Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

More catch up posting from last month, this time again a look forwards on what the year holds for Afghanistan and Central Asia for Nikkei Asian Review. Wasn’t expecting the chaos in Kazakhstan that followed, but I think the broader trends pointed to will hold and the trouble in Kazakhstan will play into it as well.

2022 look ahead: Central Asia will cement its turn against the West

Expect China and Russia to step in and take advantage

U.S. Marines are on guard during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 20: policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others. (Handout photo from U.S. Marine Corps)   © Reuters

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

While this year may have appeared momentous, the truth is that we have not yet seen the full effect of the Taliban taking over in Kabul. This will only emerge as potential opposition forces organize themselves, the regional geopolitics fall into place and the unfolding economic catastrophe starts to bite.

At a wider level, the impact of the American withdrawal from the region will also be felt as the region is pushed closer toward Russia, Iran and China as those three powers continue to square off in an anti-Western geopolitical alignment.

One result of today’s intense and never-ending media cycle is the difficulty to judge the gap between cause and effect. If a particular outcome has not occurred within a day or so, the issue slips from the news pages and we forget about it, only to find ourselves shocked when it later reemerges.

After Afghanistan did not slip back into the brutal civil war that many expected, much of the world’s attention moved elsewhere. Instead, a slow-moving economic crisis has created a catastrophe largely taking place out of our field of vision. But the ramifications of this crisis will emerge.

First, the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan. While most will head south to Pakistan or over the border into Iran and even onward to Europe, a growing number of Afghans will flee into the Central Asian region, most likely Tajikistan.

People from Afghanistan cross into the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan, on Sept. 7: the parlous economic situation will drive many people to seek a life outside Afghanistan.   © Reuters

Second, the Taliban is unlikely to feel the need to contain the country’s narcotics industry, whether by design or lack of capability. Given its status as a high-value cash crop, we can expect more Afghans to turn toward narcotics production, with consequences for criminal networks and corruption across Central Asia, as well as greater fragmentation within Afghanistan.

Third, we can expect some sort of opposition to the Taliban to materialize beyond Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has so far been the only group to consistently target the new government.

While there is some truth to rumors of former regime soldiers and other disaffected groups joining ISKP, the group is unlikely to garner much in the way of international support.

This suggests a vacuum that will eventually be filled by a constellation of the various factions who were ejected from Kabul in August. Currently, the most likely candidates appear to be gathering in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, although a credible and effective leader has yet to emerge.

But the problems inside Afghanistan will pale in comparison with the larger geostrategic shifts taking place in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal.

While many in Washington were at pains to deny it, there was little hiding the fact that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was more about enabling the U.S. to focus more attention on the Indo-Pacific. It seems clear that policymakers in Washington have decided to leave the morass of middle Eurasia to others.

This does not mean that the West has completely withdrawn from the region. The U.S. and Europe will continue to be major investors and providers of aid and other forms of support across the region. But it does mean that Central Asia will receive less attention from Washington and Brussels.

Expect China and Russia to step in and take active advantage to affirm their increasing control of the Eurasian heartland.

Bordered by China, Russia, Iran, all of which suffer varying degrees of Western sanctions, Afghanistan and Central Asia will be almost entirely surrounded by countries whose relations with Washington are hostile.

That will likely result in a very hard-nosed form of geopolitics dominating regional discourse. Relationships will be entirely transactional and based around ensuring stability at whatever cost.

At the same time, we are likely to see a fairly cynical approach as to how this is achieved, with China and Russia increasingly refusing to go against each other. Unlike in the past, the confrontation with the West has escalated to the point that Moscow and Beijing see a greater strategic utility in keeping differences — Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia, for example — out of public view.

The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are scheduled to meet early next year, the first such in-person summit for President Xi in almost two years, is a reflection of how close the relationship has become.

At an economic level too, the continued economic tightening resulting from COVID-19 is likely to strengthen Beijing’s hand in Central Asia, where many regional economies are already bound to China through investment and trade links.

The current COVID-related stasis favors Chinese trade, which is increasingly delivered through online platforms that are becoming ubiquitous across the Eurasian space and can be delivered along rail and road routes that extend outward from China.

In contrast, shipping goods into China is becoming ever harder, though raw materials seem able to continue to flow without too much difficulty.

The net result is an increasingly one-way Belt and Road Initiative, which will only serve to strengthen China’s economic ties across the region and make countries more dependent on Beijing in ways that will ultimately not help their own economies to diversify.

This is likely to be the story of 2022 for Afghanistan and Central Asia: a potentially unstable Afghanistan alongside a strengthening of Beijing and Moscow’s hands across the region. That is when the gradual freezing of the West from the Eurasian heartland will really start to harden.

Another piece on China and Central Asia from late last year, something that in fact was published in late November but I missed when it first came up. This time an invited longer feature article courtesy of Svante at the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Joint Programme in Washington, DC. An excellent source for information and expertize on Central Asia and the Caucasus. This particular paper is part of a larger series they were doing looking at the region’s relations with outside powers 30 years since independence.

A Steadily Tightening Embrace: China’s Ascent in Central Asia and the Caucasus

Raffaello Pantucci

Chinese engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus has been on a steady ascent. China accords considerably more importance to Central Asia than to the Caucasus, and the absolutely central aspect of Chinese engagement is Xinjiang. Still, the economic push into Central Asia has continued, in spite of a slowdown in investment lately. Among outside powers, Russia is the only power that Beijing considers a genuine competitor, and even then that relationship is seen through the lens of cooperation at the larger, strategic level. China does faces challenges in Central Asia: one is the refocusing by various militant groups that now treat China as an adversary. Another is the risk that Beijing may inadvertently clash with Moscow’s interests in the region.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks at the China plus
Central Asia (C+C5) foreign ministers’ meeting in Xi’an, May 12, 2021

he narrative of China’s engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus has been one of steady ascension and embrace. There is a clear difference between the two regions from Beijing’s perspective, with Central Asia a region which is intimately tied to China, while the Caucasus remains at one remove. The Central Asian relationship was initially marked by concerns and instability, it has over time developed into an increasingly close relationship. As time has passed, Central Asia has also played an interesting role in Chinese foreign policy thinking, providing an environment in which Beijing can test out new foreign and security policy approaches in a relatively pliant environment. For example, the first international security organization outside UN structures that China was instrumental in creating, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), was focused on Central Asia. And even more importantly, President Xi Jinping chose to inaugurate his keynote foreign policy concept, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in then-Astana (now Nursultan), Kazakhstan.

The Caucasus occupies a very different role in Chinese foreign policy thinking, something more prominently defined by the fact that the region does not share a direct border with China. As a result, it is largely treated as a potential foreign market, and with the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative, largely treated as a region which sits at the heart of the network of infrastructure and trade connectivity that BRI represents across the Eurasian heartland.

Reflecting this distinction, this paper will linger more on the Central Asian relationships, given their higher significance to China. Though it is worth noting that the relationship with the Caucasus is one that is transforming, in large part due to the growing Chinese push in Central Asia which has helped provide an outline of what potential BRI investment can look like, something the countries of the Caucasus are keen to attract.

The structure of Chinese engagement with Central Asia can be broken down into four broad areas: economic, cultural, political and security. In fact, the political aspect touches on all of the other three, but is worth highlighting separately as there is a quite specific level of engagement at a political level that China has undertaken with the region which is worth noting on its own. However, the absolutely central aspect of Chinese engagement with Central Asia which cuts across everything is the importance of Xinjiang in Chinese considerations towards Central Asia. In many ways the sixth Central Asian country (if one places Afghanistan in South Asia), Xinjiang is the primary lens through which China looks at Central Asia and has been regularly at the heart of its engagement and considerations with the region.

Recent Shifts

This focus on Xinjiang is something that has only become more acute in recent times. While Xinjiang has always been a key part of Chinese thinking towards Central Asia, recent difficulties with the region have sharpened Beijing’s focus. In contemporary terms, a turning point in Beijing’s relations with Xinjiang came in 2009 in the wake of widespread disorder in Urumqi which led to a re-evaluation of policy towards the region. But the policy shifts that followed did not resolve the problems. Violence seemed to escalate over the following years and even spread beyond the region. In 2014, Xi Jinping visited the region, on a tour seemingly focused on bolstering local security efforts, a narrative that was undermined by the detonation of a suicide bomber at Urumqi train station during his visit.

This appears to have provided a green light for China to escalate its security focused approach towards the region. This ratcheted up further in 2016 with the appointment of Chen Quanguo to the role of Party Secretary for Xinjiang. Coming from Tibet, Chen had a reputation as a man who could quell minorities, and he brought with him many of the policies he had developed in Tibet. The result was a widespread escalation of the already pervasive police state throughout Xinjiang. This echoed in Central Asia as some from the co-ethnic communities were caught up in the crackdown, leading to protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular. It has led to some tensions at a political level, though for the most part Central Asian governments are cautious to avoid condemning Chinese action at home.

Beijing has also found its security concerns have started to grow regionally in Central Asia as well. In late August 2016, the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was targeted by a suicide bomber in a plot that was reportedly directed (or at the very least linked) to Uyghur networks in Syria. While this incident was not repeated (and it was not the first time Chinese officials have been targeted in Kyrgyzstan), it did bring together a number of strands of Chinese concerns. Many of these appear to have focused on Afghanistan in particular, with growing anxiety about Tajikistan in particular being a weak link in the region.

While discussions were likely already underway, by autumn 2016 China formalised an agreement with the Tajik authorities that they would build or refurbish up to 30 or 40 border posts along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. In August 2016, China hosted the first session of the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) an entity that brought together the Chiefs of Defence Staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and Tajikistan, the grouping that surrounds the Wakhan Corridor, China’s physical link to Afghanistan. Reportedly focused on counter-terrorism and border security, the QCCM was in many ways a rebuke of the SCO, but also an effort to formalise the PLA’s role in the region. In October, this was reaffirmed with a large joint counter-terrorism exercise between Chinese and Tajik forces in Gorno-Badakhshan. Sometime during the year, Tajik officials claim the decision to establish a Chinese base in Tajikistan was also formalised, though the existence of the base is something that is still treated in a somewhat opaque manner by both Chinese and Tajik officials. Its existence is beyond dispute at this point, though it appears to be a People’s Armed Police (PAP) base rather than a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base, and it reflects a desire by China to not rely entirely on locals to guarantee its security interests in the region. This has even extended to a growing push by Chinese private security firms in the region more widely, though for the most part this seems to be focused on Kyrgyzstan where there is a greater degree of concern about personal and business security.

But while China has been more focused on security in recent years (something accentuated in the wake of the Taliban takeover in Kabul), the economic push into Central Asia has continued. From Beijing’s perspective, this is in fact an extension of the security approach. China’s ultimate interest is in Xinjiang stability, and they recognize that while a strong security hand can deliver this in the short-term, the longer-term answer is only going to come through economic development and prosperity. Given Xinjiang’s landlocked nature, this means a prosperous neighbourhood in Central Asia is important as well. Furthermore, interest in the rich natural resource opportunities on offer in the region made China an active player in Central Asia – something that was encouraged by the local governments who sought more investment.

However, recent years have seen a slowdown in investment. While China has steadily risen in the rankings as a trading partner for all of the Central Asian countries, investment from China has in fact slowed down. In part this is in response to broader trends in Chinese outward investment where there has been a push by Beijing to try to ensure greater focus on return on investment and therefore more emphasis on secure projects, it is also a reflection on local tensions and problems that have been generated by key projects. Still, there clearly remains a Chinese appetite for gaining economic benefits from the region. The recent opening of two more wells in Turkmenistan to help grow the volume of natural gas the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) buys from the country is one example at a state-driven level, while the constant level of low-level Chinese private sector investment in Kyrgyzstan reflects an appetite by Chinese investors to still have a go. That said, the level of investment is generally down. The exception to this is Uzbekistan, where there has been a notable push since the passing of former leader Islam Karimov to try to open the country to more Chinese investment.

A final key change in China’s economic relations with Central Asia is the growing prominence of Chinese online commerce. Chinese technology has long been widely used in the region, including in the building of key infrastructure. But in recent years there has been a notable increase in Chinese online commerce platforms. They have been both growing their presence in the local market, but also increasingly offering Central Asian firms opportunities to sell directly to Chinese consumers. It has also helped displace some of the traditional markets in the region which used to rely on the import and resale of Chinese goods. Alibaba in particular has followed up on this surge with growing investment in technology and digital platforms in both Central Asia and Russia, including signing multi-billion-dollar investment agreements.

But the key lesson of recent times is that while China still sees economic opportunities from Central Asia as important, it prioritises its security concerns in Xinjiang and as a result lets the relationship be heavily influenced by Urumqi or defines things along the lines of how they will impact Xinjiang. This low prioritization by Beijing in its broader strategic thinking is not unique to Central Asia – Zhongnanhai largely focuses almost single-mindedly on the relationship with the United States as the priority. But the general hesitation is something that was highlighted again recently in discussions over Afghanistan. While Beijing spent time visiting all of the relevant Central Asian players, it does not seem to have stepped forward to provide much by way of leadership and only limited economic and humanitarian support. Rather, Beijing has focused on its own particular interests in Afghanistan, hedging in its relationships with the new authorities and emphasized blaming the U.S. for what has taken place. While this narrative is not new, its particular sharpness emphasises the degree to which China has increasingly decided to see everything through the lens of its great power competition with the United States. For Central Asia, however, it is frustrating to have Beijing – Afghanistan’s wealthiest and most influential neighbour – continue to hedge in a situation where they are clearly concerned about what the future holds.

Looking across the Caspian, in the Caucasus, there is a very limited security relationship to speak of with the countries and little evidence of Beijing pushing to get involved. China for the most part wants to avoid entanglements or trying to act as a broker in clashes between the various regional powers. The economic motivation to engage in the Caucasus is there, and Georgia in particular has warmly embraced the BRI concept, going so far as to sign a Free Trade Agreement with Beijing in 2016. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia are also willing partners in the BRI, but the overall size of the region and its resources is relatively limited and does not have the same physical links to China, or Uyghur related security concerns that justify an enhanced attention. As a result, what engagement there has been has tended to be at a lower level, with Chinese regions (like Xinjiang) leading in relations, and specific companies pushing in to reap opportunities they see. The degree of state coordination and direction behind all of this is unclear.

China’s Views on Central Asia and the Caucasus

Traditionally, Beijing has seen Central Asia and the Caucasus through a Russian lens. Chinese experts looking at the region tend to speak Russian, and constantly refer to the fact that Beijing would not do anything in the region without consulting their Russian partners. Broadly speaking, China sees the region as part of a wider former Soviet belt, though there is a clear distinction in interest and attention with regards to Central Asia as opposed to the Caucasus or Central and Eastern Europe. While in diplomatic staffing terms, it seems as though China treats the region as a single space (diplomats are shuffled between posts) this is likely a reflection of linguistic requirements more than anything else. Central Asia does seem to register as a higher priority than the other areas – though Central and Eastern Europe has developed as a point of interest for Beijing given its role in China-Europe relations, and their close link to the U.S.

In practical terms, China has distinct approaches to each country in Central Asia and is able to impose its views to varying degrees. In Turkmenistan, the opaque nature of the country is something that confuses China as much as anyone else, though it is clear that given the importance of Chinese energy-related income, Ashgabat treats Beijing as a closer partner than others. Beijing does not appear very preoccupied with the closed nature of the country as it has continued to deliver on the energy requirements China wants, though even CNPC has struggled to manage the Turkmen banking system, a reality that illustrates the difficulty of operating within the country. China sees Turkmenistan largely as an opportunity, a perspective that does not appear to have changed much over the past decades, though it has not been without frustrations for Beijing along the way. The Turkmen in turn are not thrilled at being reliant on China as their main customer and have sought (and thus far for the most part failed) to diversify. This is something Beijing has observed passively.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are seen by Beijing as significant enough players that Beijing is willing to accord them with considerable respect and appear to engage them on the terms they want to be engaged. Beijing views Uzbekistan as a potential opportunity, and China recognizes both the economic opportunity and the relevance of Tashkent as a regional power broker and player. In Kazakhstan, China long played to Nursultan Nazarbayev’s sense of power and influence, though it has also on occasion sought to push its interests in more strident terms behind closed doors. China and Kazakhstan have managed, however, to keep these tensions out of the headlines, though the bubbling Sinophobia that is visible in the country is often used by political players to cause trouble and has placed practical difficulties on companies operating in the country. This in addition to the fact that some of the angriest expressions regionally towards China’s crackdown in Xinjiang can be found in Kazakhstan have created some tensions. However, both governments seem keen to try to keep them under control.

Finally, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are seen in a similar basket by Beijing as powers that are largely demandeurs in their relationship with Beijing. China is rapidly becoming their most significant economic partner, and Beijing has little sense of confidence in their ability to deliver on security outcomes within their borders which address Chinese concerns. This is reflected in a growing bilateral security relationship, as well as a willingness by Chinese officials to throw their weight around in bilateral engagements. At the same time, Beijing is unable to control local sentiment which is increasingly anti-Chinese in both countries, something that has caused some friction for Chinese investors – in particular in Kyrgyzstan.

This state of relations is largely reflective of the broader trajectory over time of China’s relations with the region. They have stayed fairly static, with the most significant changes coming in the relationship with Uzbekistan which went from being completely closed to entirely open. In all of the other cases, the current approach is largely an extension of how China has seen the country for the past few years, with growing Chinese confidence and wealth often being the main change. The key external issue for Beijing with the region, however, is not really within the region, but rather with Moscow, where China’s growing influence in Central Asia has over time created a greater sense of tension. While it is clear that Russia still has some very strong levers of influence that surpass China’s, there is an awareness in Beijing that there is some sensitivity here with regards Moscow. And Russia in turn appears to have a sense of concern that the region could become an entry point for unfettered Chinese investment and influence into their domestic economy. At the same time, this awareness and sensitivity has not slowed any Chinese initiatives.

Overall, however, Central Asia does not register very high in Beijing’s broader considerations. This was most clearly shown recently in the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s willingness during the pandemic to amplify rumours started by Russian authorities about bioweapons labs that had been given US government support in the post-Soviet space, including some in Kazakhstan, might be the source of COVID-19. This alongside a series of articles that were widely disseminated in the Chinese media in 2020 which appeared to suggest that Central Asian countries were not in fact independent countries, but rather provinces of China, all served to highlight the reality that Beijing spends very little time thinking in much of a considered way about how Central Asia sees China. The assumption from Beijing is that these powers will always want and need a relationship with China, meaning Beijing can largely proceed as it wants.

China’s priority with Central Asia is Xinjiang. This is the case in terms of the region’s potential as a place where dissidents can gather to threaten China, or in terms of the region causing problems for China’s domestic security and economic stability approach. Within this context, the two priority countries are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, both of which share borders with China and also have substantial Uyghur diaspora, in addition to the ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang. Kazakhstan also has the distinction of being an important source of imported natural resources, both in hydrocarbon as well as mineral terms. It is also the main conduit for the major transport routes from China to Europe along the Belt and Road. This elevates the country to some degree above the others.

In the Caucasus, the calculation is different. In many ways, the Caucasus is simply another foreign region with which it needs to engage and consequently it is treated as thus. The BRI is a major consideration with the region, given its location at the heart of where many of the routes across the Eurasian landmass would flow. In dealing with the countries, China is always conscious of the Russian relationship, and is more likely to defer to Moscow than it necessarily would in Central Asia. The region has tried to use China as a card to play in its wider geopolitical struggles with Russia, or the west. But Beijing has little interest in getting dragged into these clashes, and consequently engages at a utilitarian level.

Russia is the only power that Beijing considers a genuine competitor in Central Asia. And even there, it is largely seen through the lens of cooperation at a more strategic level, where Beijing is more focused on its larger relationship with Moscow than its more limited relations with the Central Asian capitals. With the Caucasus the calculation is even stronger, with even fewer reasons for China to not defer to Russian concerns. The only interesting wrinkle to this is the Russian war with Georgia in 2008 which was an act which Beijing was not happy about – suggesting as it did a world order in which neighbours could recognize minority communities and then them use as a context to invade. The precedent set by Moscow was one Beijing did not appreciate, and expressed displeasure about in closer doors, though stopped short of open condemnation of Moscow. This event, however, did not change Beijing’s broader strategic calculus towards the region though it did emphasize the broader awkwardness of the relationship with Moscow.

When looking to other capitals, it has entertained opportunities for cooperation with Europe (through joint projects between Chinese entities and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and broader discussions about possible Belt and Road cooperation) and its energy firms have entered into large-scale consortia with other international energy companies in the region. China has cooperated in the past with both India and the United States bilaterally in Afghanistan, but there has been little evidence of much desire to expand such cooperation in Central Asia. There has been some cooperation with Turkish intelligence in the region, though this has been on narrow concerns. At a strategic level, it is not clear how much Beijing focuses on Turkey, Iran or individual European actors within the region.

China has also played a role in advancing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a major regional institution in which all of the Central Asian powers, except Turkmenistan, have membership and extra-regional powers India, Pakistan and Russia are members, with others like Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus, Mongolia or Sri Lanka have some stake. Yet, China’s treatment of the SCO is in some ways exemplary of its broader willingness to work with others in Central Asia. Beijing never seems to reject engagement, but this is not always followed by action. This is a reflection of China’s sense of confidence in the region, where Beijing for the most part seems to assume a level unassailable importance which is ultimately going to trump all others. The one power they see as a potential competitor is Moscow, but there China recognizes that the overall geostrategic relationship is more significant than Central Asia meaning that for the time being, it will not entirely disregard Russia’s wishes and Moscow is similarly unlikely to cause too much of a fuss.

The Future

China’s influence and engagement with Central Asia and the Caucasus is likely to continue on an upward trajectory over the next five years. While events in Afghanistan have created a new level of potential uncertainty, China’s unwillingness to step forward into a role of responsibility or leadership highlights the likelihood that Beijing will simply continue to hedge in Afghanistan going forwards. Even in the event of eventual recognition of the Taliban government, it is unlikely that China will pour in vast sums of investment or strengthen its security presence, but rather it will seek to continue to invest in securing its secondary borders with the country – principally in Tajikistan and Pakistan. This might extend to Uzbekistan (though likely unnecessary) and possibly Turkmenistan (though Ashgabat is likely to continue to be highly reticent in this regard).

The dilemma, however, will be if Uyghur networks are able to reestablish themselves in any great strength in Afghanistan either under Taliban protection or take advantage of an unstable environment in the country. Beyond this as well, there has been a notable refocusing by various militant groups across the region towards treating China as an adversary. The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) recently launched an attack in which they specifically menaced China’s cooperation with the Taliban government. This comes atop an increasing rate of attacks against Chinese nationals by separatists and jihadists in Pakistan. All of this might force Beijing’s hand, though it is still not clear that China would abandon its current view of Afghanistan as a “Graveyard of Empires.” Rather, it is likely that Beijing would find other local actors to engage with to manage its problems. These could come from within the various factions in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Central Asia.

The relationships with the Caucasus are likely to going to continue to grow, and it is the one with Georgia that probably bears closest watching. The country has made itself the most welcoming towards Chinese investment, something that has been done to specifically help Tbilisi hedge against western abandonment and Russian incursion. It will be an interesting strategic question to see how Beijing comes out should Moscow try something again, and the relationship might become an interesting bellwether of the broader China-Russia relationship. In that, should Moscow start to do something in Georgia which damages Chinese firms, endangers nationals, or again sets a new norm in international behavior Beijing is not happy with, it will interesting to see how the two manage the situation.

With regards Central Asia, the greatest potential risk to Beijing’s future in the region is that it lets its growing hubris get ahead of itself to the point that it entirely overlooks Moscow’s concerns in particular. While until now Russia has seemed willing to simply let China sweep in, events in Afghanistan have highlighted to Moscow once again the need to have direct presence and influence in the region. And this needs to be done with effective coordination with Beijing. Should Beijing continue to expand its influence unabated in Central Asia and start to use the region as a staging point for greater economic penetration into Russia that starts to look like it might be undermining Moscow’s control, it is possible that a clash could take place. While at the moment the geopolitical sands are aligned towards Beijing and Moscow staying in lockstep in confrontation with the west, the question for the future will be whether China starts to take this for granted or its hubris gets the best of calculations that recognize Russia’s contribution to its interests in the region. Whatever the case, Beijing will be a significant (if not the most significant) actor in Central Asia, but it will be a much more complicated ascent if it is done in an antagonistic manner with Moscow.

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 for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). He is the author of the forthcoming Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022.

A brief piece drawing on some really interesting discussions have been having with Ajmal, an old contact from Kabul who has now spread his wings further. This first piece together is an excellent snapshot of events in Afghanistan through the lens of the pine nut for the Diplomat, with more to come. The larger topic of China-Afghanistan is a focus am going to continue on and of course is a big part of the upcoming book.

Why Is Beijing Going Nuts for Afghan Pine Nuts?

The trade offers concrete and immediate benefits to both the Chinese government and the Taliban

Credit: Depositphotos

China’s exercise of economic statecraft to exert influence in pursuit of foreign policy objectives is nothing new. Nor are its security interests in Afghanistan. This combination is usually assumed to come together in the form of mineral exploitation in exchange for security guarantees. 

But it is possible that China is planning a more complicated game which reduces its exposure but benefits a larger number of Afghans. Deliveries of pine nuts to China were first formalized in 2018 under the Western-backed government in Kabul with annual exports worth up to $800 million. By end of 2019, Afghan traders had inked over $2 billion worth of contracts with China for exporting pine nuts over a period of five years. Unlike the large and complicated mineral deals whose stories fill the press, the export of agricultural products like pine nuts is a way to immediately reach a large community of Afghan farmers, something the Taliban are very happy about and Beijing can commit to at little cost.

The China-Afghan pine nut story is a complicated one. While it can be simply explained as the law of supply and demand (with an almost bottomless consumer market in China that can absorb almost anything), a question not being asked is why China picked pine nuts among many other high-quality Afghan cash crops on which it could focus its attention. 

A key reason is location. Pine nuts are naturally grown in the wild in Laghman, Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. These areas have long been hotbeds of insurgent activity from the Haqqani network, in Khost, Paktia, and Paktika, to the Islamic State (ISK), in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman. These are also the areas where China feels it faces greater security threats from groups like the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). This could explain why China suddenly developed a taste for Afghan pine nuts.

While China’s facilitation of output-type contacts (whereby the buyer guarantees purchase levels as long as quality is maintained) and removal of logistical barriers have lifted thousands of pine nut growers out of poverty, it has also made these pine nut growing areas export-dependent on China. This gives China an interesting form of leverage and economic influence over the inhabitants of this region regardless of which government rules in Kabul. 

Chinese purchasers of pine nuts for export were always keener to be in direct touch with the farmers than to use middle men. The result of this link might be seen in an espionage case that blew up in Kabul in December 2020, when the old local intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), rolled up a cell of 10 Chinese citizens on accusations of espionage. According to stories that later emerged, one of the purported spies was allegedly involved in pine nut export, and the network was reported to have been building links to the Haqqani Network. 

Whatever the details of this case, pine nuts remain at the top of China’s Afghan agenda. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Doha to meet Taliban officials at the end of October coincided with the harvest season for pine nuts. With air corridors closed and all financial transactions with Afghanistan disrupted, the pressure was building on the Taliban to re-establish international trade. The Afghanistan Pine Nuts Union issued a statement calling on the Taliban administration to ban the smuggling of pine nuts and resume air corridors to facilitate exports to China. 

In the staged portion of Wang’s visit to Doha a short video was released of Taliban Foreign Minister designate Amir Khan Muttaqi handing over an elaborate box of pine nuts. The topic was not reported as coming up during Wang’s meeting with Taliban Deputy Prime Minister designate Abdul Ghani Baradar, where instead he was reported as focusing on China’s security concerns, stating â€śChina hopes and believes that the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with the ETIM and other terrorist organizations, and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on them.”

While it is believed that China discussed a whole host of economic and state building opportunities, re-establishing the pine nuts air bridge was the most practical and easy solution with immediate wins for both sides. And China was able to show results very quickly. On November 1, the first flight of the restarted air corridor went to Shanghai, bringing with it 45 tonnes of pine nuts. A week later, online superstar salesman Li “lipstick king” Jiaqi and CCTV news anchor Wang Bingbing showcased cans of Afghan pine nuts on their online shopping show, shifting 120,000 cans with the support of Chen Zhong, a Chinese Pashto speaker and expert on Afghanistan. 

This rapid market to cash transaction highlights part of the way out of Afghanistan’s current liquidity crisis to the Taliban, while also giving China an easy way of supporting the Afghan economy at little cost to itself. It also gave the Taliban a way of showing their positive capability as export promoters to a part of the country where dangerous groups thrive.

Of course, both China and the Taliban recognize that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s economic stagnation does not lie in pine nuts. According to reliable sources at the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, samples of rare earths from Helmand’s Khanneshin district were handed to a Chinese delegation that met the Taliban acting minister of mines shortly after Wang’s visit to Doha. A delegation of Chinese company representatives were issued special visas and were reported to have visited Kabul in early November to conduct site inspections of sites of potential lithium mines, though their official read-out was very wary of committing to anything specific.

China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has restarted exploring opportunities in the Amu Darya field it had been thrown out from under the former government. Production from 11 wells at Angot and Kashkari blocks can start fairly quickly and without any large upfront investment because much of the existing infrastructure and wells were rehabilitated when CNPC took over the operations 10 years ago. 

With global oil prices above $80 a barrel for the first time in three years, and a severe winter ahead of a cash-strapped Afghan population, resuming production from Amu Darya could provide another “win-win” opportunity for China and the Taliban government. There are also reports that MCC, the firm that won the tender to mine the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar, have sent teams to discuss restarting with the Taliban – though they state they remain highly concerned about the security situation. 

But all of these projects are longer-term and far more expensive. It will require considerable outlay on the Chinese side for a project which may or may not work, and will take a long time to deliver cash to the government and people. Pine nuts in contrast offer a quick turnaround which both helps get currency into the hands of farmers and the laborers they need to harvest the nuts, and requires little major commitment by China except easing access to the Chinese consumer market. They also provide an interesting possible avenue for Chinese intelligence to gain direct contact in areas of concern. 

All in all, it is a win-win that both the Taliban and Beijing can sign off on with little cost, but lots of positive imagery on all sides. Crucially, it allows China to play an economic role and deal with security issues, all without feeling like it is being dragged too far into the Afghan quagmire.

Guest Authors

Ajmal Waziri is an international development advisor with a research interest in the political economy of natural resources.

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

Catching up on posting from late last month on a longstanding topic of interest for Foreign Policy, China’s threat from international terrorist groups. Afghanistan has I think changed things a bit, and it will be interesting to see in many different ways how this develops going forwards.

How China Became Jihadis’ New Target

International terrorist organizations long considered Beijing a secondary focus. That’s changed.

A silhouette of a demonstrator is seen behind a Chinese flag outside the Chancellery in Berlin on May 31, 2019, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan are holding talks. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

In early October, an Islamic State-Khorasan bomber killed nearly 50 people at a mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan. That the militant group claimed responsibility for the attack wasn’t surprising, but, in a worrying new twist for Beijing, it also decided to link the massacre to China: The group said that the bomber was Uyghur and that the attack was aimed at punishing the Taliban for their close cooperation with China despite its actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

China was long seen as a secondary target by international terrorist organizations. Groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State were so focused on targeting the United States, the West more generally, or their local adversaries that they rarely raised their weapons toward China, even though they may have wanted to due to, for example, China’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. But in Kunduz, this narrative was brought brutally to a close. China can now consider itself a clear target.

China’s history with violent Islamist groups is complicated. For a long time, Beijing’s ability to project a status as a “developing world” power meant it could hide to some degree behind a veneer of not being a “first world” former colonial power that antagonized the world’s downtrodden. Before 9/11, al Qaeda theorists went so far as to speak of Beijing as a possible partner. According to their logic, China was against the United States, al Qaeda’s sworn enemy, and therefore the old “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” trope might apply.

There’s very little evidence that happened. The tolerance China appeared to show in the late 1990s toward al Qaeda figures who occasionally used Chinese territory for transit and support operations was more likely due to ignorance than to plotting. By 2004, this dynamic had changed, and Chinese intelligence was willing to work with Western services to hand over suspected terrorists who passed through China’s airports.

During the first Taliban-led government in the 1990s, Chinese officials were hesitant but willing interlocutors with Mullah Mohammad Omar’s regime. China was never a full-throated Taliban supporter but instead preferred to find ways of working with the group in the background. This mostly took the form of China providing limited investment and support that was encouraged by Pakistan, with the expectation that the Taliban would restrain the Uyghur groups that had established themselves in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar’s protection from attacking China. Beijing didn’t seem to be very concerned about what the Taliban’s larger goals were, as long as Afghanistan’s leaders acted on this key request. Still, there is little evidence that Beijing linked this domestic problem to a broader international terrorist threat.

With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the problem of international terrorism took off globally, with groups targeting an expanding range of countries. Yet China’s successful push to get some of its own domestic Uyghur groups added to the United Nations and U.S. roster of terrorist organizations did not bring the country much international jihadi attention. Meanwhile, in the years immediately after 9/11, China became wary of the Taliban. A Uyghur group reportedly fought alongside the Taliban for years, as a video by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri highlighted in 2016 and as U.S. intelligence information from Guantánamo Bay indicated earlier.

As the 2010s went on, more Chinese citizens started to be harmed in terrorist incidents around the globe, but, for the most part, these seemed incidental—a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Al Qaeda and then Islamic State leaders released some statements that threatened Beijing for its treatment of Uyghurs—and indeed Muslims more generally—but for the most part, they were limited and didn’t lead to any major push to target China.

Now, it’s undeniable that China is being targeted, especially as its footprint in Afghanistan grows. Beijing has long skirted around formal engagement in Afghanistan, and while it continues to do this to some degree, it has also been the most willing of the major powers in the region to engage with the Taliban directly. The Islamic State-Khorasan clearly sees the Taliban bowing to Beijing as a weak point to capitalize on, and the group’s message is clear: It is offering itself as a home to Uyghurs who are unhappy with the Taliban regime, as well as others in Afghanistan appalled at China’s treatment of Muslim minorities.

The new Taliban government has publicly stated its desire to work with the Chinese government—something Beijing has made clear is conditional on action against Uyghur militants. Taliban leaders are especially keen to attract Chinese investment and economic partnerships. In late October, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the group’s leaders in Doha, Qatar. Taliban Foreign Minister-designate Amir Khan Muttaqi presented Wang with a box of Afghan pine nuts, reflecting one of the many goods Afghanistan is hoping to export to the Chinese market. Wang, meanwhile, focused on the need for stable government in Afghanistan and appealed to the Taliban once again to sever their links with Uyghur militants.

But the degree to which the Taliban are able—or want—to entirely sever this Uyghur connection is an open question. Over the past few months, the group has said that they would not let their territory be used by militants to launch attacks abroad and that Uyghur militants had left the country. Yet while rumors circulate of anti-Uyghur action behind the scenes—and of the Taliban moving Uyghurs within Afghanistan away from China’s borders—Beijing is not entirely convinced. After the meeting in Doha, the Chinese foreign ministry wrote that Wang had expressed that China “hopes and believes” that the Taliban “will make a clean break with the ETIM” (the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” the name China uses to describe militant Uyghur networks), suggesting that the group hasn’t yet fulfilled Beijing’s desires.

It is this dynamic that the Islamic State-Khorasan capitalized on when it used a suicide bomber in the Kunduz attack with the battlefield name Muhammad al-Uighuri. In the message released by the Islamic State’s media channels claiming the attack, the group linked the attacker directly to the Taliban and China’s cooperation, stating, “the attacker was one of the Uyghur Muslims the Taliban has promised to deport in response to demands from China and its [China’s] policy against Muslims there.”

The message has many layers. First, it is a signal to the Taliban highlighting their inability to protect minorities in the country they now purport to control. Second, it is a message to China, attacking Beijing for its policies in Xinjiang and linking those to the group’s interests. Third, it is a message to other Uyghurs who feel abandoned or threatened by the Taliban and may be seeking to join other groups that will advance their interests. Finally, it is a message to the world, showing that the Islamic State-Khorasan is a capable organization that’s continuing the Islamic State traditions on the battlefield and speaking up for oppressed Muslims. These messages will resonate with potential supporters around the world.

Publicly, China was circumspect in its response, which decried the loss of life. No official comment was made about the attacker’s identity, though a Chinese academic published an opinion piece in the state-owned Global Times accusing the Associated Press of fabricating the narrative of the attacker being Uyghur. He instead advanced Taliban narratives that Uyghurs who had been fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan had left the country and praised the Taliban’s control and cooperation with China.

But Beijing likely knows that this is a dangerous development—especially in a region where it is facing greater threats. There have been new reports of a growing Chinese security presence in Tajikistan aimed at strengthening its ability to address potential threats from Afghanistan. A growing range of militant groups in Pakistan are targeting Chinese interests there, with attacks in Dasu and Karachi coming from local Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, was struck in 2016, as was its consulate in Karachi in 2018, an attack that killed four people (and three attackers). Local protest movementsmilitant groups, and politiciansare all looking at China as an adversary. Until now, however, most of the attacks were conducted by local separatist movements. The addition of the Islamic State-Khorasan to the roster finally brings the country firmly into jihadis’ crosshairs.

The problem for China is that it is ill prepared to handle such threats. Its military may be large and well equipped, but it has little experience countering militant organizations and often relies on other countries to do so for it. Yet, as Beijing is increasingly discovering in Pakistan—one of its more reliable allies—this is difficult to guarantee. Taliban leadership may project great strength and hubris, but they will face the same difficulties as others in the region in quelling militant groups in their territory, and they may find it difficult to entirely protect China from determined terrorist organizations.

In a sense, Beijing is stuck. China is Afghanistan’s most powerful and influential neighbor, which partly explains the growing attention toward its role in the country. Beijing is increasingly seen as the Taliban’s great supporter on the international stage. In assuming this role, China runs the risk of being seen as filing the vacuum the United States left in Afghanistan—something Beijing is keen to avoid. The reality, however, is that it is already getting sucked in. The Islamic State-Khorasan’s attack in Kunduz merely highlighted how far down this path Beijing has already gone.

Have been very delinquent in posting of late. Been consumed with a lot of bigger papers and stuff at home. Have a few to catch up on, first up is my latest column for local paper the Straits Times looking at the complexity of expecting a terrorist group to manage another terrorist group, this time the Taliban and the hope they will deal with ISKP. Been involved in a few conversations about Afghanistan of late which have been for the most part deeply depressing, something that is exacerbated by the clear absolute lack of interest that increasingly is visible in western capitals.

Terrorism is a war the Taliban cannot win

A Taliban fighter displays their flag at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov 5, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

Winning a war is a confusing experience for an insurgent or terrorist group. The sudden crush of responsibility that follows taking over a country calls for a very different skill set from that required while trying to overthrow a government.

Not only are you now expected to deliver on a whole suite of basic public services, but you also have to provide security – the very thing you used to undermine. This can come in the form of defending borders, stopping criminality, or fighting terrorist groups; the last, ironically, is a growing headache for the Taliban, now that it is the ruler of Afghanistan.

Along with the outside world, the Taliban views with apprehension the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan (ISIS-K) group, the local affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

There is little love lost between the Taliban and ISIS-K. Since the emergence of ISIS-K in 2015, it has been a thorn in the Taliban’s side, competing for recruits, funding and influence. The two have fought each other regularly, with the Taliban usually winning.

However, since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August, this dynamic has changed. From being an insurgent group that was fighting against a competing faction as well as the government, the Taliban is now the government trying to squash a non-state group. In some ways this is not dissimilar to what it was doing before. Prior to taking over, the Taliban was quite effective in its fight against ISIS-K, using violence and intelligence. The problem now is that, as the ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban is expected to protect people as well as fight.

GROWING VIOLENCE

This is a weakness that ISIS-K has ruthlessly exploited, launching not only a campaign of targeted assassinations of Taliban figures around the country, but also horrendous large-scale attacks on civilians. The dramatic assault at Kabul airport that killed over 180, including 13 US service members, in August has since been followed by attacks on Shi’ite worshippers at mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar that left dozens dead, as well as an assault late last month on the Daoud Khan Military Hospital in Kabul that killed 25, including at least one senior Taliban figure.

These brutal ISIS-K attacks are single-mindedly focused on undermining the Taliban’s authority by aiming at soft targets. Underscoring that intent, an ISIS video on the group’s Telegram channel on Sunday branded its rivals as “Biden hirelings” and gloated that “the Taliban militia are lost in panic, they do not know how to conceal their shame”.

ISIS-K, estimated to have some 4,000 fighters, has been very precise in its attacks, seeking maximum carnage and also to deploy suicide bombers whose battlefield names often identify them as being members of minority groups that might come into conflict with the Taliban. The aim is not only to undermine the Taliban’s claims of being in charge, but also to highlight to those minorities that ISIS-K is fighting alongside them.

The growing violence by ISIS-K worries the United States, the country’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West said on Monday. American officials reportedly believe that absent security pressure, ISIS-K could develop the ability to strike the West within six to 12 months.

However, outside powers have little faith in the Taliban’s capability to deal with the ISIS-K menace. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee late last month, US Under-Secretary for Defence Colin Kahl said “we would not count on the Taliban to be the ones responsible for disrupting (external threats from ISIS-K). We will have our own unilateral capabilities to do that.”

This is not to say that the US has not engaged with the Taliban. Central Intelligence Agency director Bill Burns was one of the first senior foreign officials to visit Kabul after the Taliban took over. ISIS-K was clearly on the agenda among other things. But it is clear that the US remains to be convinced that the Taliban has the capability to deliver not only on ISIS-K, but also in keeping all of its various factions in line.

MULTIPLE GROUPS, DIVERSE AGENDAS

There is still no clear evidence that the Taliban has ejected Al-Qaeda from its territory, nor has it visibly clamped down on any of the other non-Afghan factions that had been fighting alongside itself for years. These other groups are undoubtedly happy with the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, and are now keen to replicate this in their countries of origin. Pakistan, Central Asia, Iran, Russia, China and others are all looking askance at the situation.

For the Taliban, contending with multiple groups with diverse agendas is going to be a major problem going forward. It is going to have to find ways of moderating the impulses of groups it has been fighting alongside for years, as well as clash with competing terrorist organisations on the ground. It is also going to have to contend with external pressures as outside powers start to stir up its own proxies on the ground.

This sort of proxy meddling, using one faction to go after another, has a long history in Afghanistan and the wider region.

Neighbouring Iran has mastered the practice on the world stage through the development of Hizbollah as an international terrorist force which it uses against the US and Israel, while it recruited thousands of Shi’ite Afghans to fight on its behalf in Syria. Pakistan is another master of proxy group manipulation, regularly using jihadist groups as a deniable proxy in its conflict with India. In turn, Delhi is constantly accused of manipulating separatist groups in Pakistan against the state.

And it is not just a practice found in the wilds of Central and South Asia. In the tumult of post-World War II Europe, leftist terror groups, often supported by the communist bloc, would wreak campaigns of violence. In some cases, parts of the security apparatus in non-communist countries would manipulate right-leaning groups to either target the leftists, or commit atrocities in their name to force the government’s hand to clamp down harder.

More recently, the West has been quite openly using groups close to proscribed terror organisations to fight on the ground in Syria against ISIS. This was most obvious with the open support of the YPG, a Kurdish group closely linked to the PKK, a longstanding terrorist menace within Turkey.

But there was also a strange moment at the peak of the ISIS threat in Syria and Iraq when discussions in Western capitals circled around the idea that the West might want to explore cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra – an organisation born out of Al-Qaeda – to fight ISIS, its implacable enemy; the logic being my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Today, Nusra’s successor Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is trying to remodel itself as the Salvation Government in parts of northern Syria which are not controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has openly lobbied for engagement with the West, this time offering itself as a responsible government and alternative to the brutal Assad regime or ISIS.

There is, of course, a rich irony in all of these contortions. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda were themselves born out of a context in which the West had sought to manipulate groups on the ground to fight against the Soviet Union. That succeeded beyond expectations, but has produced blowback that we are still feeling today. No doubt the choices that are being made now will resonate in unexpected ways in the years to come.

Terrorist groups are by definition extremists. Governments, political forces and others have always sought to manipulate other extremes in society to fight back against a terrorist group that is challenging their authority. Yet in doing this, they are invariably stoking the very fires they are trying to put out. And once these catch, it is almost impossible to entirely extinguish them.

Already representing a minority community and still not trusted by many outside Afghanistan, the Taliban is going to struggle to entirely rule its country. Similarly, it is going to find it hard to entirely eliminate the terrorist threats that might emerge.

More likely, as its fight against ISIS-K goes on, it will increasingly find that its rival will thrive, drawing in more and more of those who are alienated by Taliban rule. Credible stories are already emerging of former Afghan soldiers joining ISIS-K.

While this will undoubtedly undermine the Taliban government, it will also inflict greater suffering on the Afghan people, who will have to endure yet another chapter of seemingly endless conflict in their country’s history.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of a forthcoming book exploring China’s relations with Central Asia, titled Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.

Another piece in Italian, this time for La Repubblica (again), though this time something authored by me rather than an edited interview that have done with them in the past. The plan is for this to be the first of a few for the newspaper, mostly likely looking at China’s relations in Eurasia. It seems there is a pretty inexhaustible interest in the topic at the moment, and there are a few more pieces in the pipeline, including my upcoming book.

Afghanistan, quel “corridoio” di affari che lega Cina e Pakistan al destino dei talebani

L’instabilitĂ  legata ai continui attacchi terroristici dell’Isis-K rischia di frenare gli investimenti del Dragone. Pechino teme anche che il Paese possa diventare una base per i militanti uiguri

Con la partenza degli Stati Uniti dall’Afghanistan, Pechino si trova in una posizione di grande influenza in un paese dove non ci sono garanzie. Nel passato, la Cina poteva affrontare i rischi tramite un governo a Kabul con il quale aveva relazioni accettabili, con amici ben disposti in Islamabad, e tutto questo sotto un ombrello di sicurezza americano. Tutto ciò non c’è più, e quel che rimane sono i talebani e i pachistani, entrambi “amici” di lungo termine, ma entrambi poco affidabili. I rischi per la Cina sono cresciuti.

Pechino ha preoccupazioni molto precise in Afghanistan. Innanzitutto ha paura che diventi una base dalla quale gruppi di militanti uiguri possono addestrarsi e complottare contro la Cina nello Xinjiang, che ospita circa 10 milioni di uiguri. Lo Xinjiang è una zona sensibile per Pechino, mentre è in atto un braccio di ferro fra Stati Uniti e Cina. Nel passato, alcuni uiguri hanno usato basi in Afghanistan per progettare attentati in Cina. Al tempo del primo governo talebano, gruppi di uiguri si erano radunati a Jalalabad sotto la protezione del Mullah Omar.

Ai tempi, le relazioni fra cinesi e talebani erano abbastanza immature. La Cina si stava ancora aprendo al mondo, ed era totalmente dipendente dal Pakistan per i contatti con i talebani. La relazione fra Islamabad e Pechino era (ed è ancora) molto stretta. Da tempo condividono le stesse preoccupazioni riguardo l’India, e mantengono une delle poche vere alleanze che la Cina abbia nel mondo (l’altra è con la Corea del Nord: con amici come questi…). Prima dell’11 Settembre 2001, il Pakistan voleva usare questa relazione con Pechino per rafforzare i suoi alleati talebani a Kabul. Spingevano i cinesi a riconoscerli come governo legittimo. In compenso, Pechino voleva aiuto sulle sue preoccupazioni uigure, e offriva di incoraggiare le sue aziende a esplorare opportunitĂ  in Afghanistan. 

Vent’anni dopo, poco è cambiato in termini di cosa preoccupi Pechino, e cosa possa offrire. Quello che è cambiato sono le relazioni dirette che la Cina ha adesso con i talebani, e l’essere diventata la seconda potenza economica nel mondo. Entrambi sono aspetti interessanti per il nuovo governo talebano che vuole dimostrare la sua indipendenza da Islamabad.

Il guaio è che ciò crea più problemi di quanto semplifichi le cose. Da un lato, i talebani non si sono ancora dimostrati affidabili. La richiesta chiave per Pechino riguardo agli uiguri non è facile da esaudire per i mullah a Kabul. Primo, non c’è consenso nei ranghi talebani su come trattare gli uiguri. Una parte li vede come alleati che hanno combattuto per anni con loro, e si chiedono perché dovrebbero consegnarli ai cinesi. Per seconda cosa, non è chiaro se i talebani controllino tutto il paese. La rappresentanza locale dello Stato Islamico (Isis-K) ha effettuato numerosi attentati nelle ultime settimane, uno dei quali a Kunduz ha colpito una moschea sciita: il gruppo ha dichiarato d’aver usato un soldato uiguro. Nella rivendicazione l’Isis-K ha detto che l’attacco era mirato ai talebani per la loro alleanza con i cinesi contro gli uiguri. E’ la prima volta che lo Stato islamico lancia un messaggio così diretto alla Cina.

Ciò non rappresenta solo una minaccia alla Cina, ma anche alla sua volontà di incoraggiare le sue aziende a fare investimenti in Afghanistan. Le aziende cinesi sono disposte a provare: sotto il vecchio governo erano fra le poche a essersi offerte di fare grandi investimenti nel paese, in continuazione di quello che stavano esplorando già sotto il primo governo talebano. Finora, però, questo interesse non si è tradotto in risultati, in parte proprio per la sicurezza instabile. E questo non sembra essere cambiato.

Una soluzione sarebbe coinvolgere l’alleato storico, il Pakistan. E sembra che fino a un certo punto questo sia già successo. Negli ultimi giorni del vecchio governo, da Kabul era partita una serie di visite in Cina da parte di importanti esponenti pachistani: in parte serviva ad alleviare l’irritazione cinese per diversi attentati contro suoi interessi in Pakistan, ma doveva anche preparare le cose per la missione del mullah Baradar prevista poco prima che cadesse Kabul.

Questo è un ruolo che il Pakistan ha offerto alla Cina da tempo. E fa parte di una relazione fra Pechino e Islamabad che ha aspetti economici, politici, e di sicurezza. La Cina ha investito miliardi di dollari in investimenti e progetti in Pakistan sotto la visione del Cpec (China Pakistan Economic Corridor), citato come progetto chiave della visione più estesa della Belt and Road Initiative (Bri) cinese. Inoltre stanno lavorando insieme alla costruzione di sottomarini e di un nuovo aereo militare, e a tanti altri progetti di sicurezza.

Ma mentre ai governi di Pakistan e Cina piace raccontare in pubblico favole di grande amicizia e cooperazione, sotto il tavolo ci sono problemi. Incertezze che di recente sono diventate più acute con la morte di ingegneri cinesi in attentati terroristici, e con il rallentamento dei progetti d’investimento cinesi per i fallimenti da parte pachistana. In aggiunta, ufficiali pachistani continuano a dire sotto voce quanto siano obbligati a lavorare con la Cina e come preferirebbero invece essere più vicini agli americani, i nemici principali di Pechino. Questo ha creato irritazioni fra le due capitali, alzando il livello di paranoia reciproca. Un disequilibrio mentale che peggiora quando i cinesi cominciano a trattare direttamente con i talebani senza raccontare tutto al Pakistan.

Per il Pakistan, l’Afghanistan è un progetto di lungo termine su cui sta facendo un gioco complicato. Da un lato vuole mantenere il controllo, e si concentra a tenere fuori il suo nemico mortale: l’India. In questo contesto considera l’Afghanistan una strategic depth, una zona di sicurezza prima del fronte con Delhi. D’altra parte, si rende conto che se perde il controllo in Afghanistan porta un pericolo a casa. I problemi di estremismo in Afghanistan rimbombano in Pakistan. Questo vuol dire che in Afghanistan, il Pakistan terrà in mente solo i propri interessi. Pechino si troverà presto nella stessa situazione in cui si è trovata l’America. Per le sue garanzie in Afghanistan dipenderà da un governo in Pakistan che è contemporaneamente sia la soluzione che una parte del problema. La Cina sta imparando la complessità di essere la più grande potenza nella stanza.

Con questo articolo Raffaello Pantucci, analista del Royal United Services Institute di Londra, inizia la sua collaborazione con “Repubblica”

Another post from last month now to catch up on, looking this time at the question of how China and Russia might or might not be cooperating in Afghanistan for the excellent Nikkei Asia Review. It is a broader question which merits closer examination, and should the time emerge I hope to be able to dig into it. Some of the questions raised have touched on elsewhere and will feature in my upcoming book.

What are China and Russia up to in Afghanistan?

A coordinated pattern of engagement is starting to emerge

Members of the Taliban delegation, including its head Abdul Salam Hanafi, Afghan acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and representative of the Taliban political office Anas Haqqani, attend a media briefing following international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on Wednesday.   © Reuters

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.

When Russia hosted a meeting with senior Taliban leaders in Moscow this week — after both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping sent junior deputies to an earlier G-20 leaders’ meeting on Afghanistan — it raised the question of whether this is part of a broader strategic plan for how Beijing and Moscow plan to work together on the world stage.

Afghanistan represents something of a paradox for both China and Russia. Though fearful of the large American military presence that was on their doorsteps, Moscow and Beijing were secretly happy that Washington was taking responsibility for the security situation on the ground.

Now, irritated at the mess the U.S. has left behind, China and Russia have decided that the way forward is to engage with the Taliban and explore options together. Both engaged publicly with the Taliban long before Kabul fell, and both have left a substantial diplomatic presence since the Taliban took over. At the United Nations, Russia and China have both pushed for Taliban sanctions to be lifted, something highlighted during this week’s Moscow Summit.

China has strengthened its small base in Tajikistan, undertaking a number of bilateral exercises with Tajik special forces, and the Russians have bolstered the Tajik armed forces as well as strengthened their own 7,000-strong military presence there and participated in larger regional exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

But it is hard to tell how many of these actions are coordinated, with some reports hinting at Moscow’s frustration at the lack of cooperation with Beijing on the ground in Tajikistan. At the other end of the scale, both have engaged in regular large-scale joint military exercises on Russian soil, including regular exercises overseen by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Eurasian security pact that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

This year’s SCO Peace Mission counterterrorism exercise was specifically referred to as relevant to Afghanistan in the Russian media. Chinese media was more circumspect about the links to Afghanistan, but few could miss the connection. It was made particularly explicit during meetings, held shortly before Kabul fell, between the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military grouping that brings together a range of former Soviet forces.

On the ground in Kabul, there are some divergences. Early on, China and Russia worked together both out front and behind the scenes to try to influence the Taliban government to be inclusive. Russia now seems to have stepped back, while Beijing has leaned in, with China’s ambassador to Afghanistan making loud declarations of aid, then holding a floodlit ceremony at the airport to celebrate its arrival and then present it to his Afghan counterpart.

China has also proven willing to entertain Taliban entreaties for investment. Chinese companies responsible for two large mining projects that had come to a standstill under the previous government are now — at the Taliban’s urging — exploring whether they can restart operations. Discussions are also underway to reopen an air transport corridor with China to facilitate the export of pine nuts, though it is unclear who is going to subsidize the transport costs.

Moscow has not sought to match or offer assistance on any of these actions, instead deciding to restart a parallel international engagement track with the Taliban and other regional partners (including China) and pushing to get the US and west to foot the bill for any reconstruction. This is a way of trying to again influence the Taliban to moderate their behavior and actually build an inclusive government of some sort.

Both Beijing and Moscow recognize that this is going to be a more stable structure, but it seems Moscow is more willing to actually try to do something about it.

The multipoint proposals that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi put on the table at the G-20 summit earlier this month were a largely repetitive statement of the obvious: no terrorists from Afghan soil, humanitarian support, no sanctions against the Taliban government. Russian envoy Zamir Kabulov’s contribution showed a far more nuanced and targeted understanding of what needs to be achieved. His tough but engaging diplomacy reflects his long personal history on the issue.

What is missing from all of this is clarity of what division of labor that might exist between Beijing and Moscow. China appears to be publicly hugging the Taliban tighter, while it seems that Moscow is keeping them at one remove.

In turn, Moscow appears to be leading when it comes to the international engagement and recognition that the Taliban crave. On the ground, it is Russia that is providing hard security guarantees in Central Asia and leading on the military exercises. But ultimately it is Chinese investment that everyone is looking for — even though money has been limited, with the spigot unlikely to open up very soon.

It is possible that this is also an echo of the roles that China and Russia see for each other on the world stage. Beijing will use its financial resources to win friends and influence while Russia plays the aggressive leader willing to take risks and provide security backstops.

Russia can benefit from leveraging China’s potential as an investor to get the Taliban to act, while Beijing can step behind Russia when it comes to sharper points of difference. To use a musical analogy, maybe Moscow is the showy frontman while Beijing is providing the deep bass backup that keeps everyone dancing.

A new piece in a different language appealing to the other half of my national identity, so maybe restricting in who can read it. But at the same time, machine translation these days is very effective I find, so I am sure to those committed (and who cannot read Italian!) will find a way. In any case, many thanks to ISPI for commissioning this, more on this topic to come for certain.

I dilemmi della Cina sull’Afghanistan

Come molti dei vicini dell’Afghanistan, la Cina ha adottato un approccio pragmatico nelle relazioni con i Talebani. Riconoscendo che sono la nuova forza a Kabul e che per il momento sembrano capaci di rimanere al potere, Pechino ha stabilito contatti diretti per agire in un Paese con il quale condivide una frontiera diretta. La Cina ha una lunga storia di contatti con i Talebani sulla quale può contare. Ma la Cina oggi è una potenza globale e questa realtà cambia la lente con cui gli altri poteri regionali guardano la Cina, e cambia le dinamiche regionali. Da un potere che poteva nascondersi fra altri, la Cina adesso è un Paese chiave per il futuro del Afghanistan.

contatti fra la Cina e i Talebani risalgono a prima dell’11 settembre 2001, tramite il Pakistan. Lo scopo era gestire i rischi che potevano emergere dai gruppi di militanti uiguri che operavano in Afghanistan. Pechino voleva influenzare i Talebani anche in altri modi, incoraggiando le sue aziende telefoniche (Huawei e ZTE in particolare) a contribuire alle infrastrutture. In aggiunta, le aziende estrattive cinesi avevano avviato discussioni con il governo talebano. Pechino aveva provato a persuadere il governo a non distruggere le famose statue di Buddha di Bamiyan, una spinta diplomatica che non ha avuto successo e che però dimostra la capacità di avanzare richieste difficili.

L’invasione statunitense dopo l’11 settembre ha trasformato la relazione. Pechino si è rapidamente volta in direzione di Washington, dopo aver ricevuto l’assicurazione dagli Stati Uniti che avrebbero appoggiato la lotta cinese contro i militanti uiguri del Movimento Islamico dell’Est Turkestan (ETIM), mettendoli sulla lista dei gruppi terroristici. Negli anni successivi la relazione fra i Talebani e i cinesi si è congelata. Solo dopo il 2007, quando sono aumentati i problemi in Pakistan e la situazione in Afghanistan è cominciata a peggiorare, hanno provato a riaprire il canale.

Il ristabilimento di contatti è avvenuto tramite il Pakistan, ma con il passare del tempo la Cina ha preferito contatti diretti, divenuti poi di dominio pubblico. La Cina ha offerto ospitalitĂ , incontri regolari e la creazione di un nuovo consesso che facesse incontrare gli Stati Uniti, la Cina, il Pakistan, il governo afghano e i Talebani. Questo consesso non è servito a molto, ma ha dimostrato i contatti della Cina, sempre piĂą pubblici fino a quando gli americani hanno segnalato il ritiro finale firmando l’accordo con i Talebani nel febbraio 2020 a Doha.

Per la Cina, il piĂą alto incontro diplomatico è stato quello tra il ministro degli Esteri Wang Yi e Mullah Baradar a Tianjin nel tardo luglio 2021. Poche settimane dopo, i Talebani hanno preso il potere a Kabul. Poco prima dell’incontro a Tianjin, il Presidente Xi aveva parlato con il presidente Ashraf Ghani, al quale aveva dichiarato che Pechino non era sicura di chi avrebbe vinto a Kabul. Se con il nuovo governo talebano i cinesi all’inizio hanno continuato a usare il canale pachistano, adesso possono contare su forti contatti diretti. Il dilemma per la Cina è però quanto sia affidabile questo governo.

La Cina ha tre grandi preoccupazioni. La prima è che l’Afghanistan diventi un rifugio dal quale gruppi di uiguri possano complottare e creare problemi nel Xinjiang. La seconda è che l’instabilitĂ  afghana possa essere esportata nella regione. L’Asia Centrale e il Pakistan sono legati alla Cina e se la regione brucia ne soffre anche Pechino. La terza è che il Paese possa diventare un luogo in cui potenze come gli Stati Uniti o l’India creano problemi per la Cina (non a caso crescono le voci cinesi secondi cui gli statunitensi starebbero aiutando i gruppi uiguri).

Per risolvere tutti questi problemi, è necessario avere un governo stabile a Kabul, capace di mantenere la sicurezza. Pechino, come la maggior parte dei governi regionali, vorrebbe che i Talebani creassero un governo d’unitĂ , che comprendesse tutte le varie fazioni afghane. Ma nell’assenza d’unitĂ , vorrebberro che i Talebani dimostrassero almeno potenza, dipendenza e controllo del territorio. Ed è questa la preoccupazione principale che al momento ha la Cina – il fatto che non sia chiaro quanto unito sia il governo dei Talebani o se siano capaci di controllare il territorio. Il modo in cui le fazioni Haqqani hanno preso il controllo marginalizzando Mullah Baradar è una lente sui problemi interni.

I Talebani hanno parlato regolarmente del fatto che non daranno appoggio a gruppi anti-cinesi e non commenteranno le vicende del Xinjiang. Inoltre ci sono rapporti dal nord del Paese secondo cui starebbero trasferendo gruppi uiguri che erano lì. Tutto ciò è però complicato dalla rivendicazione dello Stato Islamico in Afghanistan (ISKP): il massacro a Kunduz di pochi giorni fa sarebbe stato commesso da uno uiguro, anche contro i Talebani, per il loro appoggio ai cinesi. Un rischio contro il quale Pechino deve trovare protezione.

La risposta cinese sarĂ , come sempre, di provare a trovare qualcuno nel Paese che possa risolvere il problema. In questo caso, i Talebani. Ma al momento la Cina ha raggiunto il limite del suo sostegno ai Talebani. Probabilmente sarebbe disposta a riconoscerne ufficialmente il governo, ma senza essere la prima o l’unica a farlo. I funzionari cinesi dietro le quinte stanno provando a capire chi altro nella regione sarebbe disposto e sperano che i russi decidano di farlo per primi.

Non sarĂ  facile. La decisione di creare un governo unitario talebano ha irritato i russi che speravano in qualcosa di diverso. Per Mosca, l’Afghanistan è una fonte di vari potenziali problemi, a casa propria e nelle sue zone limitrofe, in Asia Centrale o nel Caucaso. La Russia continua a considerare il gruppo talebano ufficialmente terroristico, anche se mantiene contatti (e pianifica di ospitarli a Mosca fra poco). Questo doppio atteggiamento riflette le preoccupazioni del presidente Putin e non cambierĂ  velocemente.

Tutto questo lascia Pechino in una situazione complicata. Da un lato, vorrebbe riconoscere il governo talebano, dargli appoggio ufficiale, chiedere risposte sulle proprie preoccupazioni. Ma al momento non è sicura che i Talebani siano nella posizione di offrire rassicurazioni. A causa della geografia, Pechino è comunque costretta a continuare a lavorare con loro.

Ma la Cina non è la potenza che era l’ultima volta che i Talebani erano a Kabul. Adesso è la seconda economia del mondo ed è la potenza piĂą grande, ricca e influente vicina all’Afghanistan. Qualunque sua decisione cambierĂ  la dinamica regionale. Una situazione difficile per i leader a Zhongnanhai che faticano a capire come usare queste leve per ottenere i propri obiettivi. Una realtĂ  ancor piĂą complicata dal fatto che da sempre le grandi menti strategiche cinesi ritengono che l’Afghanistan sia un cimitero imperiale. Ma Pechino si è messa in una situazione tale per cui, per evitare che il prossimo Impero a cadere nella trappola sia quello cinese, deve fare affidamento proprio sui Talebani.

Have a lot of catching up to do. Been dealing with a lot of late, so as ever slow here. First up, a brief note from last month for Prospect which sought to show the importance of Afghanistan to the story of British jihadism. Lots more stories like this in my first book, and more to come on the lone actor side of the problem.

The Britons who fought for the Taliban

Since 9/11, British citizens have continued to travel to Afghanistan to fight western forces. Now the Taliban are back in charge, the authorities fear more terrorist plots could be hatched in the country

By Raffaello Pantucci September 28, 2021

In 2018, Khalid Ali was convicted of planning a terrorist attack in London and of making bombs for the Taliban. Credit: Met Police handout

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Britons were shocked to discover that some of their own were fighting for the Taliban. Broadcasting to the world from a safehouse in Lahore, Hassan Butt, the British spokesman for radical group al-Muhajiroun, reported that a group of Britons had been executed by Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan for “being pro-Taliban.” Posing in front of shelves of books he had likely never read, Butt spoke with a Mancunian twang as he celebrated his fellow Britons’ deaths: “we’re very envious and we would like to be like them because to live and die and walk and talk Islam is every Muslim’s role in life.” As journalist Shiv Malik has revealed, Butt’s story later turned out to be more complicated than it first seemed. But it is true to say Butt and others like him exposed a reality that still haunts Britain.  

A number of Britons who were in Afghanistan after 9/11 ended up being sent to Guantanamo Bay, like the famous Tipton Taliban. The trio of West Midlanders claimed to have set off for a friend’s wedding in Pakistan and wandered into Afghanistan out of curiosity, only to get caught by the Northern Alliance. Their story was dramatised in a somewhat forgiving 2006 film called The Road to Guantanamo, which focused on their torture at the detention camp. The backstory they appear to have confessed to US interrogators (admittedly an account made under duress) showed, in contrast, a path peppered with extremist preachers, radical communities in northern England and a stop at al-Qaeda’s al-Faruq camp in Afghanistan. Though they were not convicted of anything on their return to the UK after being freed from Guantanamo, the group seemed to fit the profile of other Brits who did go to train and fight in Afghanistan. 

The US-led invasion did not seem to deter British nationals or residents from fighting alongside the Taliban—if anything, it encouraged some. RAF Nimrod operators regularly reported overhearing Taliban fighters in Helmand talking to each other with “broad Midlands and Yorkshire accents.” One Taliban corpse was reportedly found with an Aston Villa tattoo. In 2010, the Guardian interviewed an East London cabbie in Dhani-Ghorri, northern Afghanistan, who claimed to return to Afghanistan for a few months each year to fight western forces. In June 2011, Atiqullah Mangal died during a brazen attack on the Afghan Defence Ministry. Subsequent investigation revealed he had been radicalised in a British prison, where he was jailed for violent assault in Aston after being smuggled into the UK in 2001 from Afghanistan. Following deportation, he had joined the insurgency and recruited others.

In November 2012, a video emerged which included images of “Umar the British,” a Taliban fighter in Pakistan who was, reportedly, one of the planners of the 2009 attack on Camp Chapman in Afghanistan, which led to the deaths of seven CIA agents. In the video he spoke with a London accent. He is now believed to be a long-missing British jihadist from East London, who was reported to have been killed in a US drone strike in 2010.

While these worrying stories continued to appear over the years, the actual depth of support in the UK for the Taliban was never clear. The UK is home to a population of around 100,000 Pashtuns with ancestry in Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan. According to the ONS there were some 33,000 people in the UK from Afghanistan as of June 2020 (the number will have increased since then.) Support for the Taliban, however, tended to come from a wider pool than just the Pashtun or Afghan communities. 

Key to the connection is the Deobandi movement, a conservative religious strain that emerged in India in the late 19th century, that helped in part give birth to the Taliban. The Deobandi creed is followed by around half of the mosques in the UK. Aimen Dean, a former member of al-Qaeda who worked undercover for MI5 and MI6, told the BBC that “pre-9/11 there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan and the regime of Mullah Mohammed Omar to the hilt, because it was a purely Deobandi regime… even after 9/11 there were many mosques still stubborn in their support of the Taliban because of the Deobandi solidarity.” 

While it is unfair to tarnish all Deobandis with the Taliban brush, there is little doubt there are ideological crossovers. Writing in 1999, Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid described the group as having emerged from Deobandi madrassahs in Pakistan. As he put it in Foreign Affairs, “The Taliban’s anomalous interpretation of Islam emerged from an extreme and perverse interpretation of Deobandism, preached by Pakistani mullahs (clerics) in Afghan refugee camps.” Former Taliban leader Mullah Omar wrote to the sect’s leadership in Pakistan asking for guidance, though he does not seem to have gotten a direct response. 

It is hard to know in absolute terms how much Taliban support there is in the UK. And it is impossible to know with any certainty for how many people this translated into travelling to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. But there have been a few other high-profile cases. Omar Khyam, the brains behind the 2004 fertiliser bomb plot, had been home to Afghanistan in 2001 and reported finding the Taliban highly hospitable. In 2006, Parviz Khan was arrested for plotting to kidnap a Muslim British soldier in Birmingham, and then planning to video his decapitation. He had previously been running a regular supply line for Taliban militants in Pakistan, sending money and equipment. He was jailed for life.

Taliban-linked plots have continued until relatively recently. In April 2017, police made a dramatic arrest in Whitehall of a smiling young man with three large knives suspected of planning an assault on police officers. Khalid Ali was a sometime plumber who disappeared from his home in Edmonton, north London, in 2011, only to reappear in 2016 at the British Consulate in Istanbul trying to get temporary travel documents to get home. When he landed back in the UK police found 42 matches with an FBI database of prints found on explosives in Afghanistan. Under questioning, he stated he was a Taliban soldier and that he had pressed the button detonating bombs in Afghanistan “more than 300 times.” On the stand later he changed his story, but his phones were not all recovered and the prosecution speculated that he appeared to be planning to launch his attack concurrent with the Taliban’s Spring offensive. He was convicted of planning a terror attack and making bombs for the Taliban, and jailed for 40 years.

The plot was a strange one that took place in a year in which the UK saw four successful violent Islamist plots and around a dozen disrupted ones. But it distinguished itself with its links to the Taliban and Afghanistan—in contrast to the Islamic State links that had by then become the norm.

This all returned to the headlines again after the recent fall of Kabul, when military intelligence sources leaked to the Sun that they had “received some intercepts of two British men, probably below 30, talking openly on mobiles… One had a London accent, what you might call a street accent.” This kind of intelligence leak about homegrown militants appears to be one British authorities enjoy doing—so the timing of its appearance now (in a tabloid) must of course raise eyebrows. But it is not surprising that British nationals might be fighting or be present in Afghanistan. 

Yet the bigger danger for the UK is the Pakistan connection. The 7th July, 2005 cell started off interested in jihad in Kashmir, only to get re-directed to train in Afghanistan where (after some time) they were directed by al-Qaeda to murder 52 Londoners.

While the danger from terrorist networks in Pakistan striking the UK appears to have reduced, extremism originating in Pakistan has grown in different ways in the UK. In February 2016, Jalal Uddin, a 71-year-old imam, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by an extremist who then fled to Syria to join Islamic State. (Another man was found guilty in the UK.) Uddin was accused of spreading witchcraft through taweez faith healing and had stirred the anger of fundamentalists in Rochdale. A month later, a Bradford cabbie drove up to Glasgow and murdered Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had posted videos online which the fundamentalist cabbie found blasphemous. 

The Ahmadiyya are a widely persecuted minority Muslim sect (in Pakistan they are officially considered non-Muslims). Numerous investigations by the BBC and others found cases around the UK of anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment or openly sectarian Pakistani groups in the UK. Even from jail Asad Shah’s killer has maintained his connection with extremists, finding ways of releasing audio recordings encouraging people to attend events linked to his sect in Pakistan. He has, in fact, become something of a folk hero amongst the Sufi Barelvi community in Kashmir.

The support network for such extremist sentiment in the UK is clearly already present. A stridently sectarian political organisation called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) made an appearance in the streets outside the Pakistani High Commission in London in April 2021, protesting the government’s refusal to eject the French Ambassador in the wake of President Macron’s calls for new laws to control extremism after the murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty. Notwithstanding being banned in Pakistan, the group appears an irritant that the authorities in the UK cannot dismiss.

Colonial history ties South Asia and the UK together in a way that is unique. It is a rich connection that generates a huge amount of good for both sides. Unfortunately, it also has a darker edge: for the UK a regular stream of support for the Taliban and associated extremist groups in Pakistan, as well as radicalised young men and terrorist plots. Now we have a Taliban government in power, some of the more covert aspects of this connection are likely to become more prominent. And as MI5 chief Ken McCallum put it recently, this time “we will have neither the advantages nor the risks of having our own forces on the ground.”

With this am now up to date on published work, though have various other pieces that are now working their way through the publication process which should emerge soon in various forms. This last piece was done rather last minute after an invitation to present before an online session of joint hearing by two US House of Representative Committees. Consequently my statement, published below, was not footnoted and probably needed a bit of tidying. Here is the actual recording of the session, and forgive any doziness, it was very early morning for me.

Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), UK

Joint Committee Hearing of House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber & House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism

Transatlantic Cooperation on Countering Global Terrorism and Violent Extremism

September 21, 2021

The terrorist threat picture faced by Europe and North America is one that has only become more complicated as time has gone on. While the overall numbers of casualties may have gone down, the variety of ideologies, places of origin and nature of plots has only become more complicated in the past two decades. At the same time, cooperation between North America and Europe in countering these threats has only become tighter. To provide a survey of the entire picture in the time available would be an exercise in futility, and as a consequence, I am going to focus on two principal threat areas that that face the Transatlantic Alliance in the short term. First is the menace of lone actor terrorism which is repeatedly spoken of as the priority menace on both sides of the Atlantic (and further afield), and second the fall-out from events in Afghanistan. These remarks will be concise given space restrictions, but will hopefully provide some broader food for thought.

Lone Actor Terrorism

Since its early expressions in the late 2000s (though some would trace it back even further), lone actor terrorism as a methodology has become the principal source of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America. Whilst there can be no doubt that sophisticated terrorist networks are still keen to launch large-scale plots, it has become increasingly difficult for them to penetrate western security barriers. This is a clear source of success for the Transatlantic Alliance that has been able to construct a set of security perimeters that regularly frustrate attempts by terrorist groups to successfully attack on a larger-scale. But it has also exposed the reality that lone actor plots are exceptionally hard to detect and prevent.

The reasons for this difficulty are multi-faceted. The most obvious aspect is the fact that such attacks involve low technology weapons that are often fashioned from tools from every day life, with short flash-to-bang periods, and are often undertaken by highly volatile individuals who are difficult to legally detain pre-attack. The growing dominance of knives and vehicles in terrorist attack planning makes it difficult for security agencies to use traditional tripwires to try to prevent such incidents, and in the United States the easy availability of high grade firearms amplifies the effect of such attacks. Europe is to some degree protected from this particular aspect of the threat, given the lower availability (though this is not always the case as exemplified by attackers in Hanau or Oslo, or even further afield, Christchurch).

At the same time, terrorist ideologies have increasingly pushed their adherents towards the lone actor attack methodology. Al Qaeda, ISIS and parts of the extreme right wing (XRW) have all advanced the lone actor methodology of attack through their publications and narratives. Likely in part realizing the complexity of successfully launching large-scale plots and recognizing the potential impact a successful lone actor attack can have, terrorist groups have sought to make it easier for individuals to launch attacks in support of their ideology. ISIS in particular fashioned a very simple narrative for people to launch incidents that could be associated with their ideology, thereby providing a frame which many different individuals could use to add meaning to acts of violence that they might otherwise have committed anyway out of their own personal rage.

But the problem with these ideas is that they have a habit of drifting beyond your intended audience. They become common currency which is widely accepted and discussed, creating an easy template that anybody (or any group) can adopt. It is noticeable for example the degree to which right wing groups have taken on similar narratives, seeking to persuade their own followers to consider similar attack methodologies to those being advanced by their putative ideological adversaries in ISIS. While it is clear that this typology is not new to the extreme right – the idea of lone wolf terrorism is something that has long been embedded in extreme right thinking – the success of it in recent years for groups like ISIS or al Qaeda has awakened the effectiveness of its use to a wider audience.

And even more problematically than this, the methodology is now entirely accessible even to an audience whose ideological frame is absent or confused. In recent years, the UK’s Home Office has started to note an increase in cases of individuals who appear to have an ideological framing which is defined as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” This group have a habit of being radicalised in the classical sense, but when investigators dig into their ideological leanings, they find a confused collection of sometimes directly contradictory ideas. These highly idiosyncratic ideologies are clearly coherent in the individual’s mind, but nowhere else. Some have identified that some school shooters are similar in their outlooks, drafting manifestos prior to their attacks. Yet the attack methodology they all lean towards is a simple one, using weapons that are easily accessible and clearly aping the approach that has been popularized by ISIS or the extreme right. They appear to be ISIS or XRW attacks and yet in reality are probably something different.

Even more complicated than the ideological aspect is the mental state of some of these individuals. Whilst one has to pay attention to not entirely remove agency from the culprit, it is clear that a growing volume of offenders are people with histories of mental health disorder or neuropsychological disorders. This means you have a growing cohort of lone actor attacks that are being conducted by individuals who appear to have a confused ideological leaning, and whose mental faculties are not entirely competent. While there is a larger discussion to be had about the degree to which we should even be considering these individuals as part of the terrorism cohort (operating on the assumption that perpetrators defined as terrorists should at least have a clear political motivation inspiring them, something entirely confused in this group), from a security agency perspective this poses a major problem. A successful lone actor in this mould will in the first instance be considered a terrorist actor, leading to all of the societal tensions and complications that generates. And for first response authorities and those being injured or murdered in the attack, there is little distinction to them in a lone actor that is linked to ISIS to one that is instead inspired by a confusing mess of ideas.

But this is where the larger transatlantic alliance might want to start to explore greater cooperation and consideration. This is a problem we have seen in Europe just as much as in North America (or even further afield in alliance countries like New Zealand or Singapore). Cooperation in this space is however highly complicated as ultimately the battle is one which is not going to be successfully fought on battlefields.

In cooperative terms, three key areas identify themselves as places to focus attention going forwards. These build on years of effective counter-terrorism cooperation across the Atlantic, and reflect the complicated nature of the lone actor threat in particular.

First is on the ideological side. There is a growing interweaving of ideas and groups across the Atlantic (and more widely) online. This spread has meant that ideologies can be spawned in the United States which resonate widely across the world. In part these ideologies are able to grow in countries where rules around free speech are interpreted with a wider latitude than in others. This is not a new problem, but when looking at the extreme right and propagators of some new ideologies like QAnon, it is a problem which is increasingly found as emanating from part of the Transatlantic Alliance. This requires greater coordination to both ensure rapid takedown (something to be done in conjunction with social media companies in particular) as well as efforts to detain and prevent ideologues advancing such ideas wherever they might be. Key to this is also recognition that while an individual may not be crossing a legal boundary in the jurisdiction where they are based, they may be pushing others to cross it in foreign lands. Greater coordination in managing this, and in closing down these online networks and communities would in part help stem the problem.

Second is on the tactical side. It is clear that the United States has an online capability that is vastly superior to most European powers. While the United Kingdom, France and Germany have grown their own capabilities, they are still very dependent on the US. Greater coordination should be undertaken amongst a wider community of security agencies across the Atlantic to try to counter lone actor plots. While it is true that most lone actors operate alone, there is a growing body of evidence showing that they do in fact communicate or tell others about their attacks or plans pre-incident. Much of this communication happens online, sometimes in very public forums. This suggests a point of interdiction that Transatlantic partners should work more closely on detecting and preventing.

Third is on the preventative side – one of the key problems with lone actor terrorism as a methodology is its easy adoption. This means the range of individuals who are perpetrating such attacks is becoming ever wider, with individuals deciding to use it as a method of expression with little sense of connection to the ideology that initially spawned it as a tactic. The key point here is the wide ranging nature of profiles of those involved, and the growing instances or neuropsychological or mental health issues amongst this cohort. This generates a new form of preventative response and post-arrest management. While the sui generis nature of each case means lessons are not always easily translatable, the cumulative effect of the volume of cases seen around the world is likely to generate some new ideas and approaches which others would benefit from learning from. Creating a more regular exchange of ideas across the Atlantic about how to manage these cases in prisons, in society or elsewhere would likely generate some successful new approaches to deal with this threat.

Afghanistan

Another major terrorist issue which has raised it head for the Transatlantic Alliance in recent months is the change in government in Afghanistan, where the collapse of the Islamic Republic has led to the rise of an Islamic Emirate controlled by the Taliban. While it remains unclear the degree to which the Taliban will be able to maintain control in the longer-term, it does seem they are going to be able to hold power for the short to medium term. Given their close connections to al Qaeda, and previous support for groups and networks which have generated terrorist plots in the west and elsewhere, this is clearly a source of concern to the Transatlantic Alliance. But what is the exact nature of this threat, and what tensions has this generated in the broader alliance framework which need to be addressed.

In terms of responding to the potential threat, the first key element to focus on is that few assessments have pointed to the change in government in Afghanistan generating an immediate or medium term threat to the west. While it is impossible to predict how things will play out in the longer-term, for the time being it seems unlikely that al Qaeda will be able to rebuild its capabilities to launch large-scale terrorist attacks against western interests for at least the next two years (and possibly even further in the future). The group is a vastly reduced form of its former self, and has for the past few years appeared to focus more on regional conflicts that striking at far enemies in the west. This likely creates problems in other parts of the globe where al Qaeda linked or inspired groups exist, but not as much in the west.

A far larger and immediate threat is likely present in Pakistan, and to a lesser degree in Central Asia. India also faces the potential for threats, as do China, Russia and Iran. The key here, however, is that when looking at how threats from Afghanistan might emerge, it is imperative that the west move away from focusing single-mindedly on how problems might directly come home. The last major plot reported publicly as having links to Afghanistan, was a group of Tajiks arrested in April 2020 in Germany. Yet the extent of their connection to Afghanistan was a remote one through mobile phone applications. Far more immediate is the danger of groups starting to use Afghanistan as a base to destabilize Pakistan or even more inspiring groups in Pakistan to rise up against the government in Islamabad. A similar (though more remote) possibility presents itself in parts of Central Asia, as well as Iran, Russia and China – though all of them have more effective police apparatus that is likely able to contain threats.

The key for the Transatlantic Alliance is to focus on managing the spread of problems from Afghanistan into its neighbourhood rather than single-mindedly focusing on the not impossible, but unlikely, outcome that groups start to immediately launch attacks against the west.

The second major issue within this context is geopolitical. The withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States was long telegraphed, but not heard in other capitals. This led to a chaotic withdrawal which raised concerns about American security guarantees. While these are likely overstated, they have highlighted once again the reality that Europe in particular has somewhat taken for granted American security support. The answer here is clearly for Europe to increase its efforts, but these should be done in conjunction with American partners who remain key enablers in counter-terrorism operations around the globe. Finding a way of better cooperating in establishing over the horizon presence in South Asia in particular is going to be an area of key cooperation going forwards. European partners like the United Kingdom have strong relations in Pakistan in particular, while France and Germany have a deep footprint in parts of Central Asia. This provides a useful point of engagement for the Transatlantic Alliance going forwards.

Finally, both sides of the Atlantic should work to try to extricate the problem of countering terrorist groups in the region in particular (and more widely) from the larger great power conflict that is currently consuming the Transatlantic Alliance. In Afghanistan in particular, the insertion of great power conflict narratives creates a context to replicate the immensely damaging and counter-productive history of using proxy groups in Afghanistan to fight against each other. Focusing on the terrorist threats as problems that menace not only the western alliance, but also regional adversaries provides a way to actually deal with the threats rather than making them worse.