Taliban upsurge brings Big Powers together!
by K Gajendra Singh on 24 Mar 2009 2 Comments

The world seems rightly preoccupied with ongoing events in Pakistan, but this is only part of a larger story unfolding in north-west of Pakistan, an ingress through which the whole of Hindustan awaits Asani Sanket (imminent danger!).

History reveals that the Roman-Persian rivalry led to a series of wars between the Greco-Roman world and two successive Iranian empires. After contacts between Parthia and the Roman Republic in 92 BC, began the wars that continued through the Roman and Sassanid empires. The resources expended during the Roman-Persian Wars ultimately proved catastrophic for both empires. 

The prolonged and escalating warfare of the sixth and seventh centuries left them exhausted and vulnerable to the sudden emergence of Bedouin warriors from the Arabian desert and expansion of their Caliphates, whose forces invaded both empires only a few years after the end of the last Roman-Persian war. Taking advantage of their weakened condition, the Arab Muslim armies swiftly conquered the entire Sassanid Empire, and deprived the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) of its territories in the Middle East, the Caucasus, Egypt, and the rest of North Africa. Over the following centuries, most of the Byzantine Empire came under Muslim rule.

(The first Seljuk Turkish state in Konya-Byzantine Iconium – after the Turks had broken through the Byzantine defences near Lake Van in the eleventh century – was called the Rumi Sultanate. The castle on Bosphorus on the European side is still called Rumeli Hissari (Hissar is fort in Turkish), and the desert valley between Jordan and Saudi Arabia where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed is called Vadi Rum).  

The Arabian desert peninsula with little resources then, was not the objective of the wars between the two empires. The Arab tribes along the borders and in the two empires were looked upon with contempt, the kind of contempt most Arabs and Muslims face now from the West and others after the Muslim Ottoman empire was rolled back from the gates of Vienna beginning 16th century, Muslim lands colonized and exploited, and Turkic lands in Central Asia conquered by the Russians.

The situation in central south Asia in the 21st century is somewhat similar. By the end of the 20th century, USSR collapsed having been forced by the Cold War to spend beyond its means to defend itself against the US-led West after losing a proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Now with the US overreach, defense outlay it cannot afford but continues to mount, a lost war in Iraq, a likely quagmire in Afghanistan, Washington stares at a fate similar to Moscow in the 1990s, made more acute by the rushing financial collapse.

It is not that Americans have become peace-loving, but ground realities despite noises by neo-conservatives and professional war-mongers, have forced Washington to change its policies in the region. With a virtual tacit truce with Iran in Iraq, US and NATO forces’ supplies being constricted by Taliban militias, US-led West has been forced to stall NATO’s onward march into Russia’s near abroad, i.e., Ukraine and Georgia (where it made a last throw of dice last year and was rebuffed), and is coordinating with Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to jointly cope with the resurgent Sunni Taliban bursting out from mountain sanctuaries along the Pak-Afghan borders towards Kabul and Islamabad. China, whose Turkic Uighurs in Xingjian could not follow in the footsteps of kinsmen Kyrgyz and Kazakhs and others coming adrift from Moscow’s yoke in the 1990s, is very much worried.

Moscow and Afghanistan

With the Obama administration facing a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, Russia is on the way to becoming an important player in the region. Moscow has agreed to the transit of non-lethal NATO supplies for Afghanistan through its territory. (But at its behest Kyrgyzstan is closing the US base at Manas). Russia must be chuckling at Washington’s quandary in Afghanistan, remembering how US and others were responsible for creating a quagmire for the Soviets during the 1980s. Iran, part of the ‘axis of evil’ and threatened since 2003, could be another supply route. Shia Tehran, which suffered from Taliban and Al Qaeda depredations, which helped US operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban in 2001, would be willing to join but under some conditions.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s representative at NATO, said in a recent interview that US’ defeat in Afghanistan would be “a great catastrophe for Russia” as Islamists would immediately spread across Central Asia and the Caucasus. He added that the US presence in Afghanistan was in Russia’s best interests!! However, Rogozin doubted if the US would stay long enough to stabilize the situation. What now could emerge is a military force comprising of mostly Central Asian and other states, to help keep the Islamists at bay.

Moscow perhaps has a B Plan drawn from the template adopted successfully in Chechnya. It involves establishing a sphere of influence in northern Afghanistan, where the major ethnic groups are Uzbeks and Tajiks, unlike the Pashtuns that dominate other parts of the country and support Taliban. Under the Northern Alliance led by the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, a pocket in the north held out against the Taliban during its years in power from 1996-2001. Since the breakup of the Russian and British empires, the buffer kingdom of Afghanistan has been splintered since the 1980s. 

China, Uighurs and Taliban

Because of its deep strategic and economic relationship with Pakistan, the paramountcy of Chinese interests is largely accepted by all the major political players inside Pakistan and its sphere of influence in Afghanistan. Peter Lee wrote recently in Asia Times:

“However, in a development that Beijing undoubtedly finds very disturbing, China is getting sucked into the security crisis in the Pashtun border areas of Pakistan. China regards security issues in the Muslim lands of Central and South Asia through the lens of its fraught relations with the Uyghur Muslim population of its northwestern province of Xinjiang. Chinese rule over Xinjiang is not popular, there is a Xinjiang independence movement, and Uyghur militants have claimed responsibility for several bloody actions, both in the province and in the Han areas of China.

“China is very concerned that Xinjiang separatism enjoys a favourable regional environment thanks to the collapse of political order in Afghanistan and western Pakistan - a collapse that China accelerated by pouring arms, training and some fighters into the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

[The Soviet-backed government in Kabul had estimated that during the 1980s, Afghanistan was flooded with $400 million worth of weapons provided by China. The Chinese government also provided 300 advisors and trainers for the mujahideen in camps run by the ISI on the Pakistan side of the border. Reportedly, 55,000 fighters passed through these camps.]

“After September 11, 2001, China aggressively played the Islamic terrorism card in stigmatizing the Uyghur self-determination movement and conflating it with the activities of the violently militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). In 2002, the George W Bush administration acceded in listing ETIM as a terrorist organization, thus largely foreclosing to Uyghur activists the international affection and support that has accrued to the Tibetan independence movement.

“However, with the retreat of the central government from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering NWFP and the resurgence of militancy throughout the Pashtun homeland from the opium fields of Helmand in Afghanistan’s west all the way to the Swat Valley, 160 kilometers from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, an enormous haven for Islamic militants is coming into being. And the local allies, especially Pakistan, that China has traditionally relied on to police Uyghur militants on its behalf, are in danger of being marginalized by a powerful and assertive Taliban movement apparently less willing to defer to China.

Prior to 9/11, elements within the Taliban were eager to deal with China and display the same consideration for Beijing’s interests as their Pakistani sponsors. “No troublemaking in Xinjiang” has been the repeated refrain of virtually every Islamist group seeking to curry favuor with China. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (not the Chinese government) concluded an agreement at the end of 1998, soon after the Taliban took power while the Chinese were wrestling with blowback inside Xinjiang from the participation of Uyghur fighters in the anti-Soviet jihad. In return for training assistance, the Taliban promised not to “provide any training to Chinese Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province and that it will assist the Chinese authorities maintain places of worship and madrassas as in China”.

In 2000, Stratfor reported: [T]he Afghan ambassador to Pakistan guaranteed a Chinese delegation that no groups would be allowed to operate against China from Afghanistan.

When the Taliban became international pariahs after 9/11, their opportunities for engagement with China diminished. However, on the occasion of one of the bloodier attacks against foreign interests - the massacre of 11 Chinese workers labouring on a World Bank road project in Afghanistan in 2004 - the traditional deference toward China required of current and hopeful clients of Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was on full display.

The Taliban, who had no qualms about claiming responsibility for the brutal massacre of five Medicien Sans Frontiers staff, quickly disclaimed responsibility and made their pro-Chinese feelings known with alacrity. The Taliban militia has denied responsibility for the killings. “We deny the accusation of killing the Chinese workers in Kunduz province of Afghanistan,” said Abdul Latif Hakimi, who claims to represent the Taliban. The Taliban even organized a demonstration of 3,000 people “to show their support for the Chinese.”

The kidnapping of two Chinese engineers inside Pakistan in the same year by renegade Taliban leader Abdullah Mehsud elicited a storm of criticism. The parties in Pakistan’s Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal six-party Islamist alliance demanded that the hostages be released, and it was made known that the Pakistan Taliban itself suspected that Mehsud - a jihadi who had been detained at Guantanamo for 25 months and then rather mysteriously released - was a US double agent intent on sabotaging Sino-Pakistani relations.

Still, Taliban and Pakistani relations with China have always been complicated by the presence of a few hundred Uyghur militants who trained and fought with some combination of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the ISI. As early as 1992, almost two dozen Uyghurs died in an armed clash near Kashgar in Xinjiang and the Chinese government shut down its road links with Pakistan, including the legendary Karakoram Highway, for several months to ostensibly stop the destabilizing flow of fighters, drugs, and AIDS, but to express its annoyance.

Before 9/11, there was a special training camp for Uyghurs at Tora Bora under al-Qaeda and Taliban auspices near the Pakistan border, and a safe house maintained in the Afghan provincial town of Jalalabad. According to one report, the Chinese claim 1,000 Uyghur militants trained in al-Qaeda camps.

After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, 22 Uyghurs were captured and delivered to the United States for incarceration at Guantanamo. Although some captives may have been innocents snared in the web of bounty hunters (five were released to Albania), most did confess to receiving training in firing an AK-47 at the ETIM training camp at Tora Bora, according to a study of publicly available court documents by Long War Journal.

The Uyghur detainees’ advocates exploited the fact that the prosecution was unable to demonstrate unambiguous links between ETIM and al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and argued that the young men be released as they had never displayed any intention of committing terrorist attacks against the United States, the implication being that they sought military training solely for the purpose of the independence struggle against the Chinese in Xinjiang.

The Chinese were appalled at the possibility that the legitimacy of the Uyghur struggle might receive explicit or implicit international endorsement, or that independent militants or their sympathizers may find a political haven anywhere.

Beijing has exerted considerable political pressure on the United States not to release 17 of the detainees into the custody of avowedly non-violent pro-independence Uyghur émigrés in the Washington DC area; it was also able to prevail on the Australian government in January 2009 to refuse to take any Guantanamo Uyghur detainees. The Chinese government has always been extremely aggressive in its efforts to ensure that Uyghur militants seeking independence do not find welcome anywhere, especially in Pakistan.

B Raman reported in the South Asia Analysis Group: Talking to a group of senior Pakistani newspaper editors after a visit to China in 2003, [President General Pervez] Musharraf was reported to have stated that he was shocked by the strong language used by the Chinese leaders while talking of the activities of the Uyghur jihadi terrorists from Pakistani territory. However, except for the killing of ETIM head Hahsan Mahsum in FATA in 2003 by Pakistani forces, Chinese efforts to get Pakistan to hand over East Turkestan fighters have been unsuccessful.”

In October 2008, on the occasion of Zardari’ s first official visit to China, the Chinese media pointedly published a detailed bill of the particulars of the eight most-wanted ETIM terrorists, presumably so that the Pakistani government could not shelter behind any confusion about what Beijing wanted.

To be fair, Pakistan’s dilatory response to Chinese demands probably suggests that attempts to repatriate Uyghur militants to China for incarceration or worse would probably have provoked the biggest headache for Sino-Pakistan relations: retaliation against Chinese interests and individuals inside Pakistan.

However, in 2007, the issues of Islamic radicalism, Uyghur separatists and Chinese interests collided catastrophically in the matter of the fundamentalist Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad. The mosque, avowedly pro-Taliban and linked to al-Qaeda, was a large and provocative bastion of fundamentalist Islamist power inside Pakistan’s capital and committed to the imposition of Sharia. Lal Masjid’s attempts to extend and deepen its reach through Islamic vigilantism met with the same ambiguous response from the Pakistan government as was later displayed in the inept handling of the evolving crisis in FATA and NWFP.

Abduction of Chinese managers and employees of a massage parlour by the female members of a madrassa associated with the mosque as punishment for allegedly immoral activities, provoked the anger of the Chinese government and prompted a cautious, protracted siege of the mosque by the Pakistani army. Later, when declaring a state of emergency, President Musharraf highlighted the Lal Masjid situation as the primary example of Pakistan’s problems with Islamist extremism: 

“Now. We saw the event of Lal Masjid in Islamabad where extremists took law into their own hands ... The Chinese, who are such great friends of ours - they took the Chinese hostage and tortured them. Because of this, I was personally embarrassed. I had to go apologize to the Chinese leaders, “I am ashamed that you are such great friends and this happened to you.”

After a round of humiliating surrender by Pakistan government officials, the hostages were first veiled and released, and another successful operation in the “hands off” China policy of Pakistani security politics was apparently carried out.

The mosque’s leaders openly expressed their friendship towards China. Dawn reported: “We released [the hostages] in view of Pakistan-China friendship and after an assurance by the local administration that all such health clinics and massage centers, where “objectionable activities” are carried out, would be closed in Islamabad,” said Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy chief of Lal Masjid.

Despite this, the Chinese government was still very upset that Uyghurs were connected with the mosque. They had accused the masseuses of being Chinese agents sent to spy on them to forestall disruption of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games by Xinjiang militants.

Aware of the weakness and instability of the Zardari government - and unhappy with its marked pro-US tilt - China appears to be reaching out to other players in the Taliban mess. A commentary in the People’s Daily on February 23 contained a clear statement of China’s desire that the threat of Islamic militancy be neutralized through concerted multi-lateralism instead of by a quixotic US-led military campaign of extermination. It warned the Obama administration not to rely solely on a unilateral hard power surge to solve the Afghan problem, and urged the United States to stabilize Pakistan, conciliate Russia, and be realistic in defining acceptable outcomes for Afghanistan.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s recent overseas trip included a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia, which is mediating a deal that would have the Taliban repudiate al-Qaeda and enter the Kabul government. Closer home, the Chinese Communist Party hosted a delegation from Pakistan’s leading Islamic political party, the Jamaati-i-Islami (JI) in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai in February.

China was certainly pleased with JI’s unambiguous endorsement of China’s Xinjiang policy and the two parties signed a memorandum of understanding and the JI’s office advised: “Both parties have agreed upon four principles including independence, equality, and mutual respect and not to interfere in the internal matters of each country ... Both sides assured full support to China’s national and geographical unity, and fully backed China’s stance on Taiwan, Tibet and Xin Jiang issues.”

Back in the NWFP, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, head of JI, heaped praise on China while skating over the awkward issue of an alliance between an Islamic party and a godless communist state (like the one JI had conducted jihad against in Afghanistan).

The Pakistan Taliban are withdrawing traditional immunity to attack Chinese interests, the JI - whose brief from ISI excludes the Taliban, and whose modernist Islamicism is far removed from the Taliban’s theological obscurantism - is not the right party for China for redressing the matter.

The significance of the agreement - and the involvement of “one senior intelligence official” - probably indicates that China anticipates a festering crisis in the Taliban-controlled Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and doesn’t expect the Zardari administration to be responsive or effective in helping China with its security issues. Therefore, instead of relying on Islamabad, Beijing is upgrading its direct contacts with the non-Taliban sectors of Pakistan’s civilian polity, Islamist political parties, and intelligence apparatus.

NATO-SCO cooperation

Another interesting development is possible cooperation between SCO and NATO on Afghanistan. The SCO conference on Afghanistan is scheduled for March 27 in Moscow, a few days ahead of a similar United Nations meet at The Hague. It will focus on the “situation in Afghanistan and its influence on neighbouring states, boosting joint efforts by the international community to counteract terrorism, the illegal drug trade and trans-border organized crime from Afghan territory.” Russia, current SCO president, has invited the UN and NATO, and secretary general Japp de Hoop Scheffer is likely to attend. Could this see the beginning of SCO-NATO cooperation on Afghanistan?

Due to their geographical proximity to Afghanistan and the threats of conflict spillover, the SCO members are naturally concerned about the security chaos in Afghanistan. Hence it is not far-fetched to anticipate a breakthrough in SCO-NATO cooperation in Afghanistan. This could begin despite lingering SCO suspicions of the Alliance’s operations much beyond the Atlantic Ocean, in SCO’s backyard. But NATO’s decision to put on hold the accession of Georgia and Ukraine is a positive sign. 

In 2005, the SCO and Afghanistan had set up a Beijing based liaison group to deal with drug trafficking, cross-border crime and intelligence-sharing. But there was little progress. SCO still remains a loose organization with a limited agenda and its members are not clear on its future role. SCO secretary general, Bolat Nurgaliev, said, “any physical involvement by the SCO in Afghanistan has not been contemplated so far.” But worried about security in Xinjiang, China appears to favour a UN peacekeeping force for Afghanistan with troops from Muslim nations. Beijing might even provide troops, while Russia with memories of the 1980s is not that keen. In the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the idea of sending blue helmets to guard Afghanistan's porous borders is under serious consideration.

K. Gajendra Singh, IFS (retd.) served as Indian ambassador to Turkey, Azerbaijan, Jordan, Romania and Senegal, and is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies 

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