China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Have Key Roles To Play In Restructuring And Securing Afghanistan

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Mechanisms Begin To Recognize Taliban As A Legitimate Government And Relax Sanctions

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has just held its Council of Foreign Ministers this week in Dushanbe, Tajikistan to discuss the current situation in Afghanistan. “A thorough exchange of views on topical global and regional problems, including international information security, the situation in Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific region and Iran’s nuclear program, took place,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement yesterday. “Particular attention was paid to the current situation in Afghanistan. We reaffirmed their commitment to facilitating the Afghan settlement process through the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group.”

The main concerns are should – as looks increasingly likely – there be a Taliban Government in charge in Afghanistan is how stable it would be – there are serious concerns whether it would permit radical terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIL to operate under its governance. These two groups claim religious sovereignty over all Muslims worldwide with Al-Qaeda responsible for the 9-11 attacks in New York and ISIL fresh from insurgencies in Iraq, Syria and now Egypt. The Taliban purely claim governance over Afghanistan.

Thus far, since the early withdrawal of US and NATO troops in the country, Taliban advances have been swift with them now holding border checkpoints between Afghanistan and Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Afghanistan also has borders with Uzbekistan and China. While the Iran and Uzbek borders are currently closed, goods are being permitted in crossing with Pakistan, an important source of customs income for the Taliban – the border between Chaman in Pakistan, and Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan oversees 900 lorries a day.

The Taliban has stated that they do not intend to attack its Central Asian neighbors, however the regime itself is not entirely united and consists of regional warlords and tribal factions, some of whom claim lands beyond modern Afghan borders. For this reason, despite Taliban assurances, Russia has been training Pakistan military and over the coming months, Russia and the Central Asian republics will hold a series of joint exercises on the Afghan border. Russia will be represented by motorized infantry and mountain units, air mobile units, special purpose squadrons, air force, and artillery, as well as air defense forces. At the upcoming maneuvers, the troops will practice eliminating illegal armed units as well as countering destabilization attempts in the republics. The aim is to be ready to repel an incursion of extremists from Afghanistan.

This situation is one that China and Russia have long prepared for, under regional umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, (SCO) established at Beijing’s instigation in 2001 just three months prior to the September 9/11 New York attacks, after which the US military invaded Afghanistan the following month. The SCO as a regional body includes China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan and Iran are observer states, while Turkey, currently supporting the remaining NATO troops on the ground in Afghanistan, is a dialogue partner. Turkmenistan is a guest attendee.

Although the SCO is a multi-functional body, part of its remit (along with regional trade and anti-crime issues) is security. Crucially, the SCO members have had twenty years to build coordinating intelligence, security, and military capabilities, with an eye on when the United States pulls out of Afghanistan. With that day arriving, Central Asia now has a regional body capable of understanding, organizing against, and repelling threats.

There have been side issues – the Chinese detention of 1 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang camps is a response to developments in Afghanistan, not as has often promoted a form of Muslim genocide.  According to the Global Terrorism Database, since 2001, China has had 134 ‘terrorism incidents’ related to Uyghur separatist groups, while 1,458 people have died in incidents mainly in Xinjiang but also taking place in Shijiazhuang, Beijing, Tianjin (an attempted aircraft hijack), Kunming and Guangzhou.

Neither has Russia been immune: the Moscow Metro was bombed in 2010 by Al Qaeda terrorists; 38 people died in two blasts, 40 minutes apart. Other Al-Qaeda linked events occurred in Volgograd where a suicide bomber killed 50 in a supermarket, while ISIL claimed responsibility for bombings in the St. Petersburg Metro, killing 15 while the same group also blew up an Airbus A321, en route to Pulkovo Airport to Saint Petersburg. All 217 passengers and seven crew members on board were killed. Dealing with the Afghanistan problem then mirrors the same concerns as the United States – containing the threats and making sure they are not exported. What has changed though is the manner in which this is being carried out.

The Taliban’s goal is to take the capital Kabul, where opposition can be expected to be fierce. While heavily defended, it still requires supplies – one reason the Taliban has identified border trade posts as priority targets. For this reason, among the sheer strength of the Taliban, Russia and China both agree that a government in Afghanistan cannot exist without Taliban involvement.

Although the Taliban and the Afghanistan Government are currently meeting in Qatar to attempt a peace agreement, I suspect it unlikely any power-sharing will be agreed longer term as the Taliban regard the incumbent Afghan Government as US puppets. If so, that means the only way forward without a deal being brokered is to prepare for a Taliban Government, probably sometime in mid-2022. (Winter conditions in the country make fighting extremely difficult and conflicts tend to die down at this time). That’s not to say the Taliban have it all their own way – it is essentially a Pashtun-based ideology comprising about 50% of Afghani tribal cultures – making them the largest ethnic group whereas Afghanistan but far from exclusive.

Nevertheless, preparations are being made for a Taliban authority – either as some form of power sharing or as a full Taliban Government. The Taliban are banned in Russia and China as a terrorist organisation, however Moscow has recently waived certain aspects of this to host discussions with them. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met a Taliban delegation last week in Moscow, where the Russian Foreign Ministry was given a request to ease sanctions upon them. That extended not just to Russia but a request that such a message was passed to the UN Security Council – of which Russia and China are full members.

There are mechanisms to lift sanctions on the Taliban – UN Security Council Resolution 2513 explicitly frames the possibility of lifting sanctions and pushing forward an Afghanistan peace process. These were passed last year, and welcome a Taliban commitment to prevent any group or individual, including Al-Qaida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of other countries. It also emphasizes the importance of the group’s commitment to participate in intra-Afghan negotiations with all sides to discuss and agree on a political settlement. In addition, the Security Council resolution opens the door to sanctions against the Taliban being dropped given the right circumstances and progress in peace talks, stating “Readiness upon the commencement of the intra-Afghan negotiations to consider the start of the review of the status of designations of individuals, groups, undertakings and entities on the list.” Interestingly, India is the current Chair of the UN sanctions committe as concerns Afghanistan until 2022. The danger is that India uses that to point fingers at Pakistan rather than attempt to resolve the Taliban issue. Pakistan has a population of 44 million Pashtuns, Afghanistan 14 million and India 3.5 million – which with a Hindu resurgent Indian Government is not an ideal balance to maintain sensibiities over religious conflicts.

The good news is that the Taliban are negotiating. The bad news is the difficulty in forging some form of Taliban power-sharing agreement. However, provided the less-militant aspects of the Taliban leadership can be muted, the prospects are not unreasonable. Russia and China as lead nations of the SCO have considerable regional knowledge and have been able to build the SCO over two decades into a considerable regional force – albeit one that until now has yet had to deal with a security problem of this magnitude.

For Russia, China and Central Asia, the goal remains peace and trade, which was not completely the modus operandi of the United States, who wished to secure gas resources through pipelines via US built contractors and US energy companies and were quite prepared to fight for them. This was based on proposed pipelines to be built from Turkmenistan, across Afghanistan and to Pakistan. The background to this, together with US interests in doing so can be found here; it is not insignificant that then US President George W Bush was also on the boards of several of the US energy companies involved, while numerous executives were financially supportive of his election. The project foundered because the Taliban would not permit the building of such a pipeline viewing the financial terms as ‘unfavourable’ to Afghanistan. The result was a war, only partially based on the terrorism angle – which had been carried out by Al-Qaeda, not the Taliban. In essense, the United States and NATO have been fighting the wrong enemy in Afghanistan for twenty years.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the emergence of massive Russian gas fields have changed the picture. Although Turkemenistan remains an important global producer – it has the worlds fourth largest reserves of LNG – those pipelines now head east, across Afghanistan, Pakistan and to India – the TAPI pipeline, which is now operational and produces both energy and transit revenues for Kabul. The Taliban have recognised its financial importance and are unlikely to destroy it. That was built with financing from the Asian Development Bank to which China is a large contributor, and there have been discussions to extend in into China’s Xinjiang Province.

Both Moscow and Beijing recognise the importance of developing peace through trade, and future plans for this as concerns Afghanistan are already in place. These include the building of a Trans-Afghan railway which would link Uzbekistan to the north with Pakistan’s Arabian Sea Ports at Karachi and Gwadar, effectively linking Afghanistan to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This would also connect with the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) which traverses Iran north to south and has a spur which currently terminates at the Iran-Afghan border. There are plans to extend that to Kabul.

On top of BRI and Russian infrastructure builds are additional trade incentives, with Iran joining the Eurasian Economic Union, and China, India, and Pakistan all negotiating free trade deals and Uzbekistan considering this. The EAEU already includes Russia and the Central Asian states of Kazakstan and Kyrgzstan in additional to Belarus and Armenia (also linked to the INSTC). This eliminates trade tariffs and is designed to encourage regional commerce. If these plans and tax reductions can be co-ordinated – as seems likely – then Afghanistan can start to re-invent itself as an important Central Asian trade and transit nation, with links through to each of its neighbors – an immediate market of 400 million Muslims.

China, for its part, is hopeful and has already been building Special Economic Zones as part of CPEC to encourage investment in manufacturing and to urbanising and industrialising Pakistan. Some, such as Rashakai are close to the border with Afghanistan and partially designed to show the Taliban what can be achieved in providing wealth creation and security to their citizens – many of whom are currently living as medieval era peasants.

While this is a long road with plenty of twists and turns to be overcome, the new status of handling Afghanistan is a softer approach. Ex-Taliban militia can find employment in manufacturing, or as middle men adding value to transit trade. The onus is on the Taliban to behave, and once they have a voice within their own country, use that wisely. International recognition and awards such as Nobel prizes await those who can succeed, bringing an enhanced world role for the country. Peace can emerge from trade, and this has to be preferable to what went on before.

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