Posts Tagged ‘Taliban’

Still catching up on myself. Got distracted with a few other things including the current chaos in real life and suddenly a wave of new short pieces landed. So will continue updating here. Have some longer ones still gently coming to the boil, but current events have confused everything. First up, a short commentary for my London institutional home RUSI.

Don’t Lose Sight of the Enduring Global Terrorist Threat

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Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary30 March 2020
UK Counter-terrorismTerrorismMiddle East and North Africa

As the world’s attention remains understandably concentrated on the Coronavirus pandemic, it is important to remember that other threats have not gone away.

Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), has started to tell its adherents to take advantage of the chaos in the West caused by the coronavirus pandemic to launch attacks. Beyond this, a series of worrying trends point to an international terrorist movement developing greater coherence and strength in preparation for another bout of violence. Largely unnoticed amongst the flood of information and disinformation about the global pandemic, a series of actions illustrates the persistent and chronic nature of the threat of international terrorism that the world still faces.

Daesh’s recommendation for its followers to take advantage of this moment to launch attacks was a shift in its narrative around the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, it had largely been passing instructions to its followers not dissimilar to what the WHO and governments were suggesting: to be careful in certain countries and practice good hygiene. It had also enjoyed the fact that China and Iran had been so badly hit, considering it ‘divine retribution’ for China’s treatment of Uighurs and for Iran’s Shia ‘apostasy’. This message was echoed by other groups, most prominently the Uighurs fighting in Syria, who appeared eager to celebrate China’s ‘punishment’. But until recently there had been little comment around the option of launching attacks under the cover of the coronavirus crisis.

In fact, international jihadist terrorism has been a receding concern for Western governments for some time. The absence of large-scale successful attacks directed by Daesh or Al-Qa’ida has removed the threat from the top of world leaders’ in-trays. And this was reinforced by two additional trends: the growing capability of security services to disrupt and counter organised terrorist plots, and an increased focus by terrorist groups towards their local environments rather than the preparation of international plots. The danger is that whenever we have witnessed similar trends in the past, they provided a lull which concluded with new and more creative threats coming back to strike us.

A growing coherence amongst terrorist organisations

There is evidence of growing coherence amongst the global jihadist movement. Rather than disintegrating, they appear to be developing and strengthening their connections. This has been most visible in Africa, where reporting from the Sahel suggests that Al-Qa’ida- and Daesh-aligned groups on the ground are working together. This cooperation is not entirely surprising. Ultimately, the two groups offer an ideology that is very similar and it is not uncommon to see adherents initially drawn into their orbits through a mix of ideological material from both. Yet, at a strategic level, the two have been in competition for some time, something that appears now to have been overcome within the Sahel, where a growing violent insurgency is displacing and killing thousands.

A similar, though maybe less surprising, level of coherence is visible within Al-Qa’ida’s various African factions. Lately, the group’s East African affiliate, Al-Shabaab, its West African representative, Jama’at Nasr Al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), and its Yemeni affiliate Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have all been releasing messages praising each other, marking the death of AQAP’s leader Qasim Al-Raymi, the death of a senior Tunisian jihadist, and generally demonstrating a high level of interaction. This has been seen and praised by Al-Qa’ida’s senior leadership, which has issued messages congratulating them on their operations.

Al-Shabaab has emphasised its fealty by emphasising that its attacks are being conducted in accordance with senior Al-Qa’ida figures orders, demonstrating a desire to connect with Al-Qa’ida’s global ambitions rather than simply be Africa-focused. Al-Shabaab has also been demonstrating a growing capability and ambition – attacking Western forces on their bases in East Africacontinuing to aim at targets in Kenya and even reportedly looking at international aviation as a potential target once again. JNIM has not quite achieved the same level of success, but a more worrying potential development for Al-Qa’ida was the recent agreement signed between the Taliban and the US government, in which the Taliban appeared to specifically agree to ensure the group could not use Afghanistan as a base of operations once again. While on the one hand, this statement might be moot (there have long been suspicions about Al-Qa’ida hiding in Iran or Pakistan), it is also yet to be proven how assiduous the Taliban will be in going after them. Assessing that this was something that they could game in their favour, Al-Qa’ida was quick to put out a statement praising the agreement and painting it – much like the Taliban’s leadership have – as a victory for the Afghan organisation, showing once again its ability to defeat empires.

Al-Qa’ida’s calculation is likely based on the fact that the Afghan government and the Taliban already appear to be facing difficulty coming to the table for the next stage of the process to conclude Afghanistan’s decades-long conflict. This fact, and the Taliban’s persistent willingness to let Al-Qa’ida elements operate in their territory, suggest that it is unlikely that any resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan is on the immediate horizon, or that Al-Qa’ida will find itself under greater pressure as a result of the agreement.

Iran tensions not helping

All of these moves are taking place against a backdrop of escalating US–Iran tensions. The brief intake of breath that took place in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has been filled by more strikes and deaths of Western forces in Iraq caused by Iranian-backed militias. The coronavirus pandemic may be the major focus in Tehran at the moment, but the Iranians have not forgotten the US and seem to now have moved beyond their self-imposed cease-fire in the wake of the mistaken downing of the Ukraine Airlines plane over Tehran on 8 January.

This is relevant to the context of Al-Qa’ida and Daesh for two reasons. First, Iran has regularly shown itself to be an agile manipulator of jihadist elements, able to pragmatically engage with them when it suited Tehran’s objectives. And at the moment, these groups will prove both a useful and deniable tool in Iran’s growing showdown with the US. Second, Iran’s interest in crushing Daesh in Syria and Iraq is likely receding so, as long as the group does not focus on Iran, Tehran is likely to look the other way.

Given Daesh’s growing profile in Africa in particular, the organisation still has some power of attraction, notwithstanding the loss of its ‘caliphate’. This continues to make the organisation dangerous, and any successful effort to rebuild its territorial structures in the Levant will give it a major boost internationally.

The danger is that these shifts will produce a dramatic terrorist attack which will shock the West out of its current collective coronavirus focus. Daesh’s suggestion to its adherents represents a first indication that the terrorist organisation sees the West as distracted, and may seize the opportunity to launch a dramatic attack. The broader trends that have been visible with Al-Qa’ida date back to before the current crisis, but show a threat picture which is developing in directions that warrant close attention.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Tomasz “odder” Kozlowski/commons.wikimedia.org

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

More catch up posting for the South China Morning Post, this time looking again at China’s role in Afghanistan. I now realize a typo in here, specifically in when the attack that killed BLA leader Aslam Baloch took place. It was about a month after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, rather than the ten days I had put here. Also, the phrase ‘Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country’ – was not exactly as I meant to phrase it. The word outrageous was one that I meant to be expunged, but I was late to the editorial process.

Does Beijing grasp the portent of embracing Afghanistan and the Taliban?

Raffaello Pantucci says it is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the role it is taking on by trying to broker peace in strife-torn Afghanistan

The 2018-19 period has been noteworthy in one way: it has seen a flurry of activity between China and Afghanistan.

During that time, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his colleague, Ambassador Deng Xijun, have racked up the air miles doing shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad and hosting people in Beijing.

The result of all this manoeuvring was a successful trilateral meeting in Kabul between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and China – a parley which appears to have helped accelerate the latest round of peace negotiations in Afghanistan’s seemingly endless conflict.

Yet amid the positive mood, it is still not clear what China’s expectations and plans are for Afghanistan. Nor is it clear that Beijing has fully appreciated the central role into which it is increasingly stepping.

The first question to ask is: What has spurred this new surge of Chinese diplomacy?

The answer is simple, and sits in the White House.

Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country.

This view needs to be considered in context, as it was the moment at which the broader US-China relationship was going down the drain.

Everything involving the Americans was bad. But as the days have gone by, this anger has turned into an awareness that the US might actually be on the cusp of making a dramatic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

As this realisation took hold in Beijing, the next stage, therefore, was to comprehend that China needed to step up to play a more forward role in resolving the situation.

While the US stands detached from the conflict, Beijing remains hostage to geography and is obliged to maintain some engagement with Afghanistan – a commitment whose salience is only increasing through China’s long-term investments in Afghanistan’s neighbours – Pakistan and Central Asia.

This state of affairs helps explain Beijing’s new activism, and Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing’s willingness to increasingly champion the Taliban as a political group.

Talking to Chinese interlocutors about their country’s engagement with the Taliban used to be a taboo subject; now it has apparently become a topic of conversation.

Beijing has clearly concluded that the road to resolution in Afghanistan includes bringing the Taliban to the table – something that was likely discussed between Wang and Mohammad Umer Daudzai, secretary general of the Afghan High Peace Council, on his visit to Beijing late last week (a trip that followed Daudzai’s visit to Pakistan to meet Taliban representatives).

Beijing is seemingly using its contacts to expedite the peace discussions – a move that even the Taliban’s leaders have championed. What is not clear, however, is what incentives are being offered and whether Beijing has considered the consequences of its latest actions.

At this stage, it is likely that Beijing’s immediate security concerns around Afghanistan have been largely mitigated – not resolved, but managed.

China has invested in security forces along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan; pumped money into similar structures in Gilgit Baltistan; provided training, funding and equipment to Afghan forces; and has hardened its own direct border with Afghanistan.

Sitting atop this activity, Beijing has created the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism, which brings together the chiefs of defence staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. There has even been talk this year of the four countries taking part in joint military training exercises together.

China’s is concerned about how Afghanistan’s instability might affect that country’s neighbours and Beijing’s larger investments in Pakistan and Central Asia. But even these issues seem to have some answer to them.

Just 10 days after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by a cell linked to the Baluchistan Liberation Army, the group’s leader (and admitted director of numerous attacks on Chinese targets), Aslam Baloch, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kandahar.

That ignominious end signalled that China had lethal friends in the region who were keen to show they could reach into the heart of China’s enemies and strike them.

It is still not clear what Beijing’s economic stake or interest is in Afghanistan.

Some of the routes of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – Xi Jinping’s massive infrastructure plan – that cross the Eurasian continent would benefit from transit through Afghanistan. Beijing’s mineral extraction firms view the country’s natural resources with interest.

While talks continue about moving forward with belt and road projects, actual activity seems to be quite low. Trade routes are opening slowly, but the spigot of economic investment has not quite opened up.

Beijing seems to have concluded that for the time being, the answer to Afghanistan is to try to get a political structure in place that involves everybody and then see how things play out.

It will continue to dangle the carrot of economic investment, while knowing that its direct security equities are covered. This strategy will position Beijing fairly securely to let the consequences of a Taliban inclusive government play out.

The danger here is what a Taliban inclusive government might mean.

First, it is not clear that this arrangement would be acceptable to all other regional players. And even if it were, it is not clear it would help bring stability to Afghanistan. Much of the progress that has been made there might be wiped out, and the country might slip back into even greater chaos and warlordism.

Beijing may feel it has this eventuality covered through its current relationships, security structures and economic incentives, but this assumption is risky. Civil conflicts are by their nature brutal and unpredictable, especially in a country so intertwined with its region, and with such a sad and rich history of conflict.

Beijing may assume that by brokering a negotiation, it buys itself immunity from these problems. But as the US withdraws from the region, regional powers will increasingly look to China to resolve their issues.

It is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the consequences of this potential responsibility.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

 

A new piece for RUSI’s in-house bi-monthly magazine Newsbrief, this time looking at China’s relations with the Taliban. I owe a lot of people thanks for talking to me about this topic, and am in the midst of a lot of work on this topic at the moment (China’s relations with Afghanistan). Somewhat related, I spoke to Reuters about the new Chinese counter-terrorism law, but the overwhelming majority of recent media conversations have been around the revelations around the identity of Jihadi John. On that, I spoke to the New York TimesWashington Post, Financial Times, CNN, Sunday TimesAustralian ABC, Daily Mail, Independent, and Voice of America amongst others. Doubtless this story is going to run a bit more and I am hoping to finally get something substantial on about his background sometime soon. Of course, my book in jihad in the UK has finally landed and is getting launched at RUSI on March 19 – so watch this space!

Will China Bring Peace to Afghanistan?

RUSI Newsbrief, 27 Feb 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci

After years of fence-sitting, Beijing appears to have finally decided to admit that it is willing to play a role in Afghanistan’s future. While the exact contours of the part it seeks to play are still uncertain, China’s willingness to be seen to be involved in brokering peace in Afghanistan is surprising for a nation that continues to profess non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs as the core of its foreign-policy credo.

It also remains unclear exactly how China can help to bring the Taliban to the peace table: while it may have the links to both the government in Kabul and the Taliban, it is uncertain that it knows how to bring them together, beyond offering a platform for talks. This activism is nonetheless likely to be welcomed by Western powers. Yet high expectations are not warranted; even if China does ultimately prove that it knows what to do with these talks, its efforts in Afghanistan will ultimately seek to advance its own interests rather than those of the West.

In February, news emerged that the Taliban were undertaking discussions in Pakistan as part of a reconciliation effort aided, in part, by China. This built on news last November that China had itself hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing. Although this earlier revelation (confirmed during this author’s meetings in Beijing) was a surprise to many, it reflected a longstanding, behind-the-scenes understanding amongst Western policy-makers that China had direct links to the Taliban. The fact that these links became publicly known (although Chinese officials remain circumspect when discussing them in public) only suggests that China is willing to be more open about its possible role in Afghanistan – a development potentially accelerated by the formal conclusion of ISAF operations in the country.

The first public sign of Chinese mediation efforts came with the suggestion in November that China’s special envoy to Afghanistan – a career diplomat and former ambassador to India, Italy, Poland and (separately) Afghanistan – had visited Peshawar (or Doha, reports vary) to move talks with the Taliban forwards. Then came the visit of the Taliban delegation (following Beijing’s hosting of the Heart of Asia process meeting later that month), led by Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, a former minister in the Taliban government and possibly including representatives of both the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras of the Taliban, and potentially others from Pakistan. It was only in February, however, that Taliban spokesmen were willing to confirm that the meeting had taken place, with the same delegation apparently then in Pakistan continuing discussions there.

The revelation that China has maintained direct contact with the Taliban was no great surprise; these contacts predate the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In December 2000, a Chinese delegation headed by then-Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Mullah Omar in Kabul to lobby the Taliban authorities not to support anti-Chinese Uighur extremists based in Afghanistan, which were then a source of major consternation for Chinese security officials. China was also amongst those that lobbied, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Taliban from destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas. Nor was such contact limited to simply making demands of the Taliban, with Chinese telecommunications companies ZTE and Huawei both having signed contracts to undertake work in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

In July 2001, a delegation of Taliban-associated businessmen undertook a reciprocal visit to China, and on 11 September 2001 itself, a delegation of Chinese officials was in Kabul to sign a number of memoranda of understanding with the Taliban Ministry of Mines. Whilst these economic ties were largely voided in the wake of 9/11, they nevertheless show a credible link between the two and a longstanding Chinese interest in the Afghan economy.

Even in the wake of the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime contact persisted, apparently directed out of China’s embassy in Islamabad, with relevant officials paying regular visits to Peshawar. Though initially largely handled through Pakistani interlocutors, it is understood that, over time, direct links between Chinese officials and the Taliban were consolidated. The exact nature of these exchanges is unclear, though for China they appear to have provided a means to enlist Taliban help in addressing the problem of Uighur extremists and in protecting their investments in Afghanistan, while also hedging against a persistent Chinese fear that permanent American bases in Afghanistan might be part of a strategy of encirclement.

Chinese concern that Uighur extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s lawless areas might use these countries as a springboard to launch operations within China is not without some basis; indeed, there is recent evidence of this. In July 2011, for example, Memtieli Tiliwaldi was identified by the Chinese government as having belonged to a group that launched bomb and knife attacks in the city of Kashgar, Xinjiang. Weeks later, Uighur extremists in Pakistan, operating under the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), released a video purporting to show Tiliwaldi at a training camp run by the group. Such clear links are difficult to draw in relation to subsequent attacks, though China occasionally make claims that terrorist incidents in Xinjiang have connections – either in practical or ideological terms – to extremist groups based outside of China. More recently, Chinese security officials have begun to focus on the fact that such links also flow through Syria and Iraq (where there is evidence that ethnically Chinese and Uighur extremists are fighting) and Southeast Asia (where cells of Uighurs have been identified attempting to connect with militants in Poso, Indonesia). Alongside these emerging connections, however, the existence of links between Uighur extremists and both Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a key source of concern.

As importantly, Afghan authorities have long wished for China to play a more positive role in their country, particularly in the hope that the latter will use its historically strong links to Pakistan to persuade Islamabad to reduce its support for the Taliban. During newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural visit to Beijing last October (his first official international trip), he specifically lobbied China to use its relationship with Pakistan to help build peace in his country. At the same time, Afghan security officials have repeatedly attempted to show their Chinese counterparts that Pakistan is playing a double game with them – using intelligence to highlight occasions on which Pakistani officials appeared to be supporting (or at least turning a blind eye to) Uighur extremists. Recently, for example, Afghan officials announced that they had repatriated fifteen Uighurs discovered within their territory – three in Kabul and twelve in Kunar Province. They had apparently been trained in Pakistan’s Waziristan, though it was unclear what their ultimate goal had been.

This revelation might be part of the reason that China has chosen to play a stronger hand in Afghanistan. The news that Uighur cells could be training in Pakistan and moving across the border into Afghanistan, presumably with the ultimate aim of conducting some form of attack in China, suggests that the discreet infrastructure of contacts that China had established to defeat such networks was not, in fact, working. The reported presence of Uighurs in Kunar, in particular, suggests a failure of China’s relations with the Taliban, while the presence of individuals training in Waziristan shows a simultaneous failure by its Pakistani ally. All of this bolsters China’s perceived need to play a more prominent role in negotiations to bring the chaos in Afghanistan to a resolution.

However, while there is now an apparent correlation in the positions of China and the West in Afghanistan, Western hopes should not be excessively raised. Chinese officials admit that they are not clear on the exact nature of internal Afghan or Taliban dynamics, and remain concerned about a potential backlash against greater engagement, making them unlikely to push as hard as the West might hope. At the same time, in seeking to ensure the region’s stability (of which Afghanistan is a key part), China is primarily focused on denying Uighur extremists safe havens from which to operate, as well as developing its Silk Road Economic Belt trade corridors. It is less concerned with the Western emphasis on good governance (though there is growing discussion in Beijing about the importance of this in ensuring stability). And it is certainly not concerned about the perceived legacy of the West’s investment of over a decade’s worth of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Instead, China’s interests in Afghanistan are ultimately national, reflecting an increasing desire on the part of Beijing to enhance stability on its western periphery on its own terms.

More broadly, however, the most interesting aspect of China’s activity in Afghanistan is the fact that it has shown itself willing to play this sort of role in a foreign nation. This clearly highlights the degree to which Chinese foreign policy is evolving and opening up to the world. The danger is that China is embarking upon this role in a country that has for generations proven impervious to external activism. The larger concern must therefore be what it might mean for Chinese foreign policy should this effort fail.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci