Another short piece I am catching up on posting which was commissioned straight after the fall of Kabul by the Telegraph. Am sure the situation will remain incredibly fluid some time to come, though I have a feeling the Taliban themselves will not change their fundamental views. Whether they will let themselves become hosts of future terrorist threats is another question, and I suspect something more for the region than the west. But we shall see. Undoubtedly more on this topic as time passes.

The Taliban are still hardliners, but they are more pragmatic after 20 years of fighting

After 20 years of sticking to their guns and views the insurgents have ushered the exit of another superpower from their country

Will the Taliban give any ground to Afghanistan’s liberals under their rule? That is the question now on everyone’s mind.

There is little evidence to suggest the insurgents have changed their hardline views in their 20 years of opposition.

In fact, it would not be surprising if two decades of grind followed by victory only hardened their sense of belief in their cause. From their perspective, God has given them victory after a long struggle.

Yet at the same time, the Taliban has developed some pragmatism during their time in the wilderness.

Now it has taken absolute power, its leaders are aware they will have to follow this up with a government. This requires providing a structure to the people of Afghanistan.

The group is clear-eyed about the vicissitudes of governance even while being driven by a set of fundamental and extreme religious beliefs.

The Taliban first emerged from the chaos of the post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, when the country descended into rampant warlordism.

At the time it was a fundamentalist group driven by a purist interpretation of Islam to consolidate power across the country (with some support from outside powers). A key thing they sought to bring back to Afghanistan was a sense of justice.

They took their interpretation of this to an extreme, meting out a brutal form of medieval justice and pushing their country back into an obscurantist time which sought to turn back the clock on modernity.

Women in particular suffered in this world, though they were not the only group to suffer. But there was some sense of justice in this world which was better than the rapacious warlordism that preceded it.

Since being ejected from power, minorities, women and more have thrived in Afghanistan (as sadly has corruption).

This is the changed country that the Taliban have taken over. And while doubtless there will be pressure within the organisation to return to a more austere time, the Taliban government will have to balance this desire against the fact that the world will judge them harshly if they simply let things slip back as they were before September 11, 2001.

Their neighbours may be more accommodating to how they are treating their people than others, but they do not also want to see instability. 

They are also not going to be providing the majority of the aid and support that the country will need to rebuild. A good portion of this is likely to come from the West, meaning the Taliban will have to find a way of making sure they keep up appearances.

They have already shown some pragmatism in their public statements, repeatedly talking about women’s rights and children’s education. They have also sought to promote minority figures into positions of prominence within the organisation.

But it is not clear that this is always genuine. And reports of brutality and oppression are easy to find. The question is whether this sort of bloodletting – something sadly common after such a conflict – is temporary or a sign of things to come.

There is no doubt that the Taliban will want to keep a lid on such stories and continue to project a benign image.

But we should not kid ourselves that they have changed any of their views. From their perspective, why should they?

After 20 years of sticking to their guns and views they have ushered the exit of another superpower from their country.

They have little reason to doubt their formula does not work. At this point it will be up to the world to ensure that we keep them to account to what they say they are going to do.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

More catch up posting now from the previous few weeks. This one was written a little earlier, but ran in Nikkei Asian Review just as Kabul fell after excellent editor Jason pushed it through to be timely. Written in irritation at the overinflated narratives that kept emerging in the wake of Taliban visit to Tianjin, it attracted a surprising amount of attention and generated a lot of subsequent media hits which I post in due course. It is a topic which I have covered a great deal in the past, and is likely to become more relevant as time goes on. There is a whole chapter on China in Afghanistan in my upcoming book, which I have finally seen some draft covers for which is exciting. More on that in due course!

The myth of Chinese investment in Afghanistan

Little evidence that war-torn country is a strategic priority for Beijing

Taliban fighters take control of Afghanistan’s presidential palace in Kabul on Aug. 15: they are certainly not Beijing’s preferred choice.   © AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Among the many overblown narratives bouncing around amid the chaos of the Taliban victory in Afghanistan is the notion that China is champing at the bit to sweep in and pluck the country’s economic riches once the country has been cleared of its Western impedimenta.

There is no doubt that Beijing’s companies will look at some of the resources in Afghanistan as potential opportunities, but there is little evidence that this is a strategic priority for Beijing. China has played a surprisingly limited economic role in Afghanistan until now, and it is hard to imagine this is going to abruptly change in the face of instability implicit in the wake of the Taliban takeover.

Up until now, Beijing has been able to maintain good relations with both the Afghan government and the Taliban at the same time, and both sides recognize that whoever ends up in charge, China will still be their neighbor. And as the world’s second-largest economy, it is clearly a relationship they hope to benefit from.

This narrative is not new. The Taliban doubtless recall that their own earlier minister of mining was in a meeting with a Chinese delegation in Kabul when the Sept. 11 attacks took place in 2001. Afghans in general been encouraged by the fact that the biggest putative bilateral investment projects in the country since the U.S. invaded have been Chinese.

In 2007, the Metallurgical Corporation of China and Jiangxi Copper won a contract to develop and exploit a copper mine in Mes Aynak, while in 2011, Chinese energy giant China National Petroleum Corp. won a tender for an oil field in Amu Darya in the north of the country, sparking hopes that this might finally bring a measure of economic independence.

Yet the two projects have since stalled, with the Afghan government taking back the Amu Darya concession, while Mes Aynak has become a byword for broken Chinese dreams in Kabul. In both cases, the much-vaunted agreements for all ancillary infrastructure — a railway line, power station and refinery — never materialized.

There is no doubt that Afghanistan’s mineral riches would be attractive to Chinese companies on the lookout for untapped resources to feed insatiable domestic demand. Yes, Chinese companies may have a higher risk tolerance than some of their Western counterparts, but in the wake of two big project failures, why would a potentially more unstable Afghanistan suddenly be more attractive? Beijing might be in discussions with the Taliban, but China has little reason to force its companies into the country.

When it comes to infrastructure, Chinese investment in Afghanistan is also limited. There has been some hospital construction, housing in Kabul, several small-scale factories and some new buildings for Kabul University — and possibly a military base in Badakhshan — but connectivity infrastructure such as roads, bridges, rail and ports has been in short supply.

Chinese construction companies have built roads and more in Afghanistan, but most of this has been done through international institutional financing, rather than being driven by Beijing. Chinese contractors have won competitive bids and delivered them under dangerous circumstances.

As for extending President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, the little that has been advanced has been mostly rhetorical or just concepts floated by Beijing to connect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with Afghanistan. But as far as it is possible to tell, little economic energy or effort has been put into turning this into reality. Beijing has refurbished some border posts to facilitate the transit of goods between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but this is certainly not the weighty economic infrastructure projects being advanced in Pakistan or North and Central Asia.

The one thing that the Chinese Embassy in Kabul has focused its attention on recently is pine nuts, celebrating the creation of an air corridor to facilitate their export to China. While such opportunities are to be encouraged — they create lots of jobs in what is still a heavily agrarian society — this is hardly a game-changer.

Pine nuts bound for Shanghai are loaded into a Turkish Airlines aircraft at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport in November 2018: such activities create jobs but are hardly a game-changer.   © Afghan Presidency Press Office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

None of this is to dismiss China’s aid efforts in Afghanistan. The key point is that aid has been limited, with the few substantial achievements tending to be driven by Chinese companies and entrepreneurs operating on their own. Notwithstanding serious and high-level Chinese engagement, the Mes Aynak project remains in limbo, suggesting a limit to how far China wants to force its companies to operate within the country.

Moreover, all of this took place while the country was at least substantially under the command of a government that possessed a degree of international accountability and expertise. While past experience has shown a willingness by Chinese companies to engage with the Taliban, they are certainly not Beijing’s preferred choice. The assurances that Chinese investors would need to proceed further will likely take some time to materialize.

The sad truth is that China is a missed economic opportunity for Afghanistan. And there is little chance that the instability that will follow a Taliban takeover is going to change that.

It has been a very busy month in the world and in work terms, and have been delinquent about posting. So quite a lot of catching up to do over the next few days. First up is a piece for an outlet I used to contribute to quite regularly, the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor on a topic that I used to cover annually for them, providing a short review of the annual Europol Annual Terrorist Threat report. This year’s highlighted the problem of lone actors in particular as the core of the terrorist threat. As with all these sorts of reports, the data collection requires caveats, but the trends are nonetheless very interesting.

New Europol Report Warns of Lone Actors and Analyzes Decrease in Terrorism in 2020

Terrorism Monitor: Volume 19, Issue: 15

Source: europarl.europa.eu

In late June, Abdirahman Jibril A, a 24-year-old Somali migrant legally residing in Germany, walked barefoot into a Woolworth shop in the center of Würzburg, Bavaria asking for the kitchenware department. Once there, he took a large kitchen knife and started attacking people. When he was finally brought down by police and pedestrians, he had murdered three people and injured seven others.

The attack came only a week after the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation (Europol) had launched its latest annual report, which highlighted that lone actor terrorism of this sort is the sharp end of the threat Europe faces. Most worrying for Europol chief, Catherine de Bolle, was the fact that “more jihadist terrorist attacks were completed than thwarted during 2020.” While absolute numbers of such attacks remain low at 15 attacks recorded over the year, the lone actor threat remains a critical gap in European counterterrorism.

Comparing the Attackers in Würzburg and France

At time of writing, details around the Würzburg attacker were lacking. Authorities in Germany seemed divided between whether he was a terrorist or suffering from some sort of mental crisis at the time of the attack. While he was reported as having shouted “Allahu Akhbar” during the attack, authorities appear not to have concluded that he consumed much jihadist or other radical material prior to the attack. Discussions with family members have also not clarified the extent of his radicalization (tagesspiegel, July 15). Some reports indicated a history of serious mental issues, including hearing voices and believing himself to be followed by the authorities (Welt, July 2). The attack seems part of a pattern of incidents highlighted in the Europol report whereby “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 some cases, authorities have gone so far as to blame COVID-19 for attacks. The Europol report mentions, “At an individual level, there is a risk that the situation created by the pandemic could be an additional stress factor for radicalized individuals with mental health problems. As a result, lone actors might turn to violence sooner than they would have done under different circumstances.” French authorities in particular have suggested that two cases almost exactly a year apart reflect this trend, with mental strain pushing individuals previously not known to authorities to launch extremist attacks.

The first attack in Romans-sur-Isère came just as lockdowns were starting in France in April 2020 and was conducted by a Sudanese migrant who murdered two people and injured five others waiting in a shop. He was found to have extremist material, though ultimately he was placed into a secure mental health unit (lemonde.com, May 11). Almost exactly a year later, a Tunisian man who had lived in France for several years attacked staff at a police station in Rambouillet, leading to one death. This attacker was as unknown to authorities as the man in Romans-sur-Isère and was listening to extremist material at the time of his attack. He was shouting “Allahu Akhbar” during his attack before being killed by police. Authorities are still unclear about his radicalization process, although indicators, including his online activity, appear to suggest it may have in part been triggered by COVID-19 lockdowns (lexpress.fr, April 25).

Diminishing Mainstream Jihadism and Right- and Left-Wing Terrorism?

Notwithstanding the attacks in Würzburg and France, the Europol report is notable for highlighting the more mainstream jihadist activity that might have been expected has not materialized. The report mentions that few people sought to travel to foreign terrorist battlefields in the past year, and downplayed the criminal-terrorism nexus. It stated, “In the EU, there is little evidence of systematic cooperation between criminals and terrorists…The nexus between crime and jihadist terrorism mainly manifested itself through financing sources as well as within prisons.”

The report highlighted that a third of the attacks identified during the reporting year involved individuals who had previous criminal charges for terrorism offences. However, it downplayed the link, stating that “recidivism among terrorism convicts in Europe is relatively low.” A lingering sense of threat from the western Balkans is felt throughout the report, however, as the successful Vienna attacker in November 2020 revealed a terrorist network linked to Islamic State (IS) and the Middle East (Terrorism Monitor, December 3, 2020).

Beyond violent Islamists, the report also discussed extreme right-wing terrorism as a threat, although reported numbers are relatively low. The report, for example, identified one successful extreme right-wing attack in Hanau, Germany in February 2020 (dw.com, February 20, 2020). However, it made the point that while that shooter was clearly racist, it was unclear the degree to which he was connected to any other networks.  The report also highlighted three other disrupted attacks in Belgium, Germany, and France, the growing trajectory right wing extremist youths, and the importance of online communities for this contingent (brusselstimes.com, July 28, 2020; euronews.com, January 28, 2020; francebleu.fr, May 29, 2020).

Also notable is that Europol reported that there were more actual attacks on the far-left and anarchist side of the coin than from right-wing extremists, although the former did not result in any fatalities. According to the report, some 24 attacks were reported in Italy, with another one disrupted in France. An example of the incidents in Italy was a parcel bomb sent to Giuseppe Pasini, the leader of the Brescia industry association and Chair of local Steelmaker Feralpi Group in September 2020 (Giornale di Brescia, September 23, 2020).

More recently, Italian authorities noted an increase in anarchist violence directed at authorities and COVID-19 response centers, television transmitters, ATMs, and other public defacements (Panorama, April 21). This reflects Europol reporting in 2019 where more than 20 incidents were recorded in Italy, as well as in Spain and Greece, and a broader trend in Europe whereby left-wing/anarchist groups tend to be more active in southern European countries (Europol, June 2020). While for the most part they are involved in letter bomb and firebombing campaigns that cause damage to property rather than life, the Council of the European Union held a discussion on July 7, 2021 to examine whether the seeming escalation of the threat required a greater focus from a higher level (Council of the European Union, July 1).

Conclusion

The overall narrative from Europol reporting is that terrorist threats in Europe are down, though the agency hesitates to say this is a result of lowered activity and speculates that the downturn might be linked to COVID-19-related restrictions. It states, “This decrease, however, is not necessarily linked to decreased terrorist activities. The UK cautioned that the decline in terrorism-related arrests and convictions can also be attributed to the operational changes necessary under government restrictions imposed in March 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Published in the middle of 2021, it is notable that the trends highlighted in the report for 2020 appear to have carried forward. Thus far, few violent Islamist attacks have taken place in Europe, and those that have taken place are similar to the Würzburg attack, including an incident in Vetlanda, Sweden in March, another stabber in Dresden, Germany days after the Würzburg attack, and a former terrorist offender who attacked a police officer in France in May (politico.eu, March 4; tagesspiegel.de, July 6; France24.com, May 28). All were identified in reporting as individuals ideologically inspired and troubled. Meanwhile, the case in May of Jurgen Conings in Belgium, who tried to kill a virologist before dying while in hiding in the wilderness, highlighted the danger on the far right (politico.eu, June 20). Isolated individuals launching one-man terrorist campaigns appear to be the sharp end of the terrorist threat in Europe for the moment.

Another piece on Afghanistan, this time for RUSI looking through the lens of Central Asia to understand better how the region is worrying about what is going on and trying to engage with major powers to mitigate its risks. Been doing quite a bit on Afghanistan in its region of late, and a few more short pieces to come, as well as (hopefully!) some longer ones. All of this of course helps tee things up for the book early next year. As ever, comments, thoughts, criticisms, and more welcome!

Central Asia and Afghanistan: Old Fears, Old Actors, New Games

The countries of Central Asia have reason to be concerned about Afghanistan in the wake of the Western withdrawal. Yet it remains unclear how they will mitigate the security risks, and what major power support to do this might look like.

Leaders attending the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Qingdao, China in June 2018 pose for a group photo. Courtesy of Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo


Just over 20 years ago, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) was founded, with mitigating risks from Afghanistan as one of its key objectives. In his opening comments at the first session, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan characterised the country as ‘the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism’. Two decades later, security concerns around Afghanistan remain alive and well in Central Asia. This was evident recently in Tashkent, as Uzbekistan hosted a major summit focused on Central and South Asian connectivity. One of the first large-scale international events since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, much of its focus was on Afghanistan, a country which ties the two regions together.

Traditionally, international attention towards Afghanistan has tended to focus on its southern border, given the Taliban’s deep links with Pakistan, as well as the Pashtun communities that tie the two countries together across the still ill-defined border. The attacks of 11 September 2001 brought the focus of international terrorism concerns to Afghanistan. Yet long before 2001, Central Asia had many reasons to worry about security threats emanating from Afghanistan.

The five-year Tajik Civil War which raged during the 1990s was in part fuelled by groups operating out of bases in Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan was invaded by militants linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the summer of 1999 and 2000. And in February 1999, a series of six car bombs in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent killed 13 people. All of the networks and groups behind these incidents had links to Afghanistan, highlighting President Nazarbayev’s concern over the country, and providing an animating issue for the SCO to group around.

Yet, despite the SCO being created as a vehicle which could – among other things – help coordinate a response to the problems emanating from Afghanistan, the organisation did nothing. In fact, following the September 11 attacks and the abrupt US return to the region, the Central Asian members quite rapidly pivoted to support the renewed US push into Afghanistan. US bases were welcomed into the region, to veiled scepticism in Beijing and Moscow. And for two decades, the SCO did very little practically in support of Afghanistan.

China’s Stake

This was not for want of China trying. Beijing sought to push the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, bringing the country into the organisation as an observer member and fostering the creation of an SCO–Afghanistan Contact Group. But these efforts achieved little. Ultimately, Beijing lost its patience and ended up doing more bilaterally with various partners around Afghanistan than through the SCO.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent tour of the region again served to highlight this approach. He attended an SCO summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, stopped off in Tashkent for a regional security conference organised by the Uzbeks, and completed his tour in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. At each stop he held high-level bilateral engagements and talked about working together on Afghanistan in vague terms, focusing on border security, cooperation and working towards an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned solution. No clear or new answers were proffered within or outside the SCO format.

US Involvement

At the same time, the US has participated in a series of engagements in the region. On the fringes of the Tashkent conference, the US held the latest C5+1 format session, bringing together the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries and the senior US representative attending the conference. The final statement emerging from the meeting focused heavily on Afghanistan, highlighting a desire to encourage trade links, improve regional connectivity with Afghanistan, and ensure that the country would not be a threat to the C5+1 or others.

Eager to highlight its particular brand of diplomatic nous, Uzbekistan also managed to work with the US to establish a new regional Quad grouping of Afghanistan–Pakistan–US–Uzbekistan to support an ‘Afghanistan-Peace Process and Post Settlement’. What this all means in practical terms, however, remains unclear, with many of the statements repeating what has been seen and heard before. The US is a major investor in Central Asia, but it demonstrates little committed strategic attention in a region where high-level geopolitics is the order of the day.

… And Russia

Not to be left behind, Russia has also stepped into the game, generously offering to let the US have access to its bases in the region – a move that highlights Moscow’s habit of forgetting that the Central Asian states are now independent. But at the same time, Russia announced military drills with Uzbek and Tajik forces near the two states’ respective borders with Afghanistan, something the Central Asians have welcomed. They have deep historical links to Russian security forces, and Tajikistan hosts a base, Kyrgyzstan an airfield and Kyrgyzstan a missile testing range used by Russian forces. In the wake of the recent escalation in fighting in Afghanistan, Tajikistan called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Russian construct which seeks to retain some of the security links that existed during Soviet times – to come to its aid. While it is not clear whether the entity itself will respond, Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to come to Dushanbe’s aid, boosting its capabilities in particular at its military base in the country near the border with Afghanistan.

Rising Concerns

As the fighting in Afghanistan gradually moves closer to its neighbours’ borders, Central Asian concerns are increasing. In early July, hundreds of Afghan soldiers and some civilians fled across the border into Tajikistan. The Tajiks let them in, though they ultimately repatriated some of them. In Uzbekistan a similar scene played out, though the Uzbeks were much faster in turning border-crossers around. In Turkmenistan, fighting at the border became so bad that shells started to land in Turkmen territory, leading senior Turkmen officials to reach out to the Taliban to try to bring an end to the fighting.

Prior to this, the region had been somewhat unclear in its response to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan. It had sought to engage with both the Taliban and the government in Kabul, though with varying degrees of publicity. The Tajik government has played a major diplomatic role this past year, hosting high-level sessions of the SCO, the CSTO and the Heart of Asia/Istanbul process – a Turkish-Afghan initiative seeking to focus on Afghanistan’s regional connections as the answer to its long-term problems. Meanwhile, the recent summit in Tashkent is the latest effort by the new government in Uzbekistan to try to tie Afghanistan closer to Central Asia, and Kazakhstan has sought to initiate other regional diplomatic engagements as well. But through all of this, it is not clear that the region has developed a firm plan for how it will manage the potential chaos in Afghanistan in the future.

While all the Central Asian countries now seem to agree that Afghanistan is a key part of their region, they do not seem quite as clear on how to deal with it collectively. Their continuing need and desire to engage with large outside powers as part of their response, however, highlights a concern about being left to cope with this responsibility alone. What is striking is that among the big powers, Russia remains the only one that continues to offer practical answers to the problems Afghanistan might present to Central Asia.

While China has been far more active in its engagement recently across the board in Afghanistan, it is still not clear that Beijing has much intention of stepping in to fill the vacuum left by the US. Rather, it seems that Beijing is eager to soothe regional concerns, while Washington is merely talking about them; only Moscow is stepping in to actually do something. The key unanswerable question at this stage is the degree to which Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their activities, and whether this is the solution that Central Asia actually wants. It is, however, likely to be what it will get.

A new outlet for a well-trodden topic. Exploring the China-Pakistan relationship for Nikkei Asian Review, using the recent terrorist atrocity in Pakistan against a busload of Chinese engineers as the way into the topic and the tensions around it between Beijing and Islamabad. It has generated some chatter online which is always good to see, at least someone is reading! Undoubtedly more on this topic to come.

China is a habit that Pakistan cannot break

Ties with Washington further strained by the need to declare fealty to Beijing

Imran Khan, pictured in Beijing in November 2018: the Pakistani Prime Minister is increasingly China’s staunchest defender on the international stage.   © Reuters

An attack on a busload of Chinese workers en route to the Dasu Hydropower plant in Pakistan has once again highlighted the complex precariousness of the relationship between Beijing and Islamabad.

The rapid comment by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs citing terrorism as the reason, while their Pakistani counterparts suggested an accident of some sort, did little for the dead Chinese engineers and their Pakistani guards. But it did reveal the evident tension between the two powers, in stark contrast to the public rhetoric surrounding their relationship. Rust, it seems, is weakening the bond between these iron brothers.

The most curious aspect of the tension is paradoxically visible in the public displays of fealty from Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is increasingly China’s staunchest defender on the international stage. While it is not surprising that he would agree with his most important ally’s perspective, it seems odd that he feels the need to do so repeatedly in such an ostentatious way.

Many other countries that enjoy strong ties with China have successfully avoided situations requiring them to make such displays.

While the declarations may win favor in Beijing, they are undoubtedly going down badly in Washington. Since U.S. President Joe Biden was sworn in, he has not engaged with his Pakistani counterpart in any public way. The only high-level in-person engagement has been between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf.

At the same time, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has visited Delhi, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has hosted India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in Washington. When Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited New York in May, he was able to meet with members of the Senate and Congress, but, publicly at least, there were no meetings with administration officials.

Biden himself has long-held concerns about Pakistan. As vice president in Feb. 2010, Biden told CNN that Pakistan was a large country with a “significant minority” that was radicalized and was not “a completely functional democracy in the sense we think about it,” adding that its status as a nuclear power was his biggest “foreign policy concern.”

As Washington pivots from the war on terrorism to confrontation with Beijing, Islamabad risks being left stranded in the middle. Always an awkward U.S. partner in Afghanistan, the U.S. withdrawal means this is no longer a primary consideration for Washington.

In the years ahead, Washington is likely to look at Islamabad through the lens of its growing tensions with Beijing, with Pakistan seen to be sitting firmly on China’s side.

All of this comes as Islamabad has been trying to signal, often through U.K. contacts, that it is eager to find ways of building a more constructive relationship with Washington. The problem is that Pakistan is no longer as important to Washington as it once was, especially as it is seen as being unlikely to do much to support attempts to contain China.

Islamabad has, however, been playing fast and loose when it comes to its relationship with Beijing. Articles in the Pakistan media discussing the China-Pakistan relationship are often peppered with off-the-record dissenting government voices hinting that significant parts of the Pakistani establishment feel they are locked in a bad relationship. Perhaps this explains why Beijing saw the need to send a new ambassador with strong party links, rather than the traditional South Asia expert.

People wheel a gurney towards an ambulance outside a hospital in Dasu after a bus with Chinese nationals on board plunged into a ravine following a blast on July 14.   © Reuters

Irritations are also building on the security front with the attack on the busload of engineers in Dasu coming after a separate incident in Quetta which came close to hitting the Chinese Ambassador, as well as earlier targeted attacks by Baluchi and Sindhi separatists on Chinese nationals and projects. Beijing is doubtless not shocked by these, but the loss of life in the Dasu incident was a step too far.

Signs that Beijing is losing patience include thunderous Global Times editorials warning Pakistan to get its house in order or China will explore deploying forces. Officially deploying a team of investigators immediately to look into the attack and being quicker than Pakistan to blame terrorists for the Dasu attack all illustrate a willingness by Beijing to start assuming the worst. The decision to cancel the next meeting of the Ministerial Joint Coordination Committee of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is the clearest signal Beijing can send about its displeasure.

This hardly speaks to a relationship that is “higher than the mountains and deeper than the oceans” as diplomats on both sides like to sing. It speaks instead of a relationship where Beijing is increasingly frustrated with a partner that has failed to deliver and appears preoccupied with mending fences with China’s principal adversary.

The bigger problem for Islamabad, however, is that their attempts to get Washington’s attention are not getting through, putting them in the position of having to continually emphasize their fealty to Beijing. Unfortunately for Pakistan, such behavior will only further deepen the rupture with Washington.

Islamabad has backed itself into a complicated position that it will struggle to extricate itself from anytime soon.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

A new piece which I recognize has a certain level of irony imbued within it – making the point that an extremist leader is best starved of the oxygen of publicity by writing about him in a national newspaper. But still, it felt a significant point to make. I noted during his press conference announcing the end of his restrictions apparently someone walked past and shouted at him. As quoted in the Telegraph, “one passerby, of South Asian origin, shouted: “You don’t speak for us”.” So maybe he is finally on his way out. But I suspect this is not the last we have heard from Anjem Choudary I am afraid. In any case, here is my short comment for the Times Red Box column.

How do we silence Anjem Choudary? Start by switching off the microphone

David Rose for The Telegraph


As the rest of the UK celebrated the end of Covid restrictions, Anjem Choudary celebrated his return to free speech. Having been jailed for inviting people to support Islamic State, he was freed in 2018 and had been living under restrictive licence conditions until now.

But being able to speak is not the same as a return to influence. This is not something that will be entirely determined by the restrictions he is living under. The real determinant is the degree to which he is welcomed back into the public debate as a figure representing a part of society.

This is something we can all determine around him and something he will struggle to control.

There is no denying the damage his organisation, al Muhajiroun, has done. The last two violent Islamist terrorist attacks in this country to kill innocent people were conducted by individuals that had some contact with the organisation.

This is the latest chapter in an almost three-decade history for the group. Go back to before September 11, 2001 and the group and its people are a regular feature of most terrorist investigations.

Yet it is also the case that it is not clear how much the organisation has managed to grow and develop further in the past few years. Choudary was the most prominent leader of an organisation that struggles to mobilise in the same way as it used to.

One of its more prominent remaining leaders, Shakil Chopra, was jailed a couple of weeks ago for sharing extremist videos. Others are living under restrictive conditions that are designed to consume their time and constrain their ability to meet with others or radicalise further.

Of course no system is perfect, but these restrictive measures do have a corrosive effect on capability.

It has been some time since we have seen a large-scale terrorist plot prosecuted in our courts of a scale comparable to those that were being disrupted in the mid-2000s when al Qaeda used a pipeline of followers that al Muhajiroun had helped build to direct a series of attacks towards the UK.

Rather we have seen atrocities that have been sporadic and occasional with no clarity about the role of terrorist groups or al Muhajiroun. It is not clear how many new followers the group is generating in the same way as it did before.

Security services continue to worry about violent Islamists, but it is not clear how much of this threat is still linked to al Muhajiroun in the same way as before.

The residual parts of the network continue to exist, but are under continual scrutiny. Choudary’s release provides a moment at which it could try to regenerate, but he will be watched closely and will struggle to mobilise people in the same way as before.

And anyway, in some ways the world has moved on. Al Muhajiroun’s narrative does not work in the same way as it used to. They used to shout about an Islamic State — it was built by Isis and there was considerable criticism for those in the organisation who did not go and join it.

Those being drawn towards extremist narratives today have not always heard of Choudary in the same way. Some in extremist communities ridicule his ilk as “microphone jihadis” who are all talk.

A key to him not getting back to the position he was in before is to starve him of his microphone and ensure that he is not the dominating news figure that he was. While this will not get rid of him, it will reduce his attractiveness.

His provocative interviews would draw people to him and create an aura of influence and power, which he was adept at manipulating to open up people to ideas that in some cases would lead them down a path towards violence.

There is of course a certain irony in writing this in an article about him for a major national website, but it is worth stating nonetheless: starving Anjem Choudary of his microphone will reduce his power and influence. Without it, he will simply become another aging ideologue whose followers are jailed, dead or drifting away.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute

Been a busy period for short pieces. Some longer ones are still working their way through the pipeline, and been doing more work on the new book, but all of that still to come, but watch this space. Returning to the present, a new piece for the Financial Times which is a rather morose contribution to the current conversation about Afghanistan looking at it from the perspective of the global jihadist movement. The problem may be reduced, but it certainly does not look like it has gone away. There is some more thinking that needs doing into why it is we are unable to ever resolve conflicts against such groups, and whether the problem is our fear of underestimating them. But that is for another day.

We might be done with jihadis but they are not done with us

Taliban fighters and villagers celebrate the peace deal in Laghman Province, in March last year © Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty

There is a wind of optimism sweeping through the global jihadist community. A narrative of victory is gaining momentum just as the west tries to turn the page and focus on great power conflict with China and Russia. 

Scanning the horizon, they see victories in Afghanistan and Mali as western forces announce their withdrawal. In north-western Nigeria and Mozambique, Isis-affiliated groups are gaining ground. And in north-eastern Syria, an al-Qaeda linked group is rebranding itself as an acceptable government. 

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has been made as the Taliban are ascendant on the battlefield. The deadline of September 11 this year only seems to highlight the inconclusive nature of what the west has tried to do there. In the wake of the attacks on the US in 2001, President Bush lumped the Taliban in with the responsible al-Qaeda terrorists they were hosting. He warned: “They [the Taliban] will hand over the terrorists or they will share in their fate.” Yet two decades later, the Taliban have not handed over any terrorists, broken with al-Qaeda or shared their fate. 

Al-Qaeda has suffered setbacks. A decade after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by the US. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is in hiding and there is speculation of his demise. In contrast, Taliban leader Mullah Omar is believed to have died of natural causes. His successors are still fighting and their narrative is that they are going to take power in Kabul. Al-Qaeda’s media has praised the Taliban’s “historic” victory. 

This sense of success is bolstered by France announcing its withdrawal from Mali and Isis affiliates taking territory in Nigeria and Mozambique. In Idlib, Syria, al-Qaeda spawned Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is rebranding itself as a government willing to negotiate with the west. In an interview with US television, its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, presented himself as a politician who is simply trying to govern.

Yet none of these groups have given any indication that they have changed their views. Seen from the perspective of the jihadist community, the overall trajectory looks positive. Very few of the problems that created the groups in the first place — bad governance, inequality or ethnic tensions — have been addressed. Arguably, they have multiplied. Jihadist terrorism is erupting in more places than before. Prior to 2001, it was not a concern in some parts of Africa, where it now thrives. A 2018 report by US think-tank CSIS showed the number of groups have almost tripled since 2001. And the chaos following the announcement of withdrawal from Afghanistan raises questions about what has been achieved with 20 years of conflict. 

All of this is likely to rejuvenate the global jihadist movement. With creative reporting, it can portray itself as ascendant, with the US withdrawal giving it tangible evidence of success. This will motivate individuals and groups elsewhere around the world, who will see that their struggle is winnable if they just stick at it for long enough. 

While this may lead to suffering on the ground, it will not necessarily result in an immediate upsurge in terrorism in the west. The world is far more attentive to these threats, and Afghanistan is not the country it was pre-9/11. But in contexts where we see jihadist groups, a sense of triumph may animate them and push them forwards. 

Over time, this will probably evolve in ways that will surprise us. No one expected Isis to rise so abruptly from the ashes of Iraq’s insurgency. Violent Islamist terrorism in Africa has also spread in ways that were not immediately predictable. Few would have expected the growth of Isis affiliates in Congo or Mozambique. But all of these groups have a perspective and outlook which is anathema to the west, and support Isis’ global aims.

The threat is festering rather than going away. We may have tired of the groups and narratives of the war on terror — but those we are fighting have not. They will take this moment and savour what they see as their success. In the longer term they will present a new kind of problem that we will have to address. They will find a way of violently capturing our attention with dramatic attacks against western targets in unexpected places or new battlefields that draw in foreigners.

Whitehall and Washington may want to focus on China but jihadist conflicts are still very much with us. Given that we seem unable to resolve the issues that animate these movements, we are obliged to simply manage them. But handing them rhetorical victories is not helpful.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.

Have now come to the end (I think) of the current China-Eurasia writing spell. Next few will likely go back looking at terrorism. The past burst was in part inspired by events (the US withdrawal announcement of Afghanistan as well as the SCO’s 20th birthday) and by the fact that I was doing some revisions on my upcoming book on the topic. This particular piece is for the South China Morning Post, and explores the fact that China has really not stepped into its possible role in Afghanistan. To those who have read other work I have done (everyone of course!), they will know I think this is a role China should be taking and have pushed a number of projects, papers and ideas that try to help this thinking along. Notwithstanding broader concerns around China, it seems to me they should be playing a more positive role in Afghanistan and it is huge loss to the region and Afghans in particular that they do not.

Have not done a media catch up for a while, so here’s a quick sweep. On the China side, spoke to the Guardian about NATO’s China push, to the Straits Times about China-Russia, RFE/RL’s China in Eurasia Briefing picked up my Oxus piece about the SCO’s 20th birthday, The National picked up my comments during the launch of the NATO Defence College paper on Afghanistan and regional powers, and on the terrorism side, spoke to the excellent Lizzie Dearden at the Independent at the end of the Fishmonger’s Hall inquest about ISIS claims, my comments on Maajid’s LBC show were picked up by the Daily Express, and spoke to The National about the big Global Counter-ISIS Coalition meeting taking place in Rome this past week.

Why China cannot afford to take a passive role in post-US Afghanistan

  • There appears to be little evidence supporting Taliban assurances that trouble will not spill over onto Chinese soil
  • China has spent many years hedging on Afghanistan but it needs to take steps to support the government in Kabul and visibly deploy more resources
Afghan militia members join Afghan defence and security forces during a gathering in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 23. Photo: AP

China appears remarkably sanguine about the growing trouble in Afghanistan. The assumption that a government led or dominated by the Taliban will be a reliable partner is something Beijing has regretted in the past, and could end up ruing again. 

There is some consistency in China’s relations with Afghanistan. Beijing has been unwilling to commit to much, yet has sought to do a lot. Its economic projects have never quite got off the ground, while political mediation efforts have at best added to the noise.

There is no denying the effort, but it would be better if China actually followed through on all its promises with action. Instead, Beijing seems willing to let fate take its course and watch the Taliban come to power.

Media reports have indicated China has received assurances that a Taliban government would be sure to insulate Beijing from problems that might emanate from Afghan territory. China has also made a display of showing support for the administration of President Ashraf Ghani and significant factions within it.

These assurances have been backstopped by an increased security buffer around the Wakhan Corridor, as well as Pakistani assurances of being able to rein in any potential trouble.

Yet, what evidence is there that such assurances have worked in the past? Previously, in 2000, a Chinese delegation visiting Afghanistan, then under Taliban rule, and discovered a large contingent of Uygurs in Jalalabad. They were said to be linked to separatists seeking to strike inside China.

While the delegation appealed to the Taliban authorities to expel them, there is no clear evidence that this happened. Those particular groups may have been moved, but repeated independent reports from other foreign fighters who attended al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan later on highlighted the presence of Uygurs. 

When presenting its case for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation linked to al-Qaeda in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Chinese government pointed to the fact the group had launched attacks against China from Afghan bases. 

Since then, al-Qaeda has begun to champion a narrative of targeting China. It has praised Uygur militants for their battlefield actions and sought to harness some of the global anger against China for its treatment of Uygur minorities at home.

This might seem unsurprising, but it is an about-turn for al-Qaeda. In the late 1990s, it refused to even accept there were Uygur militants at its training camps and openly speculated that China might be an ally in its global struggle against the United States. 

There appears to be little evidence of a focus of violence towards China, but this is mainly because there are more attractive targets in the West. Above all, Beijing should be aware that there is little to show the Taliban has recanted or rejected al-Qaeda, or that al-Qaeda has been expelled from its territory.

While the US might be willing to accept Taliban assurances about ensuring violence does not reach American soil or that of its allies, the US intelligence community has also concluded al-Qaeda is no longer a direct threat. Afghanistan is far away, in any case, but China is next door and has a very different stake in this game. 

The current narrative from Beijing seems to be one of accepting the inevitable and blaming everything on America. The US might not have handled the situation entirely successfully but, for two decades, it has invested billions of dollars and used its hard and soft power to improve Afghanistan, something Beijing has profited from.

To simply point to American failings and apportion blame fits a tidy narrative. However, by not offering an alternative, China is failing in its duty as a rising power and also doing little to address its security issues. 

In contrast to 2012, when the US announced a major withdrawal from Afghanistan, it hasn’t engaged with China as much this time. This path was somewhat determined by former president Donald Trump’s administration when he pushed through a decision to remove ETIM from the list of proscribed terrorist organisations.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has followed through on this and, to China’s chagrin, has moved ahead without engaging Beijing on its decisions about Afghanistan. 

So, tensions are understandable, but this should not be the context in which Beijing makes its plans. Rather, China should consider that it now faces an unstable country on its border, which will pose a risk to many of its neighbours.

China has shown an interest in playing a role but never really stepped into it. Milquetoast promises are not going to suffice at this point. China should take on a more proactive role in supporting the government in Kabul and visibly deploy more resources to help out.

China has spent many years hedging on Afghanistan. The time has come to make a play and ensure the long-term stability of one of its most troubled neighbours.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

I seem to be on a particular China over its western borders scribbling jag at the moment. Here is my latest, again circling around the twentieth birthday of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), this time for the Straits Times. Have another piece on a related topic which has just landed and will post later, but for the time being enjoy this. For those more interested in terrorism, there are a few bigger pieces on that topic lined up, just been focused quite a bit on China of late as the book goes through another wave of effort ahead of publication next year.

What does China see in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation?

Nato soldiers conducting an inspection near the site of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, in March last year. PHOTO: REUTERS

While the world’s attention was on the G-7, Nato and Europe, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) turned 20 last week. Bringing together China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan, and built around counter-terrorism cooperation, the SCO is sometimes described as Nato of the East.

But this misses the bigger impact it has had in terms of providing China a vehicle through which to shape the Eurasian heartland.

As it quietly breaches its second decade, the SCO has given China an ever-deepening foothold in the heart of the planet’s super continent.

We mostly think of Chinese connectivity through the lens of belts and roads. Since President Xi Jinping’s pair of speeches in 2013 that launched his foreign policy vision that has now been enshrined in Chinese Communist Party doctrine, we tend to see that as the starting point for China’s concepts of connectivity.

But contemporary Chinese thinking on these issues goes back further than this.

The roots can be found in the end of the Cold War as China suddenly found itself having to abruptly adjust to the reality of going from having a single neighbour (the Soviet Union), to four new countries with which it shared borders and communities.

Out at Xinjiang’s northern and western borders, the concept of nationhood is still developing.

Central Asian communities – from Uighurs, to Kyrgyzs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans and more – are all now bound in national borders, but have familial links back and forth across the region.

This reality made it important for China to establish strong connections there early to be able to manage its own communities and security concerns, as well as to try to help Xinjiang develop.

This is the starting point for China’s interest in fostering greater webs of connectivity around it.

THE LINKS WITH THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE

In 1994, then Premier Li Peng carved a path in trying to establish these links across China’s western border. On a visit to all of the Central Asian capitals except Tajikistan (which was in the midst of a grim civil war), he championed the idea of a new Silk Road across the region.

In 1996, then President Jiang Zemin created the Shanghai Five grouping, bringing together the leaders of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to discuss border delineation and demilitarisation.

When in 2001 they welcomed Uzbekistan into this group and transformed it into the SCO, they married up these two strands on security and prosperity, describing it as the “Shanghai Spirit”. The idea was that they would all peacefully move forward and engage without treading on one another’s toes – an articulation which is an echo of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is about using connectivity with the world through economic engagement on the premise of joint prosperity.

The resonance is important as it helps us understand better China’s longer-term vision through the SCO, and more generally its aims for the Eurasian heartland.

For China, the SCO is a vehicle to strengthen bonds and normalise its position as the pre-eminent power. The SCO has developed from a high-level organisation into an institution that has annual meetings of ministers from the member states. It has created a post-graduate university exchange scheme which offers opportunities for students from member states to do a year at a school in another member state.

It has working groups that bring together officials, businessmen and institutions at every level.

It has a secretariat in Beijing, a counter-terrorism centre in Tashkent, an interior and border ministry training centre in Shanghai, and an economic development centre in Qingdao.

It has helped harmonise security approaches, legislation and standards across the region – mostly in a Chinese direction.

A recent report by the United States think-tank, the Rand Corporation, concluded that China’s international leadership would be focused on “exercising a partial global hegemony centred principally on Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa”. Such leadership would be characterised by “a reliance on finance, diplomatic engagement and security assistance to exercise influence while maintaining a modest overseas military presence”.

The SCO is the perfect vehicle to achieve this, offering a broad range of links which fit as a tidy parallel to the more specific projects offered under the BRI.

But at their core, both of these are interwoven into the broader goal of placing China as an ever more significant actor across the Eurasian landmass.

THE AFGHAN PROBLEM

China’s dilemma with this, however, is that with great influence comes great responsibility. And it is assuming leadership in an unstable neighbourhood.

As the SCO turned 20, Nato was discussing its plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, a country sitting on China’s border where it increasingly looks likely that a government controlled or heavily influenced by the Taleban is going to take over.

While Beijing seems surprisingly comfortable with this outcome, some of Afghanistan’s other neighbours are less so.

Shi’ite Iran is worried about the prospect of a return of Sunni hardliners to Kabul. Under the previous Taleban administration, Iran saw its diplomats murdered and religious minorities targeted. The likely waves of poor migrants that are also likely to cross into Iran will put a strain on the already fragile Iranian economy.

Prior to the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan suffered a number of large-scale border incursions with links to Afghanistan, while Uzbekistan saw a series of massive car bomb attacks in its capital.

The Tajik civil war of the mid-1990s was fuelled by camps in Afghanistan. And even Pakistan with its strong connections to militant groups in Afghanistan is concerned about a too-powerful Taleban taking control of the country, worrying about the consequences for the violent Islamist groups within its borders (and the potential exodus of migrants).

The one thing that all of these border countries with Afghanistan share is a link (through membership or participation) to the SCO, suggesting that it might be a good vehicle to try to bring some resolution to the country’s longer-term problems. And yet, much like China, the SCO has done nothing to really advance peace and stability in Afghanistan.

This is not for want of trying. Chinese leaders repeatedly try to get the SCO to do something about Afghanistan. This was hammered home again recently at a summit meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his five Central Asian counterparts. A key takeaway from the summit (the first China has hosted since the pandemic) was that they would do something on Afghanistan.

Yet, few hold much hope for that happening, with the statements of intent joining a long list of such declarations over the past years.

But this is the central problem for the SCO which China is going to have to address at some point. Not only the realities of having a Taleban-dominated leadership in Kabul at the heart of the SCO’s territory, but also the fact that Beijing has been building all of this influence and connectivity with little evidence of wanting to step in to fill the security vacuums that are likely to emerge as the West withdraws from this region.

The famous British geographer Halford Mackinder once described Central Asia as the geographical pivot of what he termed the “world island”, comprising the Eurasian landmass. As he put it, “who rules the heartland commands the world-island; who rules the world-island commands the world”. Through the SCO, Beijing can make a compelling case of laying the foundations to trying to control the “world island”; the dilemma China has yet to come to grips with is to acknowledge the responsibilities that are likely to go alongside this influence.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

Not quite finished in a busy week of China-Afghanistan writing, and one more to come after this. This one for the Diplomat touches on the very challenging question of how this is going to change China’s relationship with Central Asia. Big thanks to the wonderful Niva for getting this idea going. We have some more in the pipeline together, looking forward to seeing them go live.

China’s Afghanistan Challenge and the Central Asian Dilemma

None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing plays a more substantial role in Afghanistan.

Credit: Kyrgyz MFA: https://twitter.com/MFA_Kyrgyzstan/status/1392445892930715648

The U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is underway and is due to be completed by September 11, 2021. In the early days of the War on Terror, U.S. military bases in Central Asia were central to mobilization in Afghanistan, but regional pressure led to their closure. While a narrative persists in the press that the United States will want to keep some substantial presence in the region after the drawdown, it is unclear that anyone in Central Asia has actually been asked.

Russia is unlikely to step forward very far to fill this vacuum, instead preferring to continue to play a supportive role where it serves its interests. To the extent that the United States does appear to want to stay engaged, it seems to be focused on reviving the New Silk Road concept that connects Central Asia to South Asia through Afghanistan, alongside positioning some over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities.

The key uncertainty is whether China is going to finally step forward to take up some mantle of responsibility toward Afghanistan and follow through on its repeated security promises.

Central Asian politics have changed since the United States vacated the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan in 2014. At the time the overriding discourse was how Moscow was going to fill the ensuing security vacuum. Yet, the narrative of the intervening seven years has not been of Russian dominance, but of Chinese expansion. From politics to security, language and economics, China is the rising power in Central Asia.

On May 12, China hosted the second China plus Central Asia (C5+1) Foreign Ministerial talks in Xi’an. The five Central Asian foreign ministers were the first group of foreign officials invited to China since the start of the pandemic. Political ties between China and the Central Asian states have grown exponentially in the past decade. 

Afghanistan was an obvious topic of discussion. Central Asian states fear the potential spillover of conflict and are looking for a security guarantee from within Afghanistan, as well as the other major powers in the region. While urging the U.S. troop withdrawal to “proceed in an orderly and responsible manner to avoid a resurgence of terrorist forces,” China (like Russia) has no desire to see the return of U.S. bases in Central Asia. Yet, at the same time, Beijing has failed to deliver tangible security plans to support its neighbors on the western periphery in the event of an escalation of instability in Afghanistan. The joint statement on Afghanistan released at the end of the Chinese C5+1 meeting was thin on details.

In the past few years, China has emerged as an active player in Afghanistan. China has opened a number of multilateral diplomacy channels around Afghanistan, participated in regional talks, worked with the United States and Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and repeatedly pushed (albeit to no avail) to get the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to do more about Afghanistan. China has offered some limited support to Afghan, Tajik, and Pakistani border forces, and reportedly built its own base in Tajikistan. But these efforts are single-mindedly focused on Chinese border concerns.

The story has been similar on the economic side. China has expanded measures to induce economic incentives for peace in Afghanistan, something that Chinese policymakers have put forward as the most appropriate contribution China can make. A bilateral economics and trade committee was set up in 2015. Direct cargo flights between Afghanistan and China opened in late 2018. After building the Mazar-i-Sharif to Hairatan train line, a cargo train corridor between China and Afghanistan was inaugurated in summer 2019, via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Bilateral trade between China and Afghanistan doubled from $338 million in 2013 to $629 million in 2019, according to data from Chinese customs. And Beijing has repeatedly spoken about bringing Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative foreign policy vision – increasing Afghan connectivity with Central Asia, China, and Pakistan.

In reality Beijing has achieved little. China’s most recent promises include reported security contributions to help with counterterrorism efforts, but it is not clear what these will look like. Economically, China’s stake in Afghanistan has grown, but it has failed to deliver on the massive extractive project in Mes Aynak its firms signed contracts for in 2007, and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) project in northern Afghanistan has also been suspended. Beijing has not lived up to its economic potential in the country yet.

None of this is going to get any easier in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. With the possible outcome that the Taliban will regain control of a greater part of Afghanistan, rule by Islamist ideology may then become an inevitability and that will have consequences for China. While Beijing has clearly been bolstering its relations with factions in the government in Afghanistan, its analysts are equally certain that some Taliban return to power is likely. This confusion in part reflects the baffling complexity of the Afghan battlefield, but it also highlights a dissonance within current planning.

It also illustrates where China’s post-American Afghan strategy likely falls down. With Washington present in force, Beijing can largely apportion blame and responsibility to the U.S. for anything that happens. Once the U.S. is gone, this excuse may still have some rhetorical currency, but it will lack tangible use on the ground. And while China may be able to ensure that its security concerns are addressed, its neighbors in Central Asia will expect it to use its weight and gravitas to play a more substantial role in stabilizing the situation. None expect China to replace the United States in military terms, but Central Asia may hope Beijing will play a more forward and substantial role in Afghanistan — a role that actually helps stabilize and calm the situation — rather than hedge and watch while it collapses in on itself.