent Terror Watchdog Jonathan Hall QC is whether these individuals are in fact simply ‘keyboard warriors’. Given most of their links and activity take place online, with few maturing to real-world plots, there is a question about the nature of the actual threat they pose – and by default, the wider threat ERWT poses if this is the majority of the arrests that are being seen.

There are also some curious aspects of the threat that are downplayed in the ISC paper, though it is difficult to draw too many conclusions on its threat assessments given the volume of redactions. Specifically, there are questions around the degree to which Russia and more recently the war in Ukraine have impacted the UK’s ERWT threat. Within the ISC report, suggestions are made about the far-right group Britain First’s connections to Moscow, but there are more worrying links out there. The Base, a proscribed organisation with deep roots across English-speaking countries, seems to be directed by an American based in Russia, while pro-Russian narratives are increasingly common among the ERWT community globally. This is interesting, as previously, ERWT individuals seeking training tended to go and fight alongside the far-right inclined Ukrainian Azov Battalion – though its current active support by Western authorities has confused things. It is not clear how many UK ERWT actors have actually gone to fight in the current conflict, and whether (if they have been fighting alongside Azov) they would actually pose a threat. How many (if any) have gone to fight on the Russian side is equally unclear.

The final point to consider and which the ISC paper alludes to is the degree to which this threat may be a product of its response. Early on, the report quotes MI5 as saying ‘it is difficult to establish an accurate historical trajectory of the ERWT threat on the grounds that the recent increase in focus by HMG and heightened public awareness of the ERWT threat has contributed to an increase in referrals and investigations’.

This raises the complicated interplay of threat and response. In the absence of attacks, terrorist threats are often defined by the response to them. Consequently, the ERWT threat in the UK is defined by the number of arrests, the volume of officials focused on it, and the proportion of capability that is being dedicated to looking at it. But none of these are objective metrics of the actual threat; rather, they are a reflection of the response. Were MI5 or the Police to dedicate more people to looking at the threat, doubtless they would find more things to look at. This is not to accuse them of artificially inflating the threat; it is simply that more resource would lower the general threshold for investigation.

This becomes relevant when looking at the wider threat picture and trying to objectively assess the degree of menace that is posed. It has been some time since the UK courts have seen any major terrorist case presented before them of the scale and ambition that used to be directed towards the country by al-Qa’ida or later Islamic State. There have not been any large-scale networks of the extreme right launching sophisticated and ambitious plots. National Action was stamped on by authorities before it could really mature, and before that one has to go back to the Aryan Strike Force, which in 2010 had mobilised people and one of its members had managed to produce ricinPatriotic Alternative may yet mature into a future threat, but as of yet it has not. The current threat picture that is seen consists of isolated individuals, shrinking numbers of arrests, and an ERWT threat that seems dominated by (though is not exclusive to) the very young.

The point is that it is not clear how much of a menace the ERWT threat actually is – or more generally how much it is a reflection of the attention it is getting rather than an increased threat. Most indicators suggest the UK’s general terror threat is down, and what plots are disrupted appear to be isolated lone actors often inspired by material they find or people they talk to online.

This is not to say that the threats from both violent Islamists or ERWT might not develop once again – the kindling is certainly in place at home and abroad. Nor is it to underplay the damage ERWT can do to the societal fabric in a way that a seemingly external threat like violent Islamists cannot. But it is to instead ask the question of whether the growing focus on an ERWT threat in the UK is appropriate. It has not yet matured to the state-level national security threat that it could have, but it is not clear if this is because of the security response to it, because the problem is decreasing, or because it is in fact a product of other societal issues which are now less linked to ERWT ideas than before (a possible explanation for the questions around ASD, mental health and youth). Finally, this comes back to the key recommendation made by the ISC for MI5 to receive more resources to deal with the ERWT threat. Is this a proportionate response to the threat, or might it actually have the counterproductive effect of highlighting or accentuating a more limited problem?

Moving away once again from book promotion, returning to the theme of terrorism in Europe, this piece for my institutional home RSIS touches on some of the larger issues covered in my BBC Radio 4 series looking at mental health and terrorism.

Terrorism in Europe: A Very Different Kind of Threat

For three weeks in a row this year, Europe has been hit by a highly public act of attempted mass murder. With the United States reeling from its latest bout of grim mass shootings, what exactly can be concluded from the fact that most terrorist incidents in the West are increasingly indistinguishable from apolitical mass murders?

Denmark in shock as gunman kills three at Copenhagen shopping mall, Reuters.

THE ATTACK in Copenhagen on 3 July 2022 by a 22-year-old Danish man is the third time this year Europe has been struck by what looked like a terrorist incident.

The weekend before the violent attack in Copenhagen, a Norwegian-Iranian gunman opened fire on celebrants of Gay Pride in Oslo killing two. On 8 June 2022 in Berlin, a 29-year-old German-Armenian drove his car into crowds on a busy shopping street. The attack killed a teacher visiting the city with a group of children from Hesse, and injured 31.

Extremist Ideology or Mental Health Issues?

Of these three violent incidents, it is only authorities in Oslo that have made a direct link to terrorism. Norwegian police revealed the gunman was someone known to them since 2015 who also had a history of mental illness. This suggestion of mental illness being present is similar to both the German and Danish cases, where the individuals have subsequently been placed into psychiatric care while authorities determine how to ultimately handle the case.

As if to emphasise the importance of this juxtaposition, the attack came at the same time as a sentence of full-time psychiatric care was imposed on a Danish convert to Islam who in October last year fatally attacked five people with a knife and bow and arrow in Norway.

But while mental health issues increasingly appear a constant, there is often also a suggestion that some ideological motivation might also be present. Highlighting this complicated balance which has become all-too-commonplace in Europe, Europol pointed out the terrorist threat as such in its last annual report:

“Some lone attackers in 2020 again displayed a combination of extremist ideology and mental health issues. This made it difficult at times to distinguish between terrorist attacks and violence caused by mental health problems.”

In the United States, there is an equally regular reference to both ideology and mental health issues in the wake of violent incidents, though the entire picture in America is complicated by the easy availability of high-powered guns. This makes acting on an impulse ever easier and more destructive, and subsequently understanding an individual’s motive even more complicated.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was careful not to point to mental health issues in an advisory it issued in early June. It stated: “…the primary threat of mass casualty violence in the United States stems from lone offenders and small groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs and/or personal grievances.”

The DHS later, however, provided contacts for those concerned about others suffering from mental health issues suggesting at least the recognition that the issue was one that often came up in cases the department was handling.

The Mental Health-Terror Balance

The combination is difficult for authorities to manage for a variety of reasons. In the first instance, the behaviour of such individuals is very hard to predict. Their sometimes inherently erratic lives, the nature of attacks they are undertaking that often require little immediate preparation and the highly random nature of their targets makes it an almost impossible task to ensure total security.

While there is evidence that in some cases they do actually telegraph their intent before acting – for example, in the Danish case, it seems as though he posted videos suggesting something was about to happen a day before he launched his attack. This can still be a bit of a needle in a haystack piece of data.

Furthermore, focusing on healthcare requires getting healthcare providers involved.  Doctors and mental healthcare workers are by their nature focused on ensuring the well-being and care of their patients and society so are often welcome supporters. But it is difficult to get them to focus on concerns around extremism on top of their many other responsibilities. Some are also reticent about being pushed into roles that can appear to be that of security agents.

They are also often concerned about the criminalisation of what is an already very vulnerable community. The growing incidence of violent acts being committed by people with mental health issues can criminalise an entire community in the public mind, the vast majority of whom are simply very sick people in need of help. The term mental health itself is also not very helpful, when one considers the huge range of issues that it can encompass.

The final aspect which is important to bear in mind is that there can also be a danger in overfocusing on the mental health aspect of any case. Defence attorneys have long sought to use the presence of such issues as mitigation in their cases.

People suffering from mental health issues can also perpetrate crimes. Understanding this balance is complicated and becomes even harder to strike when you incorporate an ideological crime like terrorism.

Is This Even Terrorism?

But the biggest challenge is trying to understand if any of this even classifies as terrorism any more. As highlighted earlier, of this recent spate of extremist violence, only authorities in Norway are pursuing terrorism motivation at the moment. But it seems likely that the other acts at the very least ape terrorist acts in their behaviour.

In the US, the phenomenon of mass shooting has become so common alongside a highly angry and polarised political environment that it is very difficult to separate it, or even appreciate the degree to which mental health might be salient in a particular case. In Europe this all comes as France seems to finally close the book on the ISIS attack on Paris of November 2015 though the lone actor playbook ISIS promulgated continues to resonate.

In a recent joint appearance in London after a week of meetings, the chiefs of MI5 (the UK’s domestic intelligence agency) and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), highlighted how the lone actor was the sharp end of the threat that their services saw in the terrorism space.

As MI5 head Ken McCallum put it, they were facing a “very difficult cocktail of risks”. The increasing prevalence of mental health and related issues in the threat picture has only served to make it harder, adding a layer of unpredictability.

More belated commentary, this time for the Straits Times exploring the range of trouble spots in Central Asia that have not gotten much smaller since I wrote this.

Trouble brews in Central Asia

A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil is stirring unrest in all but one country in the region, which serves as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia.

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan. PHOTO: REUTERS

The world has a collective habit of forgetting Central Asia. Rich in natural resources, the region sits at the heart of what British geographer Halford Mackinder described as the geopolitical pivot of the world – serving as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia. Key overland routes – like the Silk Road of yore – cut across the region connecting Europe directly to China.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the region. A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil has created a dangerous brew in all but one of the five countries making up the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Only Turkmenistan, which has just seen a power transition from a tried and tested leader to his young son, appears unaffected. There is no evidence of instability in the country at the moment, although it is impossible to know what is really going on because of the lack of information. Food prices are reportedly high, inflation has long been a problem, while the population is still struggling amid a Covid-19 crisis.

REINVIGORATED MOTOR AND BULWARK

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the north-eastern region of the country. An attempt to redraft the nation’s Constitution led to anger as locals felt their special status was being taken away without their consent. At least 18 people were killed.

The violence in Uzbekistan had followed unrest in Kazakhstan, the wealthiest and most influential Central Asian power which had thus far been regarded as the bulwark of regional stability. Both countries were widely seen as former Soviet bloc countries seemingly on the path of reform.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev turned the country around when he took over in 2016 following the death of founding president Islam Karimov. Moving to rapidly open up the previously reclusive regime, the government in Tashkent was viewed elsewhere in Central Asia as a reinvigorated motor to the region.

When Kazakhstan’s founding leader and president Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over power peacefully in 2019 he seemed to set the tone for how such power transitions could be handled elsewhere. But, in January last year, a fuel tax hike led to mass protests that were quickly overtaken by a political dispute. The violence rapidly spiralled out of control, leading President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to call on Russia to deploy its forces under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help stabilise the country. Reports suggest that over 200 people were killed in the unrest.

The authorities in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still counting the costs of the unrest, including the geopolitical and political consequences of what occurred. President Tokayev’s decision to bring in Russian forces was highly sensitive politically in a country where the government has long been pushing an increasingly nationalist narrative.

In Tajikistan, the trouble centres on the Pamiri community living along the country’s border with Afghanistan with many people angry at their treatment by the central government. The Pamiri people, who are ethnically and linguistically different from the Tajiks, have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe. Last November, a young local man was tortured and killed by the authorities. This led to protests and repression which, in turn, erupted into much larger violence in May this year. The government is still suppressing the violence and has only recently reopened communications lines from the region.

Afghanistan has been a source of concern for Central Asia. As majority Muslim countries ruled by secular authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders, they fear the rise of Muslim fundamentalists in their region. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban put everyone on edge. As the militant group swept into Kabul, Russia rapidly dispatched aid to Central Asia in the form of joint training exercises and speeded up arms sales to the region. China, another regional power, contributed less, though it stepped into an active diplomatic role and bolstered its forces in Tajikistan along the Afghan-Tajik border.

Border disputes remain an obstacle to better ties in the region and the problem is particularly complicated in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet. Almost half of the 970km Kyrgyz-Tajik border has yet to be demarcated and this has led to repeated tensions between the two countries. In April last year, more than 40 people were killed as Tajik and Kyrgyz troops clashed over their disputed frontier and access to water. Tensions have since remained high with a Tajik border guard killed just a month ago.

SHADOW OF UKRAINE

All of these developments have taken place in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has a particular resonance in the case of Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population in its north along the border with Russia. Kazakhstan has been pushing Kazakh nationalism in an effort to craft a stronger sense of independent national identity, to the detriment of Russians. This has stirred anger in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other prominent commentators questioning Kazakh national identity as a concept. The similarity with Ukraine is not lost on seasoned observers.

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner. Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

These regional powers are also not interested in trying to manage the problems in Central Asia. Moscow continues to take a paternalistic attitude towards the region, while China is an entirely disinterested regional hegemon – increasingly the most consequential economic and political partner – but only willing to just watch as problems play themselves out. Iran is preoccupied with too many domestic problems.

The result is a Eurasian heartland in turmoil. This has consequences for energy prices – Turkmenistan is home to the world’s second largest natural gas field, and Kazakhstan is a key regional oil and gas producer. The country is also a major wheat exporter, at a time when the war in Ukraine has impacted two of the world’s largest exporters (Russia and Ukraine). The instability also has potential consequences for China’s Belt and Road visions across Eurasia, as most of the key land routes cut through this region on their way to Europe.

In his 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot Of History, Sir Halford identified the Eurasian heartland as the key territory to control the planet. Recently it has seemed as though Russia is relinquishing its control of the region and China is assuming it, the more accurate recent narrative is that everyone is watching as it becomes unstable. The question the world needs to pay attention to is what happens if this same pivot falls off its hinges. An unstable heartland is as dangerous as a dominated one.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and the author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Side box

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner.

Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

Causes for strife

BORDER DISPUTES

When the region’s borders were defined during the Soviet period, Central Asia was carved up in such a way as to ensure that its patchwork of ethnicities would remain in conflict with one another and, therefore, no threat to Moscow. The result has been a series of ill-defined borders that still cause trouble to this day. This is most apparent between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where each country has communities living in exclaves entirely surrounded by the other.

Waterways, roads and food supplies have regularly been a source of conflict, most recently in border shootings that erupted into conflict in April last year.

ETHNIC DIVISIONS

In Tajikistan, the region called the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is home to the Pamiri people, who have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe, the capital. In the 1990s, the country was wracked by a brutal civil war which led to tens of thousands of deaths. The civil war ended in 1997 with an internationally mediated accord.

In November last year, the death of a young Pamiri man in custody led to renewed tensions and fighting as the government sought to crush the Pamiri protests.

In Uzbekistan, as part of a broader drive to reform the country and potentially extend his rule, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev sought to redraft the national Constitution – including changing the status of Karakalpakstan. Physically the largest of the country’s 14 regions, Karakalpakstan has been an “autonomous republic” since the establishment of modern Uzbekistan in 1991. People in the area have always cherished their special status which gave them particular power and status within the country. Last month violent protests occurred in the regional capital, Nukus, which left 18 people dead.

ECONOMIC WOES

The apparent trigger for trouble in Kazakhstan came from a fuel tax hike at the beginning of the year. Already suffering from a domestic economic contraction, the public expressed anger at the visible economic inequalities in a resource-rich country.

The apparently organic protests were quickly overtaken by a larger power struggle as factions close to former long-time founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev sought to undermine President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev using the cover of the protests.

Part of the problem was that many in the security forces remained loyal to the former leader, leading President Tokayev to make the politically risky decision to seek Russian forces to help stabilise the situation.

His gamble worked, and the trouble was contained, but it highlighted the deep political tensions in the country overshadowed by the apparently peaceful transition of power in 2019.

More delayed posting, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review which seeks to tie together some of the strands of trouble that have been brewing in Central Asia since the beginning of the year.

The Perils of Ignoring Eurasian Instability

Volatile region has historically caused problems for the rest of the world

A Kyrgyz policeman looks at a burnt armored personnel carrier outside the village of Kok-Tash near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan in May 2021: Exchanges of fire continue to take place with casualties on both sides.   © AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.” (Oxford University Press, April 2022)

As the world focuses on a possible clash between China and the West over Taiwan and war in Europe on the other, the parts in between are going up in flames.

In the past, Russia or the United States could be relied upon to step in and settle the situation, but both are now otherwise engaged. With Beijing showing a reluctance about stepping into the role, this leaves a region that has historically caused problems for the rest of the world without a security blanket.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year marked a turning point.

While Afghanistan itself has seen violence go down, tensions have moved north into Central Asia, with the Islamic State in Khorasan Province launching several rocket attacks into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as increasing the propaganda it publishes in Central Asian languages.

In Pakistan, Balochi separatist groups have continued to grow the volume and ambition of their attacks, as has the Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan. Worryingly for Islamabad, there are signs that Balochi and Islamist groups are cooperating.

In Afghanistan, while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it will not lets its territory be used to plot terrorism against others, it has done little to stop it. In one recent and particularly galling display, the previously reported dead leader of the Uighur militant group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) released a video showing him celebrating Eid al-Fitr festival this year in Afghanistan.

This is despite repeated calls by China for the Taliban to not allow Uighur militants to use Afghanistan as a base. Left-behind American weapons have already appeared in attacks in Pakistan and even as far away as their border with India.

Looking beyond Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia has become markedly more violent over the past year.

There has been trouble in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region as locals push back against Dushanbe in clashes that recall the country’s brutal Civil War from the 1990s. An attempt to re-write the constitution in Uzbekistan led to large-scale violence in Karakalpakstan whose costs are still being counted. On Tajikistan’s messy border with Kyrgyzstan, exchanges of fire continue to take place, with casualties on both sides.

Add to that the chaos in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year, which led many to question their assumptions about the stability of Central Asia.

Long Seen As Central Asia’s Wealthy Bulwark, The Instability In Kazakhstan Has Been Driven By A Combination Of Unhappiness With The Government Of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev And An Internal Power Struggle That Has Shown How Fragile The Country Actually Is. And If Seemingly Stable Kazakhstan Can Unravel So Quickly, What Is Really Going On Elsewhere In The Region? Recent Events In Uzbekistan Serve To Only Strengthen This Narrative.

Long seen as Central Asia’s wealthy bulwark, the instability in Kazakhstan has been driven by a combination of unhappiness with the government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and an internal power struggle that has shown how fragile the country actually is. And if seemingly stable Kazakhstan can unravel so quickly, what is really going on elsewhere in the region? Recent events in Uzbekistan only serve to strengthen this narrative.

President Tokayev’s decision in January to call for help from Russia and the other four members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization highlighted Moscow’s continuing role as a security guarantor in the region.

At the same time, Russia’s subsequent decision to invade Ukraine has resonated across Central Asia, in part over concerns that President Vladimir Putin’s revanchist fantasies might swing in Central Asia’s direction.

Kazakhstan, in particular, continues to find itself targeted by Russian Nationalists, and there is a wider concern about the knock-on damage that each country is likely to feel from the crashing Russian economy and the degree to which Moscow might be able to continue to play a stabilising role.

President Putin’s visit to Tajikistan this past week was a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder or Moscow’s importance. His visit focused attention on Russian forces in Tajikistan and their supposed focus in Afghanistan, but aside from likely celebrating the fact that they have not been sent to Ukraine, it is not clear what they are doing there.

Vladimir Putin listens to Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon during a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on June 28: a clear demonstration of the role Russia can still play and a reminder of Moscow’s importance.   © Reuters

While Washington stepped back from the region following its withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has recently taken quiet steps back into Central Asia with a focus on shoring up regional security.

The region doubtless welcomes this attention, but given prior American fickleness and the light touch being applied, it remains to be seen how far the US will, or can, go when it comes to security. Central Asia is ultimately bordered by powers with which the US is locked in geopolitical struggle, while Washington’s relations with Islamabad continue to be complicated.

Throughout all of this, Beijing has taken a watching brief. In Afghanistan, this has taken the odd form of China being the most prominent external interlocutor on the ground with the Taliban government while still hedging its bets.

Beijing’s anger at Pakistan has grown as the violence being directed at Chinese nationals there continues to get worse. There are persistent rumours of Chinese involvement in helping Tajik authorities stabilize the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, but the details are unclear.

There is a narrative in some western capitals suggesting that none of this really matters because the Eurasian heartland is far away and more likely to cause trouble for its neighbours than the west. But this neglects the fact trouble in this region has a tendency to spread.

South Asia has human connections around the world, as well as three nuclear powers will ill-defined borders and histories of enmity, while Central Asian militants have been showing up increasingly further afield.

Afghanistan has long been a major source of narcotics, and it is always useful to remember that this is the battlefield that forged Al Qaida and from which the Sept. 11 attacks were launched.

It may seem unlikely that such a terrorist catastrophe could happen again, but this remains a region that has the ability to shock the world. Failing to take note of instability there could prove very costly for us all.