Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ Category

A new post for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, touching on my new growing theme of China and her Central Asian periphery. This time a focus on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its inelastic nature.

The Limits of Regional Cooperation in Asia

By Raffaello Pantucci  Wednesday, November 16, 2011 – 1:59 PM   Share

VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images

Last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia was unsurprisingly uneventful. While not a “head of state” summit — where traditionally big announcements like the decision to allow new members in would be made — in the lead-up to the meeting there was a flurry of press about a possible enlargement of the group. But aspirant members and current observers India and Pakistan were not made into full members, and Afghanistan was once again not brought any closer into the club. Generally seen by Western observers as a less threatening entity than before, the organization’s inability to move forward on expansion highlights its immaturity and should show outsiders the likely limited role that it will be able to play in post-American Afghanistan.

Initially born as a vehicle through which to resolve long-standing border disputes in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the “Shanghai Five” as it was known (made up of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) formally changed its name in 2001 when it opened up to Uzbekistan and turned into the SCO. Over time, it developed into a forum in which regional players could forge closer links on a variety of issues, including economics, development, infrastructure projects and most recently education.

At the core of its identity, however, remained security concerns, focused on countering what the SCO members describe — in a clear emulation of the Chinese definition of a threat — as “terrorism, separatism and extremism.” Its biannual “Peace Mission” joint counter-terrorism exercises have been the most visible expressions of this focus, offering opportunities for nations to get together and practice operations usually focused on countering an assault by a small force of well-armed terrorists. In January 2004 it established the Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and the next year opened its doors to the leaders of India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan, who all attended the annual summit as “observers.” Also present was Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the group agreed to establish the SCO-Afghanistan contact group, “with the purpose of elaborating proposals and recommendations on realization of cooperation between the SCO and Afghanistan on issues of mutual interest.” However, since then the Contact Group has done very little, and while further countries have joined the constellation of nations interested in becoming involved in the organization (Belarus and Sri Lanka are now “Dialogue Partners” and Turkey has applied to join this club) no further tangible movement has been made.

Yet it seemed as though this might be changing. Earlier this year, the organization celebrated its ten-year anniversary, and at a high-level conference in Shanghai the question of expansion was brought up repeatedly. However, while Russian participants seemed eager for the organization to allow new members in, the Chinese side seemed hesitant, pushing to deepen the organization’s economic focus and develop its international profile through official connections with other international bodies before expanding it further. This was reflected in the public discourse ahead of the St. Petersburg Summit where Russian officials backed the Afghan bid for upgrading the nation to “observer” status and openly supported Pakistan’s bid for full-membership. Yet nothing happened, and in his official read-out to journalists on his way back from the Summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made absolutely no mention of the possibilities of expansion.

This inaction is somewhat perplexing to outside observers. The organization was fundamentally founded to clarify borders so as to counter a transnational terrorist threat that most would agree has had a regional home in Afghanistan, and yet the SCO has done surprisingly little in direct terms to help the nation. Individual members have given support and money, but the organization itself has not. The idea of membership, or at least “observer” status, would theoretically tie Afghanistan more closely to regional players and bolster the current administration in Kabul. Yet by this same token, admitting Afghanistan to the group would mean taking sides in a conflict whose outcome remains uncertain. No one yet quite understands what the American withdrawal in 2014 will actually look like, and SCO members are unsure whether they want to become too entangled in a nation that has already subdued at least one SCO member in the past (Russia). And atop all of this there is the capacity question: the SCO has no standing forces and controls few direct funds. Consequently, as a diplomat at the Secretariat in Beijing put it to me last year, “what would you have us do?”

Other potential members face different problems: unwilling to take sides, the organization would most likely have to open its doors to both India and Pakistan at the same time — something that would also have the effect of bringing into the organization all the disagreements they share. The question of upgrading Iran is one that has taken something of a back seat of late following President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s failed attempt to be admitted last year. The reason for this blockage seems to be a general desire amongst SCO members to not overtly antagonize the United States. Mongolia would seem to be a relatively natural member, but given the precedent that letting a nation in would set, it continues to be obliged to sit on the sidelines.

And so the question remains: Why, in the run-up to the St. Petersburg Summit, was there such a flurry of interest in possible expansion? One explanation is that Islamabad has for some time been trying to bolster its regional partnerships in an attempt to counter-balance American anger and perceived fickleness. Russia also appears to be behind a lot of talk of expansion. Concerned about the in-roads China is making in its Central Asian periphery, Moscow perhaps hopes that expanding the SCO, something seen as primarily a Chinese vehicle, might stretch it beyond its ability to function. While the SCO may not have done much yet, it has laid the foundations for a more weighty future — a long-term vision that accords with China’s approach to foreign policymaking.

Whatever the case, the end result is that another high-level SCO Summit passed with little tangible forward movement. Seemingly obvious achievements like upgrading Afghanistan or Turkey continue to be avoided, while outside China there is little evidence that the regional powers are willing to invest too much into the SCO. All of which is welcome news to those who worry about the organization becoming a “NATO of the East,” but less positive to those who hope it might be willing to take on a greater role in Afghanistan when the United States makes its move in 2014.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation. His writing can be found at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com.

Slightly delayed in posting this here for a variety of reasons. Anyway, a new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel looking at China’s play in Afghanistan. Re-reading my old piece in Foreign Policy on the subject, I see I am a bit more positive this time around, but still no clear signs of a Chinese shift. What I realise now that I also didn’t go into was the stories I have been hearing about the Chinese doing more proactive training efforts with Afghans. Another time maybe. Ultimately, however, the real question for this all will be what happens with the US, after that we might get a clearer sense of China’s plan. More on this topic to come.

China Passes the Buck in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci | Friday, October 28, 2011 – 4:47PM

As we pass the 10-year anniversary of the US-led war in Afghanistan, most attention has been focused on how much longer the United States intends to stay in the region. But a question that has not been addressed is who is going to be putting the pieces together afterwards. The European Union (EU) and the United States are clearly at the end of their tether, while Russia, India and other nearby powers continue to lack the capacity or means to dominate the region. Other rising regional power China may continue to be wary of becoming involved in any foreign entanglements, but as a friend put it in a meeting in Beijing the other day, China may not have broken the teapot of Afghanistan, but it is one that sits firmly on their borders.

And there is some evidence that this reality is sinking in at Zhongnanhai in Beijing. Chinese firms have made substantial investments in Afghanistan. The Aynak copper mine has been joined by an investment in oil fields in northern Afghanistan. And while Chinese firms in the end did not invest in the Bamiyan iron mines they have still cast their lot in terms of developing Afghan infrastructure – pouring money into telecoms, road-building and train lines linking Afghanistan to the rest of the region.

But this has not been supported by any large-scale investment in Afghan security. For that, China continues to look to NATO on the ground and more implicit protection from her close ally in Islamabad. As one senior Afghan put it to me, a reason that was often given for why the Chinese had gotten some of these deals was that it was known how close they were to Pakistan. The assumption was that if the deal went to China then the site would be protected in some way and the development would proceed.

While unclear to what degree this was the determining factor, the story plays into what seems to be China’s main foreign policy factor when considering Afghanistan, and that is Pakistan. The Sino-Pak relationship is one of the closest in the world, spanning trade, nuclear weapons, counter-terrorism and regional hedging against India. As both sides characterize it publicly, it is “higher than mountains, deeper than oceans, stronger than steel, sweeter than honey, and dearer than eyesight.” And into this fits Afghanistan, a troublesome country that borders both and is the source of regional instability. China, still a hesitant foreign policy actor, is unwilling to do too much to assert her authority in the region and is more than happy to let eager Pakistan take the lead.

And this approach is something that has worked for China for many years now. Unwilling to become involved in a conflict that could force it to take sides in a conflict in which it could be painted as part of some alliance against Islam and potentially support actors who would encourage separatists in the restive Xinjiang province, China has hesitated to do much in Afghanistan in support of NATO efforts in the country. For some in China, there was a sense that NATO’s loss in Afghanistan was China’s gain and that the potential encirclement that might result from NATO success on their borders would be to China’s detriment, while for others there was a sense that this was a lost cause anyway and that Afghanistan was the “graveyard of empires.”

Instead, China focused on investing in things that seemed like a good idea. A large copper mine at Aynak sits close to China’s borders and consequently seemed a wise investment to first bid for it and then offer a whole package of deals including a local power station and train line to provide the backdrop to make the deal work for the Chinese firm. All of this would help supply China’s need for copper, as well as develop a part of the country that was close to China and would therefore potentially have a knock-on effect in improving prosperity in neighboring underdeveloped Chinese province Xinjiang. Similarly with the deal to secure the oil fields in Amu Darya – China’s unslakable thirst for hydrocarbons means it will reach out anywhere to get them, and when they are so close to home, all the better.

But while none of this disagrees with western policy in Afghanistan, there is no sense that China is willing to buy into any active policy supporting western goals in the region. China continues to be the ultimate hedging power in Afghanistan – while it seems clear that they are willing to support western aims in the country, there continues to be a lack of any clear evidence that they are as willing to expend political capital or effort to advance their goals actively in the country. This is not to say they are indolent in advancing their interests, but that they are wary of becoming entangled in a country that has repeatedly shown a capacity to reject foreign influence.

From a Chinese perspective, the answer to Afghanistan is clear. The tribes need to fight it out amongst each other – to paraphrase what one expert told me in Beijing, this is a country with “lots of big powerful men who need to be kept happy” and outsiders do not really stand much of chance moderating this. Ultimately, the country is poor, will clearly need investment going forward, and China will be there to support it. With deep pockets and no conditions, this support can be funneled to whomever is in charge and to whomever has the power of the provinces where China has direct interests. When it comes to border threats, China seems to have managed to secure strong intelligence links and is able to keep a quite firm lid on any potential threats from extremist groups with links to networks in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

China’s play in Afghanistan has been very hesitant so far. The reason for this is a lack of certainty in Beijing about what Washington’s game plan is. In the meantime, they have continued to make careful strategic investments with a view to the long game. And while from a western analysis this should mean a greater Chinese interest in stabilizing the current government, from Beijing’s perspective it is far better to let things play themselves out while focusing on specific interests. This will not necessarily help western aims to re-shape Afghanistan, but it will strengthen China’s hand when the west finally leaves.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation. He blogs athttp://www.raffaellopantucci.com.

After some silence a new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at Britain’s jihad and its connection with South Asia around the case of Munir Farooqi. Also, did a short interview with CNN on the ever-troublesome question of Lone Wolves.

The British trail to the Afghan jihad

By Raffaello Pantucci | Wednesday, September 14, 2011 – 1:59 PM

The successful conviction in Manchester, Northern England, of Munir Farooqi, Matthew Newton and Israr Malik, highlighted once again (as if more proof was needed) the existence of the dark connection between Britain and the war in Afghanistan. A former Taliban fighter who had returned to Manchester after being picked up on the battlefield not long after the U.S. invasion by Northern Alliance forces, Farooqi ran a recruitment network in Northern England that fed an unknown number of fighters to the fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. What was most striking about the case, however, was the way it exposed the method by which recruitment cells operate in the United Kingdom, following a model that is likely emulated elsewhere in the west.

Munir Farooqi first came to the United Kingdom when he was about five years old. Born in Pakistan, he is part of the community of migrants from Pakistan who came to the West during the first large-scale migrations in the 1960s from their homes in South Asia. Brought up largely in the United Kingdom, he speaks with a pronounced regional British accent and is married with three children. A strong part of him, however, remained attached to his community in South Asia, and following the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 he immediately headed back to join the Taliban. His experience on the battlefield was short lived, and by November he had been captured as part of a Northern Alliance operation in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Held in one of General Rashid Dostum’s prisons, he was fortunate enough to be moved to a Pakistani jail, from where his British wife was able to come and fetch him for a fee in May 2002.

Once back in Britain he maintained his passion for the cause in Afghanistan, and travelled back and forth to Pakistan. In 2003, border agents stopped him as he returned from Pakistan and searching his luggage found pictures of him posing alongside armed men in the Swat Valley. Using such images and his own personal experience as a former Taliban fighter with injuries to show for it, Farooqi was able to conjure up the joy of jihad to disenfranchised young men he would encounter amongst Manchester’s Muslim community. As he put it when asked by an undercover officer whether he would want to fight again, “you know when you’ve tasted the honey….then you only want more…until Allah takes you from this earth.”

He used two bases of operations to draw young men to his cause. In public, he ran dawah (propagation) stalls in Manchester and nearby Longsight city centers. Here he would welcome individuals in and try to share with them information on his view of the world — and it was at both of these that on separate occasions in November 2008 and January 2009 two undercover officers (who were unaware of each other) approached the stalls to make contact with the group. Approaching Farooqi at the Longsight location, undercover officer “Ray” made contact on November 26, 2008. Over the space of the next couple of months, “Ray” converted to Islam, and then on January 4, 2009, undercover officer “Simon” also made contact with the cell approaching a stall being run in central Manchester by Farooqi and co-defendent Matthew Netwon, a convert who came across Farooqi in 2008 soon after he became a Muslim. Claiming to be a recovering alcoholic seeking meaning, “Simon” also converted to Islam with the group, and slowly gained their confidence.

In bringing the men gradually into his web, Farooqi would take them to his home from where he ran a massive operation churning out radical videos and books — he was caught with some 50,000 items of literature and 5,000 DVDs. Here he would weave them tales about jihad, drawing on his own experiences to gradually persuade them of the glory of fighting in Afghanistan. A charismatic figure, he was able to quickly persuade individuals to come to his views, as characterized by Newton, who was rapidly drawn to Farooqi’s way of thinking after the two met. Newton, like Farooqi, was convicted of of “preparing terror acts, soliciting to murder and disseminating terrorist literature” and was sentenced to six years in jail.

Having drawn people in, Farooqi ensured that they stayed within his orbit, telling them which mosques to go to and following up with them when they got into trouble. When another co-defendant, Israr Malik, was incarcerated on unrelated charges, Farooqi made a point of visiting him in jail where he passed him radical material to share amongst fellow prisoners. A lost soul who had become involved in criminal activity after breaking up with his girlfriend, Malik was drawn to one of Farooqi’s stalls in 2008, only to become another in the production line of radicals he was helping develop, with the intention of persuading them to go and fight in Afghanistan. He was also incarcerated for two counts of soliciting murder and preparing for acts of terrorism.

This model of recruitment was one that has been seen before in the United Kingdom: Mohammed Hamid, the self-proclaimed “Osama bin London” who helped take over hook-handed radical imam Abu Hamza’s mosque after he was incarcerated, used to run dawah stalls in London, where he would make contact with dispossessed young men and, eventually, another undercover officer. A reformed drug addict himself, Hamid ran discussion groups out of his home, had been to Pakistani training camps, and offered connections for aspiring fighters who wanted to go abroad. Most prominently, Hamid ran training camps in the U.K.’s Lake District that a number of the July 21, 2005 attempted bombers attended. He is currently finishing up a sentence in prison alongside a network of young men he recruited, including some who were attempting to go to Somalia to fight and others who did in fact go.

It remains unclear exactly how many people Farooqi was able to persuade to go and fight in Afghanistan. One estimate published in the local press said some 20 people had been sent over, A figure that seems quite low for an operation that could have been going on for as long as eight years. However, this small number likely reflects the reality of how large the actual number of British citizens being persuaded to go and fight really is. As author and journalist Jason Burke put it recently, quoting British intelligence officials, “the years from 2004 to 2007 saw the highpoint of the flow of volunteers from the UK to [Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA]. Never more than a few score in any one year, their number has now been reduced to a handful.” But given recent stories of British martyrs being praised in jihadi videos, former British prisoners turning up as suicide bombers in Kabul, and a small number of former Taliban fighters continuing to live in the United Kingdom, it seems likely that this trickle may continue for some time.

Raffaello Pantucci is an associate fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen.

I have had a spike in visitors today, likely the result of horrific events in Norway this afternoon. However, we are early days yet so I am going to keep my powder dry for a while on that. Come back soon if you want to hear some thoughts (or contact me directly for anything specific). In the meantime, here is my latest for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel touching upon the ongoing UK connection to jihad in South Asia which draws on the still unresolved story of two British nationals picked up in Herat recently. That will be an interesting case to see unravel.

Talib al-Britani

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, JULY 22, 2011 | Friday, July 22, 2011 – 4:09 PM

Britain’s connection to jihad in South Asia was once again cast into the spotlight with the capture of two British nationals with alleged links to the Taliban in Herat. The man and woman remain unidentified, and the British Ministry of Defense and Foreign Office have both merely confirmed that they were British nationals. Stories have started to circulate in the press that they were plotting an attack back in the U.K. and it seems that they were dual Afghan-British nationals known to MI5, though other reports indicate they may be of Pakistani origin.  Whether they were planning an attack in the U.K. or not, the prospect of British nationals fighting British soldiers in Afghanistan is something that has long worried British officials. Either way, their presence shows the connection between the U.K. and fighting in Afghanistan continues to exist, a demonstration of how ingrained extreme ideas continue to be in the U.K.

In many ways, this discovery is not that surprising. NATO forces have captured other European nationals fighting for their enemies in Afghanistan before, and there have been reports of British signals intercepts planes over the country hearing men talking in distinct regional British accents. Recently a picture surfaced in an extremist video showing “Musa the British” – a dead Taliban fighter with roots in the U.K. Most dramatically, a couple of years ago a story circulated that British forces had discovered a Taliban corpse with an Aston Villa tattoo. (Aston Villa is a Birmingham football team, one of Britain’s cities with a large South Asian population.)

In the U.K. a number of cases have come before the courts in recent years highlighting the ongoing existence of a pipeline sending young men to fight alongside the Taliban (or al-Qaeda). Currently in Manchester a case is being heard against a cell of men that had formed around a former Taliban fighter who had relocated to the city. The group was allegedly using a stall set up for spreading religious messages in the city to try to recruit others to go and fight in Afghanistan. In June 2009 a court sentenced 21-year-old London lad Mohammed Abushamma to three-and-a-half years in jail for attempting to join the Taliban using a route through Turkey and Tajikistan. Abushamma admitted to police that he was seeking jihad in Afghanistan and, according to the prosecutor, emails he had sent his family “clearly indicated that he would be fighting with a Koran in one hand and an AK47 in the other.”

Others appear to have successfully got through to join the fighting. Last year the Guardian told the story of the East London taxi driver who would every year go back during fighting season to join the battle against the occupying forces. As he boastfully put it, “there are many people like me in London….we collect money for the jihad all year and come and fight if we can.” In a separate case, an Afghan suicide bomber who penetrated Kabul’s Defense Ministry in April this year, Atiqullah Mangal, was allegedly radicalized in a British jail, having been smuggled into the U.K. as an illegal immigrant in 2001 and then incarcerated for violent assault. Upon deportation at the end of his sentence, he connected with the Haqqani Network and ended up leading an audacious assault that was supposedly intended to strike the visiting French Defense Minister.

And just the other day, a court in London further extended a control order (a government means of restricting an individuals movement whom they cannot incarcerate) against “BF” — a British-born man of Pakistani descent who was allegedly connected to the Operation Crevice cell (Crevice was the first large-scale Islamist counter-terrorism operation in the U.K. to stop a plan to explode a fertilizer bomb on behalf of al Qaeda). “BF” is alleged to have travelled out to Pakistan in 2008 with a pair of brothers also connected to the cell who were fleeing control orders, and he returned carrying letters to pass on that were clearly referring to terrorism training. A year later he allegedly attempted to make the journey again, and this time was intercepted by British police and placed under restrictive custody.

Admittedly this latter path through Pakistan might not have ended up in Afghanistan, but at the same time this route is one that has been used repeatedly by British extremists in the past to go and join the Taliban. In mid-2001, the leader of the Crevice cell in the U.K., Omar Khyam, headed to Pakistan ostensibly to attend a friend’s wedding, but instead connected with extremist networks and, in his own words to British journalist Richard Watson, travelled “all over Afghanistan…the Taliban are the most hospitable people in the world.” At around the same time, Mohammed Siddique Khan, a British jihadist who was to achieve fame later as the leader of the July 7, 2005 cell, was making a very similar trip through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Khan had brought along with him another young Briton, Shippon Ullah, and the two of them trained at Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen camps where, according to Ullah, “we were treated differently because we had our own hut with two brothers from the United Arab Emirates.”

This sort of jihadi tourism was something that primarily served the purpose of fundraising for the Taliban and providing young British men with an exciting experience during their summer holidays. But as was seen with both Khyam and Khan, the potential danger was that these young men could then be persuaded to take up arms against their own country at home. It is unclear at this stage what exactly these two in Afghanistan were doing, but their existence highlights that the jihadi pipeline between the UK and Afghanistan is alive and well.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and the author of the forthcoming “We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen

A new piece for Foreign Policy, this time in reaction to Ilyas Kashmiri’s possible death. The ideas have been percolating around for a while and the possible death of Kashmiri inspired me to put pen to paper. I am not entirely sure I have given them enough space here – understanding better the importance of these leaders within the context of these groups is something that needs a bit more clinical examination in my mind and is something that I will try to explore in a longer text once I have some time. In the meantime, if anyone comes across any good texts or articles on the topic, please forward them on!

Al Qaeda’s Toughest Task

Slain jihadi leaders like Ilyas Kashmiri and Osama bin Laden aren’t so easily replaced.

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI | JUNE 6, 2011

The reported death last week of Ilyas Kashmiri, the notorious jihadi leader — if true — is merely the latest in a long line of decapitations of al Qaeda and affiliated groups. Osama bin Laden fell a few weeks before him, and men described as “senior” or “important” leaders, like Baitullah and Abdullah Mehsud, Hamza Rabia, Mohammed Atef, Saeed al-Masri, and others, have fallen before them.

But does cutting the head off the snake really matter? Can’t they just be replaced by the next militant waiting in the wings?

Not so easily. Although the consensus among experts is often that the deaths of such tactically and ideologically important leaders do not destroy groups, their loss does have an effect. Kashmiri’s death will not herald the end of violence in Pakistan or the threat to the West, but it will reduce al Qaeda’s capacity to strike. Long-standing warrior leaders are important figures in the ideological clash against groups believing themselves in a millenarian struggle. Bringing the big men down will help accelerate their groups’ demise.

Leaders like Kashmiri, who lost a finger and an eye in the Afghan war against the Soviets, are able to provide inspiration through their biographies. His time as a fighter in Afghanistan and Kashmir gave him connections across groups and networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and gave him a reputation as a fierce warrior leader. He built this personal narrative and connections into a formidable network operating under the name 313 Brigade, in reference to the 313 companions who fought alongside the Prophet Mohammed at the Battle of Badr, and was named by Masri as the leader of al Qaeda in Kashmir. He was also clearly effective in providing direction to terrorist cells, as shown by his suspected involvement in the May 22 attack on Karachi’s naval base (his latest attack on the Pakistani state), strikes in India coordinated from his base in Pakistan, and his ambitious plan to attack newspaper offices in Copenhagen.

A similar portrait can be painted of bin Laden. His life story embodied the jihadi ideal of an Islamist warrior giving up everything to fight against the unbelievers. His strong connections to the community of wealthy Gulf Arabs with deep pockets and pro-jihadi sympathies strengthened his inspirational role and made him a prize asset for al Qaeda. Many other longtime leaders and warriors fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan — their histories and connections stretching back to before the current conflict — claim the same mythical status.

But Kashmiri and bin Laden will be hard to replace. Their historical roles as front-line warriors not only earned them credibility with other local militants, but also brought them into contact with the community of regional and global warriors, giving them tentacles around the world. Bin Laden’s network is well-known while Kashmiri’s is currently on display in Chicago, where a key trial witness named David Coleman Headley is highlighting connections between Kashmiri — seemingly his key al Qaeda contact — and cells in the United States, Britain, India, and Sweden.

New leaders tend to either be less strategically seasoned or prove unable to replicate the formula the old leader had. Al Qaeda in Iraq was never the same after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed, and Yemen’s Aden-Abyan Islamic Army never really survived the death of its leader Abu al-Hassan, instead becoming subsumed by regional al Qaeda-linked cells. In both cases, the deaths of leaders with contacts and celebrity deprived the groups of their appeal. This means fewer recruits, less funding, and less capacity to launch audacious plots. Spectacular attacks like May 22’s brazen assault on Karachi’s naval base, which some have linked to Kashmiri, require great nerve and audacity to pull off, driven by an inspirational figure who can convince fighters to die for the cause.

Technical skills also matter. Bomb-makers often prove to be an essential ingredient in making an effective terrorist organization. In Yemen, it may be Anwar al-Awlaki who provides the English-language narrative that is drawing young Western fighters to his side, but it is Ibrahim al-Asiri who is building the innovative bombs with which al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula continues to penetrate airport security. Both play key roles and, if removed, would damage their organization.

But neither of these individuals has the caliber or longevity of Kashmiri or bin Laden. Asiri’s technical skills, like those of numerous other master bomb-makers before him, are replicable: They can be written down, taught, and ultimately learned by others. Awlaki’s stirring rhetoric and message would be missed, but he has not yet managed to enter the pantheon of leaders of global jihadism and is still learning the ropes as a jihadi preacher.

When dealing with a terrorist organization like al Qaeda or Brigade 313, it is unlikely that what comes next is going to be any different from what came before. For this reason, it doesn’t much matter whether key jihadi leaders are eliminated, because their successors will likely follow the same radical path. Al Qaeda in Iraq may have been damaged by the death of its butcher-in-chief Zarqawi, and there is little evidence that the group has deradicalized in his absence.

But when dealing with a tribal insurgency like the Taliban, the radicalization that results from decapitating strikes can backfire. Those who follow are likely to be more radical than their predecessors and carry additional grudges that will impede them from putting down arms. The tribal codes that dictate life in Pakistan’s lawless provinces and Afghanistan often demand a response that may supersede reason.

Drone strikes and SEAL teams directed by strong intelligence are waging an effective war in bringing down key leaders in al Qaeda. With the deaths of bin Laden and Kashmiri — two irreplaceable giants of the global jihad — we can at least start to see the end of the core group hiding in Pakistan.

A new piece for Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, looking at the phenomenon of converts going to fight jihad in AfPak. I have looked at this a couple of times before, and keep considering a longer piece on it but haven’t quite figured it out yet. I know others are also looking at this, and I would welcome any ideas or thoughts on the subject.

The White Man’s Jihad

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, MAY 13, 2011| Friday, May 13, 2011 – 2:59PM

Up in the north of England, a trial is being heard against a group of men allegedly at the core of a cell recruiting and radicalizing individuals to fight in Afghanistan. The group, part of an ongoing trickle of people from the U.K. attracted to fighting in South Asia, is notable because it counts amongst its ranks a white convert, the latest in a long line of such individuals who have been drawn to militancy in South Asia. These reports of white converts in the region are naturally of particular concern to Western security services: their capacity to blend effortlessly back into the West makes them highly attractive weapons for groups seeking to launch terrorist attacks.

Back in mid-2009, an older moderate Muslim convert in London told me that his theory behind converts in terrorist cells was that they played a key role as catalysts. The presence of a convert, usually a zealous individual who had moved from a troubled past as drug addict or petty criminal to Islamist extremist, would reinforce the group’s internal dialogue and help push them deeper into their militant ideologies.

The group who bombed London’s public transport system on July 7, 2005 is the archetypal example of this. Convert Germaine Lindsay, originally of Jamaican descent, was the most overtly violent and radical of the group and may have played a role stirring the others on. According to information released during the recent Coroner’s Inquest into the bombings, he was likely involved in a gun crime incident prior to the bombing, he was reported to have been active in promoting radical groups in Luton. Additionally, he was a close student of the radical preacher Abdullah el Faisal. His presence amongst the otherwise Pakistani-Beeston group would have been as an outsider, but one who was brought into the closest of confidence, suggesting an outsized influence.

In a separate case in East London, Mohammed Hamid, also known as “Osama bin London,” was a “revert” who found his religion after a life of drugs and became a key figure in a radicalizing network training, amongst others, the July 21 team who tried to bomb London two weeks after the successful July 7 cell. And there are other examples. Looking at other failed plots linked to Waziristan, the 2006 plot to bomb airlines concurrently on transatlantic routes counted a couple of converts amongst plotters, and the 2007 plot to attack a U.S. airbase in Germany was conducted by a group of mostly Caucasian German converts.

On the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, these light-skinned converts face a high degree of skepticism: for example, Rahman Adam, aka Anthony Garcia, one of the plotters involved in the 2004 plot to blow up a British mall using a fertilizer based explosive, was initially turned away from training camps for being “too white.” Adam was in fact of Algerian origin and a born Muslim; he was just very pale skinned.

Prior to al-Qaeda’s attacks of September 11, 2001, the route for converts to training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan was much easier to tread. James McLintock, nicknamed the “Tartan Taliban,” first joined the jihad against the Soviet Union in the late 1980s after, by his account, he met a group of young Saudi hotheads on a flight to Pakistan as he made his way to visit a University friend. Enjoying this first taste of jihad, McLintock became a feature of the European jihadi scene, joining the fighting again in Bosnia and returning regularly to Afghanistan. Back in the U.K. alongside fellow convert and jihadi traveler Martin “Abdullah” McDaid, McLintock began running study circles at the Iqra bookshop in Beeston, northern England and training camps in the nearby Lake District that were attended by some of the July 7, 2005 cell.

And in the years immediately before September 11, there was a stream of converts who showed up and were accorded quite high levels of trust by al-Qaeda. In 1997, having converted a few years earlier in Orange County, California, Adam Gadahn made his way to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan. Using contacts he had made in the U.S., he arrived and seems to have been able to fill a vital early role as translator of Arabic material into English. By 1999 converts seemed to be arriving into South Asia from all directions. Sometime in the middle of the year Christian Ganczarski, a German-Polish convert who used the same network to get to Afghanistan as theHamburg Cell that produced Mohammed Atta, a leader of the 9/11 group, arrived in Quetta, Pakistan and after a trip back to Germany to fetch his family, moved into Osama bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan, where he acted as the I.T. guy. At around the same time, itinerant Australian jihadist David Hicks showed up and trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba near Lahore — he tried to go and fight in Kashmir, but ended up going to train at the Al Farouq camp near Kandahar the next year, where he met a bunch of fellow peripatetic westerners including British convert Richard “shoe bomber” Reid. Early 2000, Jack Roche, a burly Australian-Brit who had converted and joined the Indonesian al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah, showed up on the recommendation of Hambali, the operations chief for the Indonesian group, to train and learn explosives and got to sit down and eat with Osama bin Laden.

Post-9/11 converts have continued to play a role in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but few appear to have continued to rise into senior roles as they had before. According to British security sources, one of the most senior was British-born Hindu convert Dhiren Barot, who was incarcerated in November 2006 in the U.K. after a long career as a jihadist foot soldier. Starting with fighting with Lashkar-e-Taiba in Kashmir in 1995, an experience he wrote about in his 1999 magnum opus “The Army of Madinah in Kashmir,” Barot went on to help 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with his global jihadist planning.

Since 9/11 instead white converts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have mostly been foot soldiers, with the militant groups there more skeptical of converts as potential Western intelligence agents. The Caucasian-seeming Rahman Adam was unable to go and train until he had connected with established jihadist Omar Khyam. An exception to this seems to have been Bryant Neal Vinas, a Queens, New York-born kid who converted to Islam, who made his way to training camps in Pakistan in September 2007 seemingly using networks from the U.S. to establish contact with radicals. It took him a bit longer to establish his bona fides, but eventually he got to meet with an array of high- and mid-ranking al-Qaeda fighters who immediately saw his potential as an operative who could easily blend back into the West.

The Waziristan-based Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) seems to have recognized this potential in a group of German converts who showed up to fight alongside them in the mid-2000s. Having trained a group of them, they sent a cell led by converts Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Schneider to target the U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany. Other converts linked to the group instead fell in battle, includingEric Breininger who in April 2010 died in Pakistan, while the group was initially motivated by the death in Chechnya of fellow convert Thomas Fischer in late 2003. Another just disrupted allegedGerman network included another convert and helping funnel fighters to South Asia.

And the trickle goes on. In July 2010, Khalid Kelly, infamous Irish convert and former member of British extremist group Al Muhajiroun, returned home to Ireland having claimed he tried to join jihadists in Pakistan (although he was interviewed in the Times in November 2009 saying he was training to go to and fight in Afghanistan). In Kelly’s own words, however, “as a white convert, I stuck out like a sore thumb,” so he returned to Ireland instead. Others met with messier ends: according to Pakistani intelligence reports two white British converts were killed in a drone strike inDatta Khel in December 2010.

The pre-9/11 days of converts showing up and getting to meet al-Qaeda leaders are over, but these light-skinned jihadis remain a key potential threat that militant groups will attempt to actively recruit. They both help show off the group’s ongoing international appeal while also acting as excellent weapons to strike deep in the West. And until the overall threat has been eliminated, they will continue to be a feature of it.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). 

A new piece for AfPak Channel at Foreign Policy magazine, this time looking at the odd phenomenon of why so many German jihadis appear in extremist videos, while so few Brits do. At any rate, I find it curious. Interested if anyone comes across any more material, as this is a topic I will continue to follow.

Britain’s Camera-Shy Jihadis

BY RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, MARCH 24, 2011 | Thursday, March 24 – 11:17 AM | Share

A few weeks have passed since the discovery on extremist forums of the image of alleged martyr “Musa, the British.” While Britain’s intelligence service MI5 confirms that they believe that at least 4,000 young Britons have been drawn to fight and train at militant camps in Waziristan and Afghanistan prior to 2009, they have thus far been remarkably coy in their appearances in propaganda videos produced by jihadi media outlets. This stands in stark contrast with the German jihadist contingent, which seem to revel in their celebrity and repeatedly feature injihadist media outlets, as well as self-publishing tracts describing their experiences. Parsing this difference between these two groups (and the related question of why only Adam Gadahn appears amongst the estimated hundred or so Americans Bob Woodward was told have ventured to Waziristan) might offer some deeper insights into the machinations of the networks drawing young western Muslims to Pakistani training camps and help analysts better understand trends of growth or shrinkage of such networks.

The shot of “Musa” was the first image of a British jihadi “martyr” linked to Afghanistan or Pakistan since the videos emerged of Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, two of the July 7, 2005 London subway bombers. The two men were part of the pipeline of young British fighters drawn to training camps in Pakistan, though ultimately they were directed to carry out an operation back home in the U.K. rather fight and die on the field in Afghanistan. However, these three men aside, there have been few images released by al-Qaeda or its affiliates that have included British jihadis. In Somalia, a young British-Somali blew himself up in October 2007, though the video took almost two years to surface and in Tel Aviv, two British-Pakistani Muslims attempted a suicide attack on Mike’s Place bar in 2003. In contrast, ever since about 2007 when German fighters started to surface in growing numbers in Waziristan, there has been an ever-growing digest of jihadi media in German and featuring a select group of German nationals.

Why there is such a divergence between the U.K. and Germany is hard to understand. One possible answer is that the German jihad in Waziristan is still in an earlier phase its British counterpart. According to Guido Steinberg of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and a former adviser to the German Chancellery, the network to send young Germans to Waziristan only really got established in 2006. In an interview, he described that before 2006 the networks were a haphazard affair, suggesting that the network is still relatively immature, and might therefore need more advertising to attract young recruits. In the U.K., on the other hand, jihadi networks have been drawing young Britons to fight in South Asia since the early-to-mid-1990s — almost two decades of militant travel have established a strong network.

But this German network now exists in force, and security forces in Germany have a large body of returnees and missing individuals whom they believe are training in Pakistan’s tribal areas that they are worried about. An unknown number of individuals are still being drawn to Waziristan, withofficials at home concerned about more than 30 that have been trained and a further 200 who have been radicalized. In September 2007, the possible threat that this network posed was illustrated by the case of the Sauerland Cell, a group of Germans who were planning an attack on an American base in Germany– having been tasked to do this by their commanders in the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). An offshoot of the Islamist Movement of Uzbekistan, the group’s primary target is Uzbekistan, though it has now been operating in Waziristan alongside al-Qaeda and Taliban groups for some time.

Operationally, the constant appearance of young Germans in videos in Waziristan merely gives the German authorities a useful list of individuals to place on international watch lists and investigative leads into networks back in Germany. From this perspective, al-Qaeda’s British recruits have proved to be much more useful in international plotting. Their bashfulness before the camera means that their identities are still theoretically hidden and therefore they are still deployable in terrorist plots. In the period from 2004 to 2007, most major al-Qaeda linked terrorist plotting in the U.K. were linked to British citizens who had trained in Waziristan. Al-Qaeda and its affiliate networks may have concluded that the German contingent is less useful operationally in the West.

Ideologically, it is likely that the videos in some cases have even had a counterproductive effect insofar as some of the images may have reduced Western fears of the group, to the point of ridicule in some situations. The surreal sight of German-Moroccan jihadist Bekkay Harrachstanding before a red matinee curtain in a suit while he threatened Germany to vote correctly in an election was not followed by any visible attacks. For an audience of both potential jihadists and the general public, the impression was of empty threats that will not have strengthened the group’s hand.

In contrast, when British jihadis with links to Afghanistan and Pakistan have appeared in propaganda videos, it has been when they are featured in videos that claim to celebrate their deaths in the pursuit of jihad. And none of them or their many compatriots have written lengthy tracts describing their adventures seeking fields of jihad like Mounir and Yassin Chouka, a pair of German-Moroccans currently fighting alongside the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Waziristan, or the fallen Eric Breininger, the young German convert who hid out fighting alongside the IJU regularly releasing odd videos showing off about how much fun he was having. His subsequent obituary was an epic document that helped clarify a bit to German authorities how the networks of Germans going to fight had evolved.

But it was not always so. Dhiren Barot, the British Hindu convert to Islam who in the mid-1990s ran away to Kashmir to join Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group responsible for the deadly terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, subsequently wrote a book about his experiences. Other British Muslims radicalized during the 1990s served as “correspondents” for www.qoqaz.com orwww.azzam.com, the infamous British-based websites that supported jihad in Chechnya and Afghanistan, writing about their experiences in hagiographic terms. And prior to that, videos and cassettes that are still available online describe the experience of British jihadis (amongst others) going to fight in Bosnia.

None of this is very surprising — these Western warriors have been convinced by the al-Qaeda narrative that they are carrying out sacred acts in the name of a good cause, and it should be expected that they want to show off about it before a camera. Having seen countless others in such videos before they leave, it is not shocking that they want to add their names and images to the lists to inspire future terrorists. But, for British jihadists at least, this need seems to have faded away, with occasional rumors or newspapers stories around single individuals. Unlike their German comrades whose names are becoming tabloid currency, Britons like “Musa” have largely fallen silent.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).

 

A new article for Foreign Policy magazine’s AfPak channel, exploring the decline of the Kashmiri connection in British jihad. In my forthcoming manuscript this will be gone into in greater detail, but in a number of plots in the UK key individuals trained with Kashmiri groups but were in the end decided not to join the cause as they saw it as pointless and too Pakistani-government manipulated. A detail I didn’t include in the article is that the UK exported its first suicide bomber to Kashmir in December 2000 – a young Brummie blew himself up at an Indian check point near Srinagar. In any case, thoughts or comments greatly appreciated as ever.

The Dwindling Kashmir-Britain Militant Pipeline

By RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, FEBRUARY 17, 2011| Thursday, February 17, 10:51AM

Largely unremarked beyond in South Asia, last weekend marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of the death of Maqbool Butt. One of the first prominent leaders of the Kashmiri liberation struggle, Butt’s execution almost three decades ago was expedited as a result of events on the other side of the globe in Birmingham, England when a group of Kashmiris kidnapped and executed an Indian diplomat. A set of connected events that while anomalous at the time presaged what used to be the one of the main motors of jihad in the U.K.

Claiming to be members of the Kashmir Liberation Army, the kidnappers snatched Ravindra Mhatre, then the deputy Indian High Commissioner in Birmingham, as he stepped off the bus on his way home with a birthday cake for his daughter. Bundling him into the back of a car, they took him to the Alum Rock part of the city where they held him for a day while demanding through thepress £1 million in cash and the liberation of Maqbool Butt. Quickly losing patience, the men waited about a day before taking Mhatre into the countryside outside the city and executing him outside a farm. The Indian government’s response was swift and within less than a week they had expedited the hanging of Maqbool Butt, who had been sitting on Indian death row for almost eight years for the murder of a bank manager during a robbery.

The executions were a shock and the first public example for Britons of the depth of feeling and connection between the Kashmiri population in the U.K. and their relations on the other side of the globe. Political parties and religious leaders would use the U.K. as a base for fundraising and rallies, families would travel back and forth and send children and brides to join other family members, and militant factions would seek money and recruits to support the cause of Kashmiri liberation back in South Asia. Years later, this would provide the next generation of young men with both a network of contacts to go and join militant groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but also normalize the notion of going abroad to fight for a cause.

And in the years immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the pipeline this created was at the heart of British terrorism problems. Operation Crevice in 2004 (the fertilizer bomb plotters), Operation Rhyme the same year (the cell led by long-term Lashkar-e-Taiba warrior and author Dhiren Barot), the July 7, 2005 attack on London’s public transport system and Operation Overt (the 2006 attempt to bring down seven planes as they were in transit across the Atlantic) all owed something to this pipeline, with key individuals in all cases being initially drawn to the cause of jihad through the Kashmiri cause. The proximity of Kashmiri groups to their ideological brethren in al-Qaeda and interchange between them meant al-Qaeda was able to tap this network for a string of plots targeting the U.K.

But since this apex in the mid-2000s, the problem has now shrunk a bit. While security officials are clearly still alert to the potential problems engendered by the enduring Pakistani connection in the U.K., the threat has now evolved in a number of different directions.

One recent example of how this threat has evolved is the case currently on trial at Woolwich Crown Court in which Rajib Karim, a confessed member of Jamaat ul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, a Bangladeshi jihadist group attempting to establish a shariah state in that nation, is accused of plotting with Anwar al Awlaki, the American-Yemeni preacher linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen to carry out attacks in the U.K. or U.S. It does not appear as though any of the strands in the plot lead back to Pakistan, and seems instead to have been an externally directed effort from Yemen linked up with Bangladeshi extremists in the U.K. This is merely the latest such plot from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in a string that includes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas day 2009 and the parcel bombs from late last year — both of which also had London links.

Then over Christmas, police disrupted a cell of mostly Bangladeshi-Britons they accuse of plotting to carry out a series of attacks in the U.K., while in Stockholm an Iraqi-Swede radicalized in Luton blew himself up in a suicide attack attempting to target a shopping mall. And late last year, Roshonara Choudhry, a young woman who had attempted to kill British parliamentarian Steven Timms for his support of the Iraq war, became the latest in a growing list of lone wolf attackers who seemingly using only the internet radicalized and attempted to carry out an attack in the U.K.

In none of these plots has there been evidence of a Kashmiri connection. This does not mean that the Pakistan-U.K. connection has now been completely severed, however. In April 2009, British police disrupted what they think was a major plot emanating from Pakistan’s tribal regions as part of a wave of attacks in New York, the U.K. and Oslo (admittedly all in varying degrees of preparation), and according to the confession of David Headley, a key plotter in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks, in August 2009 he connected with a cell of Pakistanis from Kolti in Derby who were in contact with Ilyas Kashmiri, the former Lashkar warrior now thought to be close to al-Qaeda. And in the fall of 2010, European officials searched for a group of plotters supposedly coming from Pakistan’s tribal regions allegedly seeking to attack targets in the U.K., France, and Germany.

But none of these resulted in a plot emanating from Kashmiri-British network, and for almost three years now it has been tough to see a plot that draws as from this nexus in the same way as the plots of several years ago. Problematically for British counterterrorists, this has not apparently reduced the overall threat — just sent it scattering in a variety of different directions.

Raffaello Pantucci is an Associate Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).

A short article for Foreign Policy, expanding on my previous Survival article looking at China’s relationship with Afghanistan. This is a subject I am going to do some more work on, including building on a fascinating set of interviews I recently did in Beijing. As ever, any thoughts or pointers hugely appreciated.

In Afghanistan, it’s only Chinese take-out

NATO wants more Chinese assistance in stabilizing the region. But as ever, Beijing won’t step up to the plate without a nod from Islamabad.

By RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI | NOVEMBER 29, 2010

U.S. and European generals and strategists are often decrying China’s increasing influence around the globe. But this March NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen took a different stance. “I think China could play a key role in civilian development in Afghanistan,” Rasmussen told China’s state media.

Eight months later, however, Beijing is no closer to playing that role than it has been throughout the nine-year war in Afghanistan. For all the recent media attention on China’s investment in Afghanistan’s mining wealth, the real question is why Beijing isn’t doing more. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai’s administration has long reached out to Beijing for money and political support, and both Afghan and NATO leaders think that China’s leaders, if they were so inclined, could do much to improve stability in Central and South Asia. Yet Beijing doesn’t want to play ball.

Not so long ago, it seemed China might finally be ready to take on a larger role. In late 2009 and early 2010, Western diplomats visiting Beijing were surprised at the level of interest and inquisitiveness from their Chinese counterparts when it came to the subject of Afghanistan. U.S. President Barack Obama had just announced the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011, and concerned Chinese policy makers seemed to be trying to assess the impact of such a move on their near neighborhood. One op-ed that ran in the state-runGlobal Times on Dec. 24, 2009 suggested it might be time for the Chinese to send police forces to “help the Afghan government to safeguard the construction projects aided or invested in by the Chinese government.”

One clear signal China could give would be to finally open the Wakhan Corridor, the thin band of land extending some 200 miles from northeast Afghanistan, which links the two countries. China has kept the border virtually sealed for over 100 years due to political instability in Afghanistan. In June 2009, China announced it would look into the possibility of reopening the border road. Nothing has come of that inquiry so far.

China’s reluctance to act is largely due to its close relationship with Pakistan, the prism through which Beijing views much of the region. Beijing is likely aware that opening the Wakhan Corridor might disrupt lucrative regional trade routes through Pakistan, thus incurring Islamabad’s wrath and damaging other investments it has already made in the Gwadar port in southern Pakistan. Moreover, China has no desire to be dragged into the messy business of nation-building; even its existing investments now seem at risk. Key among them is the Aynak copper mine for which the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. paid more than $3.5 billion, while also offering to build a rail line and power station to support the province. Yet the expensive project has thus far proved to be a headache, plagued by schedule delays and local security problems. Archaeologists have raised concerns that an ancient monastery filled with historical artifacts sits atop the mine’s location. Such hassles have made the China Metallurgical Group reconsider whether it really wants to bid for theHajigak iron ore mine, which could contain, according to the Afghan government, up to two billion tonnes of high-grade iron ore that it had initially expressed interest in. Even the seemingly insatiable Beijing has begun to wonder whether mining in Afghanistan may be more trouble than it’s worth.

This is not to say that China has played no role in Afghanistan. Beijing recently pledged $75 million in aid to Afghanistan over the next five years and has already provided, according to Chinese figures, $130 million in aid since the fall of the Taliban. In July, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechiannounced that Beijing would train 200 Afghan officials and technical personnel this year and was increasing the number of scholarships it offered to young Afghans from 30 to 50. But these numbers are small compared with what China could give and what it does gives to neighboring Pakistan. In the wake of the terrible floods this year, for instance, China quickly pledged $200 million in aid to Pakistan.

For now, beyond resource extraction and providing a minimum of diplomatic largesse, China refuses to become more engaged in Afghanistan. It is hard to see a way through the impenetrable fog of friendliness that is the Sino-Pak relationship, described by Chinese and Pakistani leaders as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, sweeter than honey, and stronger than steel.” And since Pakistan continues to hedge its position in Afghanistan, both supporting the government and supporting elements linked to the insurgency, it’s unlikely that Beijing will endanger its friendship with Islamabad and its potential partner in the wake of NATO’s departure by coming to NATO’s aid.

Ultimately, there is a great deal of common ground between Beijing, the West, and the Karzai administration: They all want to see a stable Afghanistan. But China’s wait-and-see strategy is not going to change anytime soon, something the Obama administration is going to have to accept as it figures out how it is going to extricate itself from Afghanistan.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and a China program associate with the European Council on Foreign Relations.