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Great Gains or Great Game?: Global Engagement across Central Asia

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Alexander Cooley in his book, Great Games Local Rules, describes a new great game where the post-soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan take orders from Moscow, Washington, and Beijing. He describes this geopolitical concept as a race in which the winner vies to take all in a battle to secure vital strategic interests.

This great game metaphor is appealing because it suggests that great powers still attempt to sway, coerce, persuade, and buy the loyalties of strategically vital governments. However, the new great game remains deeply blinding. Cooley mentions that as times have changed, so have the rules. Instead of dealing with local rulers, warlords, and chieftains, outside powers must now deal with nation-states and Presidents. These nation-states have inherited certain international privileges and opportunities that their earlier counterparts lacked. Cooley is correct to use the great games local rules metaphor in describing the current situation in Central Asia. However, a better metaphor, great GAINS local rules, given the current situation and differing perspectives in Central Asia, is even more accurate.

The great powers involved in Central Asia have different security, economic, and political goals. The great game of long ago was for power and control. Much of the contemporary battle viewed today is in securing the Central Asian region and adjacent regions to enable national economic interests and certain natural resources. These national economic interests often lead to conflict. According to Cooley, the Central Asian states have learned to play the great powers off one another for their local benefit. However, their exact tactics and demands depend on the institutional structures, capacity, and natural resource endowments bequeathed to them as independent states. Halvor Haggenes, in his thesis on Central Asia’s missing war, states that natural resources can act as both a mechanism for peace and armed conflict and thus it is never certain whether these new states will erupt into violence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even though many experts have predicted this for a generation. In fact, Central Asia has not seen any more violent conflict than other areas of the former soviet union (FSU) and some would argue that it has been remarkably stable, at least compared to the Caucasus and Southern Russia. However, unequal distribution of natural resources in the region is still a troubling source of potential conflict. Haggenes rightly pointed out that resource scarcity may just as well lead to conflict, especially if combined with other more justifiable security-oriented factors that can easily piggy-back on top of economic motivations and stimuli.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are both rich in oil and natural gas. Their engagement with outside powers has been mostly focused in developing their respective energy sectors. (Cooley) However, the countries are starkly different in how they pursue relationships and cooperation. Kazakhstan is more willing to build an international reputation and secure international approval for its policies. Turkmenistan, on the other hand, decided during Niyazov’s rule to completely isolate itself from unwanted sovereign interference and meddling. (Cooley)

Uzbekistan with some natural resources and having the largest population of the region competes with Kazakhstan for the mantle of most important Central Asian state. Uzbekistan has a slight transportation/transnational engagement advantage to the above-mentioned countries in the fact that it borders Afghanistan and every other central Asian state combined. However, the country has also at times clashed with the West on certain economic, military and political issues.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are resource-poor and increasingly weaker than the other Central Asian states and have failed to attract the interest of major international investors to a large degree. However, the attempted engagement of these states with foreign powers has led to increasing military-to-military cooperation by providing access to local military bases. In this sense both the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments have commodified their very territory to extract economic and political benefits. (Cooley) The fact that these countries are hosting military facilities for countries like Russia, France, India, and the US can arguably lead to tension if not outright conflict for the local and major players involved.

Foreign powers are seeking to improve the region’s security and hope to stabilize adjacent regions. This is their most important strategy. Simultaneously, the big three are also looking to secure certain resources for themselves, in particular oil and gas. Out of the three, China may be the only foreign power to secure major access to oil and gas in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and has rapidly completed the construction of new regional pipelines to transport this energy supply eastward. (Cooley) This success, however, could lead to conflict with neighboring countries that are resource-scarce and looking at ways to capitalize on what is becoming a truly global, transnational new Silk Road economic path to prosperity.

The entry of the United States and China, both as strategic partners and competitors simultaneously, has complicated Moscow’s efforts as it is looking to resume its “privileged role” in Central Asia. Since these states were a part of the FSU, there is at least a tactical if not strategic reaction from Russia to other foreign powers openly and freely engaging and wielding influence in its so-called ‘Near Abroad.’ While many in the academic and diplomatic communities have thought it safe to assume that conflict will stem from resource scarcity within Central Asia or from a larger geopolitical conflict involving the greater powers jockeying in the region, for the most part the countries of Central Asia have coexisted without nearly the level of conflict that the ‘New Great Gamers’ expected. (Cooley)

It seems like it should be possible for the great powers to coexist peacefully while conducting strategic interests in the Central Asian region. China has security ties with Central Asian states through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and conducts energy trade bilaterally. Turkey has an oil pipeline that connects their country with Central Asia. Iran is looking at ways to construct an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. Finally, Pakistan seeks natural gas from central Asia and supports the development of pipelines from its countries. All of these projects have the potential to be great producers of peace and stability. Unfortunately, these same projects have equal potential to be intensifiers of already existing tension and hatred, and ultimately becoming enflamed into real world conflict and war. Let us all hope that it will be the former and not the latter that rules the New Great Game.

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Why Central Asian Jihadists are Inspired by the US-Taliban Agreement?

Uran Botobekov

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Abu Yusuf Muhajir, the leader of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari group (second left)

Central Asian Jihadists Congratulate Taliban and Threaten Five ‘Stans’

Al-Qaeda-backed Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups were highly encouraged by the US-Taliban agreement which was signed in February 2020, aiming to bring peace to Afghanistan. Some Uzbek groups such asKatibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), and Tajik militants of Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), and Uighur fighters of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) from China’s Xinjiang region, have already expressed their clear opinion about this particular deal through their respective Telegram accounts. Some of the groups congratulated the agreement, while others dedicated emotional eulogies to the Taliban.

The KIB which is formed primarily from Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants from Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, was one of the first organizations to congratulate the Taliban, denominating as a “the great victory of the Islamic Ummah”. On February 29, 2020, Abu Yusuf Muhajir, the leader of KIB’s Syrian wing, in his congratulatory letter said: “The US and NATO forces, who imagine themselves to be the rulers of the entire world and the divine judges of human destinies, and claim divinity on earth have stunned the world with their humiliation, disgrace, and failure of the crusade.”

The KIB leader proceeds by saying that “the Americans were forced to sign an agreement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which they considered a helpless crowd and below their dignity, but they [the Taliban] survived all difficulties with the support of Allah and gained strength.”

Then Abu Yusuf praises the Taliban’s former Amir, Mullah Mohammed Omar, “who did not flinch at all when America, intending to extinguish the beam of Allah, had attacked Afghanistan.” The Uzbek jihadist leader quotes Mullah Omar’s words: “Allah has promised us victory, and Bush [US President George W. Bush] has promised to defeat us, so we, slaves of Allah, shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.”

“Despite the fact that the whole world helped Kafirs-invaders, today they experience the bitterness of defeat, because Allah was against them” he continues. Further Abu Yusuf Muhajir continues to extol the Taliban: “Neither the attacks of the infidels nor the arrests of the Mujahideen [holy warriors] could force the Taliban to abandon the path of Sharia.[UB1]  If the Taliban complied with the slightest condition of infidels [he means US condition for the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden], they could remain in power. But the Taliban’s leaders and glorious Mujahideen did not bow their heads to the Kafirs.”

At the end, he congratulated the Islamic Ummah for the Taliban’s ‘victory’ and attached to his letter a congratulatory poem, “My Dear Taliban.” The author glorifies the Taliban with such phrases:

“You became a hospitable Ansar [local fighters] for Muhajireen[foreign fighters];

You broke the Russians yesterday, and  defeated NATO and the US today;

Your song “La illahaillallah” as spiritual wealth;

May Allah give You a blessed Nusrat [victory].”

 It should be noted that KIB’s chief terrorist Abu Yusuf Muhajir is distinguished by his relentless oratory, reciting eloquently Surah and Ayahs of the Quran during Juma Khutbah [preaching].

Also, the ideologists and militants of KTJ in Syria, which swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2015, enthusiastically praised the Taliban’s “successes”. Today, KTJ’s Uzbek jihadists are fighting alongside the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the largest Sunni jihadist group in Idlib, against the Bashar al-Assad’s forces. One of KTJ’s propagandists on Telegram posted a short message that “today is a great day for entire Ummah because, after the 18-year war in Afghanistan, America humiliatingly acknowledged its defeat from the Lions of Islam. This victory came at the behest of Allah, who subordinated the chief Shaitan to Mujahideen.”

Jihadists of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari before the attack, Idlib, Syria.

On March 15, 2020, KTJ’s jihadists, appreciating the Taliban’s “successes”, threatened the Central Asian states through their account on Telegram channel named “Mujahideen of Sham”. Uzbek militants furiously reacted to the words of Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, who during the signing ceremony of the US-Taliban agreement in Doha stated that Uzbekistan would not interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. KTJ mocks Uzbek’s top diplomat by calling him Tahgut [Quranic term: who rebels against Allah and transgresses his will] and threatens by stating “soon the Shaitan regimes of Central Asia will burn in the flames of Jihad ignited in Afghanistan and defeated America considering itself omnipotent.” KTJ jihadists lionize the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed a peace treaty with the US. “In 2010, Baradar was in Karachi prison as a terrorist, and in 2020 he is already sitting in Doha, signing an agreement on the surrender of America, that is an amazing victory given by Almighty Allah”, says the end of the message.

The Uighur TIP on its radio Voice of Islam, published on its Muhsinlar.net website on March 7, 2020, praised the Taliban’s victory and described the Afghan government as traitor.

Taliban is Perceived as ‘Godfather’ of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups

Thus, the US-Taliban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, designed to put an end to the 18-year war, sharply raised the morale of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. They did not hide their cheery emotions on social media,  and even further posted gushing praises to the Taliban and widely expressed ‘Takbir’ [“Allah is greater”, used in prayer, as well as to express victory, celebration or distress].

The reason for the delight of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups is apparent as many of them, such as the KIB, TIP, IJU, KTJ and IMU, have long-drawn and tight ties with both the Taliban and al Qaeda. They have a common goal in aiming to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Chinese region Xinjian, which would be governed by Sharia law, under the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. 

Many Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uighur extremists,persecuted by government forces in their homeland, were forced to flee and found refuge in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 until 2001. The ideological views of the Central Asian Muhajireen were formed and crystallized under the influence of al Qaeda and the Taliban, which portrayed itself as an exemplary Ansar [local fighters]. It was this that predetermined the further fate of the Taliban when a U.S.-led invasion toppled its regime for providing refuge to al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Then the Central Asian jihadists so deeply integrated into the ranks of al Qaeda, which today has become the Taliban’s Achilles’ heel in its relations with Washington.

The main point of the Doha agreement is the Taliban’s obligation to sever ties with al Qaeda and other Central Asian terrorist groups and disallow them to threaten the security of the US and its allies using Afghan soil. However, the agreement lacks specific mechanisms, timelines and evidence of breaking the Taliban’s ties with al Qaeda.

Judging by their reactions, the Central Asian jihadists are not at all concerned about the Taliban’s commitment to break ties with al Qaeda. For them, the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s return to power and the establishment of Islamic Emirate based on Sharia law were a long-awaited treasured dream that could come true anytime from now. They are sure that after 18 years of joint jihad against “the Western crusaders” and when the sacred goal is just around the corner, the Taliban will not leave them.

Since July 2018, the UN Security Council has published several reports by monitoring teams responsible for assessing the status of al Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist organizations. These reports document the ongoing and close relationship of Central Asian terrorist groups with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. For instance, according to a new report released by the UN Security Council in 2020, “in Afghanistan continuing activity by the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement [former name of TIP], Jamaat Ansarullah, KTJ, IJU, KIB and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Approximately 400 foreign terrorist fighters from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan now plan to continue hostilities in conflict zones, transfer trained fighters to various countries to carry out terrorist acts and disseminate propaganda via the Internet.”

Regarding the ideological views on jihad and Sharia policy, the KIB is the closest group to the Taliban among the Salafi-Jihadi movements of the post-Soviet area. The Uzbek KIB, which publicly swore allegiance [Bayat] to the Taliban in 2014, has openly identified itself as an integral part of the Taliban. The group officially refers itself “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — Katibat Imam al Bukhari” and has the same emblem as the Taliban. KIB operates in both Afghanistan and Syria. The leader of the KIB’s Syrian wing is the aforementioned Abu Yusuf Muhajir, who congratulated the Taliban in poetic form. 

 KIB was sent to Syria from Afghanistan by the Taliban and Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the Taliban’s top deputies and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. According to the UN Security Council, “the leader of the Afghan wing of KIB, which mainly operates in the northern Afghan province of Faryab, is Jumaboi Aka, a former member of IMU.” The US State Department designated KIB to the list of global terrorist organizations affiliated with al Qaeda on March 22, 2018. The UN Security Council particularly concerned that “KIB leaders view Afghanistan as a new staging ground to project attacks against neighboring Central Asia countries.”

It is a well-known that the al Qaeda-affiliated TIP and the Taliban have a long and trusted relationship based on the general principles of Jihad. The UN Security Council confirms that “the ETIM/TIP’s leadership and Uighur militants remain present in Afghanistan.” The TIP’s emir, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, who is a steadfast brother in arms of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Haibatullah Akhunzada, periodically claims his unfailing allegiance to both al Qaeda and the Taliban. The TIP’s top leader, who was even appointed a member of al Qaeda’s elite Shura Council in 2005, has ardently criticized ISIS as an ‘illegitimate’ Caliphate and tried to maintain the unity of Sunni Salafi-Jihadi groups under the leadership of the Taliban. Abdul Haqlater followed the example of his ideological patron, Osama bin Laden, who had personally sworn bayat to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader.

Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups IJU, KTJ and IMU, which are mainly comprised of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz, also fight under the auspices of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The UN Security Councilstated that “IMU is now integrated into Taliban forces operating in the Provinces of Faryab and Zabul”, while “IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, is operating primarily in the Afghan Provinces of Badakhshan, Sari Pul and Takhar.” Almost all of the Central Asian terrorist groups in Afghanistan via Telegram channel reported that they had participated in Taliban’s “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations” last year.

The statement of Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada after the Doha agreement, posted on the Taliban’s website, saying “the termination of occupation of Afghanistan…is the collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation”, became a compass for Uzbek and Uighur militants. Thus, the UN reports show clearly the ongoing and close relationship between the Taliban and Central Asian terrorist groups. Therefore, it is clearly seen why there is a common thrill of the US-Taliban peace agreement which they labelled as “Victory”.

What the US-Taliban deal means for Central Asia?

Now that the US has legitimized the Taliban by concluding a “peace” deal with them, five Central Asian governments will be forced to build bridges with the Taliban. Prior to this, only Uzbekistan had informal contacts with the Taliban, organizing an Afghanistan peace conference in March 2018 in Tashkent.

Post-Soviet nations know that the Taliban will control Afghanistan in the future. For them, the main security challenge remains al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups and the remnants of the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) operating in Afghanistan, who dream of building an Islamic Emirate in the Ferghana Valley of Central Asia.

The US-Taliban deal has already inspired Uzbek and Uighur militant groups fighting in Afghanistan and Syria. Their propaganda, as we witnessed above, claims that the Taliban vanquished the Americans and already forces them out of Afghanistan. KIB and IJU used the US-Taliban deal to recruit new militants from Central Asia. On April 2, 2020, Uzbek Jihadists media center Khorasan Ovozi (Voice of Khorasan) on the Telegram channel posted that “the Mujahideen managed to break the invincible US army, tomorrow we will come to you, but today you can make hijra [migration] to Khorasan and join our ranks.”

The Taliban factor also could provide inspiration and a morale boost to underground radical Islamists inside Central Asia and encourage them to raise arms against secular regimes. If in the future the Taliban comes to power and establishes Sharia rule in Afghanistan, this could increase the activity of the Islamic opposition in the Five “Stans”.

There are no illusions that the Taliban will so easily and quickly abandoned al Qaeda and Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, who are closely aligned with the Bayat, which means the sacred Quranic Oath for all of them. Moreover, the Taliban’s structure is rather fragmented and networked, among which there are many local armed leaders who respect the relationship with Muhajireen. Therefore, it should be expected that their relationship will develop in an secretive manner until the US leaves the country.

Therefore, Central Asian pro-Moscow authoritarian regimes must seriously prepare for a new redistribution of power and resources in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops, which could be accompanied by hostilities and felt far beyond Afghanistan’s borders and for several years to come. The “peace” agreement strengthened the Taliban’s already strong position, who demonstrates its clear desire by forcing to seize power and not to share with anyone. After the deal, they intensified the attack on government forces.

If the US will not retain control to keep the Taliban on a shorter leash, then soon the main actors in the conflict may return to the battlefield and Afghanistan may again relive its four decades of civil war story. As the bitter experience of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq has shown, al Qaeda, ISIS and other Central Asian terrorist groups take root only in war-torn soil.   

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Russia-China relations: Engagement abilities in managing their differences in Central Asia

David Ceasar Wani

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Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Beijing have converted their relationship from being Cold War rivals to become realistic partners with a common goal of pushing back at a Western-dominated international system. Their relationship is strategic and opportunist but noticeable by progressively well-matched economic, political, and security interests. Sharing a geopolitical worldview of multipolarity, they mutually have firm desires to contain Western power and seek to accelerate what they see as the weakening of the United States. With a collective desire to shift the focus of global power from the Euro-Atlantic space to the East, they aim to redraft at least some of the rules of global governance, signifying that their partnership is becoming progressively strategic. Yet the Chinese-Russian relationship is complex, with lasting uncertainty on both sides which is the common phenomenon in world politics. Despite the grand drives for cooperation uttered by the two countries’ leaders, attaining applicable results often escapes them, predominantly in the Russian Far East and the Arctic, where understanding the overabundance of trade, investment, and infrastructure deals announced since 2014 has been challenging. Regardless of the difficulties faced by both countries the level of engagement in these stages has tested Russia’s and China’s abilities to manage their differences and interpret the rhetoric of corporation into solid gains.

 Russia China Bilateral Ties

China Russia relations, also known as Sino-Russian relations and this refers to international relations between the people’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Diplomatic relations between China and Russia dramatically improved after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991. American scholar Joseph Nye argues: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, that de facto US-China alliance ended, and a China-Russia rapprochement began. In 1992, the two countries declared that they were pursuing a “constructive partnership”; in 1996, they progressed toward a “strategic partnership”; and in 2001, they signed a treaty of “friendship and cooperation.

All through at the end of the Cold War, few would have foreseen a full-bodied Russian-Chinese relationship in the twenty-first century, the two countries have had a long, complex, and touchy history dating back to the 1800s when Russia’s eastward expansion across Siberia and the Russian Far East led to China conceding over 1.5 million square kilometers of territory to imperial Russia. Shocked by war and uprising in the twentieth century, both countries became brief allies after the Communist Party takeover in Beijing in 1949, as Moscow dispatched technical aid, financial assistance, and political advisers to China. At the time, Moscow was firmly the leader of the global socialist movement and saw itself as by far the stronger partner in the Sino-Soviet relationship. However, the two countries divided ideologically during the Nikita Khrushchev era, becoming Cold War opponents by the 1960s with a highly armed and disputed border that pushed4,380 kilometers. A series of border clashes in 1969 left scores of mostly Chinese soldiers dead.

Russia and China on a multilateral basis

On a multilateral basis, China and Russia began harmonizing their positions in the United Nations (UN) and other international bodies in the 1990s. In 1997, for example, they presented to the United Nations General Assembly a “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New World Order,” and the was an early signal of their shared antipathy of Western dominance in the international system and their desire to rebuild it to their benefit. They both promote the United Nations as a key pillar of the international system, because of the authority and influence that their status as permanent Security Council members provides. They similarly have worked together in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the East Asia Summit, G20 group of prominent economies, and the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to support their interests. In 2003, they both pushed back at the UN against the Iraq war, and they criticized (although neither vetoed) the West’s military intervention in Libya. Today, both frequently highlight the instability that Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow brought to the region.

Conversely, since then, Moscow and Beijing have worked together to challenge principles of the U.S. led international system to which they share an aversion. They have collaborated to protect fellow authoritarian states from human rights criticisms and outside efforts to change their political trajectories. They branded Western democracy promotion as an example of destructive, unhelpful, and intolerable interference by strong powers in the internal affairs of sovereign states. They also look to each other for models for ensuring regime stability and domestic governance. Beijing, for example, has passed legislation similar to Russia to limit the activities of non-governmental organizations and limit their ability to accept foreign funding. Moscow similarly is trying to join aspects of China’s internet firewall to gain greater control over information flows on the Russian-language internet. Moscow’s new laws banning virtual private networks (VPNs) appear to be following the Chinese model of fastening down on VPNs and other internet proxy services that allow users access to websites that are restricted by the state. They likewise have collaborated in numerous international settings to increase the power of states over the internet, challenging the free flow and access of information, and seek to reduce the power of the West over decisions concerning global governance. However the Russian Chinese political, economic, and international ties Developments have led Beijing and Moscow to promote their “strategic partnership,” claims that have only strengthened since Putin’s “pivot to Asia” in 2013 and Russia’s break with the West after the Ukraine crisis the following year. Both countries see the other as a useful counterbalance to U.S. influence. Besides, with its traditional sources of capital now restricted due to sanctions, Russia sees China as a provider of funds to support its struggling economy. China, meanwhile, benefits from Moscow’s efforts to prevent Western military and economic power internationally, conceding leadership to Russia in opposing Western policies abroad, while benefiting by receiving minimal blame. Yet when Russia and China have come together in Central Asia, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic, their interests and realities on the ground have tested their ability to manage differences and sustain this strategic alignment.

Central Asia race

Central Asia is witnessing a key rebalancing of power with Russia declining and China emerging as one of the region’s most influential players. China’s rise in Central Asia is due to its wide-ranging vision for regional connectivity, an appetite for Central Asian energy resources, and generous reserves, which it distributes to Central Asia through commercial investments, loans, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and several other entities. Unlike the West, China makes no demands for political reform from Central Asian governments. Unlike Russia, Beijing does not use political pressure to keep the region in its general orientation. The lack of an obvious political agenda other than regional stability, which Beijing believes can be guaranteed through economic development, makes China particularly attractive to local governments.

Although China’s presence is mounting across all of post-Soviet Eurasia, its increasing geopolitical and geo-economics influence is most outstanding in Central Asia, which is where China has learned how to manage Russian concerns over its growing regional influence. Through the BRI predictable to increase Chinese influence throughout Eurasia, including Russia, sustaining positive dynamics with Moscow in Central Asia will remain one of the most important tests of Chinese political and economic diplomacy; so far, Beijing appears up to that test. China is smart in managing Russia because Beijing engages with Central Asia primarily on economic issues; it has made no explicit push into political or military concerns. While Beijing’s soft power is growing in Central Asia, it still cannot compete with Russia’s media presence in the region or the fact that Russian universities, particularly those in Siberia, remain more widespread than Chinese ones, although the number of Central Asian students studying in Chinese universities often with heavy earnings from the Chinese government is on the rise. From 2005 to 2015, the number of Kazakhs studying in China increased from 781 to 13,198, while the Chinese government now offers twenty-three academic scholarships to Kyrgyz citizens wishing to study at Chinese higher education institutions.

Conclusion

in conclusion ,Russia and China have become increasingly close partners on the global scene, motivated to work together both to pushback at what they consider the United States’ pursuit of repression and to change a Western-dominated international system that they observe as disadvantageous to them. They have resented Western efforts to promote human rights and good governance, seeing the West’s push to create more open political or economic systems as part of a comprehensive and corresponding attempt by the United States and Europe to promote regime change for geopolitical advantage. These collective views have pushed the strengthening of their bilateral relations, efforts that have only enhanced since the start of the Ukraine conflict in 2014. The utmost hazard to Western interests from the increasing strategic partnership between Russia and China does not come from any of any country in the region. But it instead emanates from the two countries’ common efforts to adjust the international system to their advantage. Furthermore, in this regard, Washington should support economic cooperation. On the other hand, the degree to which the Sino-Russian alliance may become anti-American and anti-Western in the future depends on how deeply the two Eurasian powers feel that the United States threatens their interests. While it values friendly relations with both countries.

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Qassem Soleimani’s Broken Dream in Central Asia

Uran Botobekov

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Exactly two months ago, Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was killed, whom the Shiite world considered a national hero, while the Sunni regimes of the Arabian Peninsula regarded him as evil incarnate. What legacy has Soleimani left in Central Asia? Will the Iranian policy in Central Asia change after the loss of its most influential military strategist? Is the threat to US interests in the Middle East and Central Asia “after Soleimani” gone?

Central Asia after Qassem Soleimani

The five post-Soviet countries of Central Asia are cautiously following the development of confrontation between the US and Iran trying to take a “middle ground” without interfering in “someone else’s war”. Neither political leaders nor the foreign policymakers of these Muslim republics expressed their condolences to Iran on the occasion of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force (IRGC-QF). The books of condolences for General Qassem Soleimani at the Iranian embassies in Central Asia did not contain records even of mid-level officials. Kazakh president Kassym-JomartTokayev expressed his condolences to the Iranian people, not because of the assassination of Major General, but because of the crash of a Ukrainian airliner mistakenly downed by IRGC during the so-called “Iran’s revenge missile attack” at US military base in Iraq on January 8, 2020.

The analysis had shown that Central Asia’s presidents tried to overlook the fact of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. Even Moscow’s position, condemning Washington for the murder of “Putin’s friend” and expressing condolences to Iran, could not force Central Asian leaders to speak about their own opinion on this event. Yet it is no secret that due to its economic and political influence, Moscow plays a key role in the foreign policy orientation for these post-Soviet republics. Such demonstrative “neutrality” is connected, first of all, with the concern of the region’s leaders that the US-Iran conflict in the Middle East could reflect onto Central Asia’s neighbor, Iran. Consequently, it could be expected that Central Asian governments will try to find a “diplomatic balance” between Washington and Tehran, as they wish to maintain cooperation with each of them individually. As a result, they will not openly take either side in the US-Iranian confrontation to the detriment of one of them.

After losing its distinguished military strategist, not a single high-ranking Iranian politician has yet visited Central Asia. Tehran’s attention today is turned to the Middle East where it makes clumsy attempts to oust the United States from Iraq. The Trump administration pursues a comprehensive policy aimed at maximum pressure on Iran not only in the Middle East but throughout the world, including the Central Asian region.

On February 3, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Central Asia, where within the framework of the meeting of the so-called C5+1 he defended US strategic interests, including aimed at minimizing Iran’s influence in the region. A month earlier, January 7, 2020, Alice Wells, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, during a meeting with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, stated that “the chaos and unrest created by Iran directly through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threaten Tajikistan’s security and stability.” However, this time as well, Tajikistan, balancing between Washington and Tehran, cautiously circumvented the US-Iran confrontation and did not comment on the destructive activities of Iran’s Quds Force and the role of its former leader Qassem Soleimani.

However, unlike government officials, middle-level politicians and analysts widely commented on Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, blaming the US of “imperial behavior”. For instance, Tajik politician Shodi Shabdolov compared Trump’s actions, who ordered the neutralization of Qassem Soleimani, to a madman. He added that if a war between Washington and Tehran begins, it would be the end of the US, as it underestimates Iran’s military power.

Another well-known analyst, head of the Tajik Political Scientists Association Abdugani Mamadazimov, noted that Soleimani’s liquidation opens the door to a hybrid war, during which American embassies and other institutions in the region and in Europe can become targets for attacks by pro-Iranian Shiite militias. An analysis of local media showed that some public figures and organizations working closely with Iran for many years have expressed their support for Tehran and consider Qassem Soleimani to be a Shahid (Martyr)

Qassem Soleimani’s Shadow in Central Asia

The political elite and security agencies of newly independent Central Asian states knew first-hand Qassem Soleimani, who twice, officially and secretly, visited the region to strengthen Iranian military interests in the late 90s and early 2000s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran seriously intended to expand its influence into Central Asia, using Islamic commonality, its transit attractiveness with access to Persian Gulf’s trading ports and common language factor with Tajikistan. It is known that Tajiks and Iranians are the closest related peoples in the world, speaking the same Persian language. During his presidency, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had declared Tajikistan as an integral part of the “Great Persian World”.

To expand Iranian military influence, Tajikistan has become an ideal launching pad, the army of which was the weakest in the region, requiring external financial and technical assistance for modernization. Soon, Tehran began to actively use its leverage in the seven-year civil war in Tajikistan, playing the role of a mediator between the government of Emomali Rahmon and the Tajik Islamic opposition leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, in essence, providing hidden support to the latter.

Iran planned to realize the strengthening of its influence in Central Asia in two directions. The first provided for the establishment of political, economic and cultural cooperation with the government of Rafsanjani. The second way concerned the strengthening of military cooperation between the two countries and the creation of informal militarized groups within the Tajik Islamic opposition, focused exclusively on Tehran. The second focus was under the personal control of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who gave the task to his right-hand man, the Quds Force’s chief Qassem Soleimani to assess the prospects of creating Iran’s effective system of informal leverage in Central Asia opposing the United States.

For the first time, Qassem Soleimani visited Tajikistan on January 18, 1999, at the head of the Iranian military delegation, during which he met with Tajik Minister of Defense SheraliKhairullaev. According to the Tajik Ministry of Defense, the parties discussed the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding in the field of security between the two countries. The two generals agreed to form a joint intergovernmental defense commission.

As one of the participants in that meeting later told, General Qassem Soleimani surprised many with his pronounced modesty and courtesy. He spoke in a quiet calm tone, without drawing attention to himself, which is not typical for post-Soviet military commanders educated in the spirit of Russian military traditions. His visit went unnoticed, with no media attention.

However, the real reason for Soleimani’s visit was to protect Iran’s interests in Afghanistan after the Taliban executed 8 Iranian diplomats. But instead of confronting the Taliban from the Iranian border, Soleimani directed the operations in support of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the “Northern Alliance,” from the Tajik border. This was a unique case when the interests of the governments of Central Asia, Iran, Russia and the West coincided against the Taliban, and Soleimani successfully implemented the model of proxy warfare.

According to local sources, the second time Qassem Soleimani secretly visited Central Asia through Turkmenistan after September 11, 2001. But information about the purposes of his visit and the participants of the meeting is practically not available. Perhaps his visit was related to the upcoming deployment of U.S. troops in Central Asia, which Tehran considers a threat to its security.

Unlike the Middle East, Iran failed to create its proxies in Tajikistan. The main obstacle to the creation of the pro-Iranian Network was the difference in religious views between Central Asian Sunni Islam and Iranian Shiism. The majority of Central Asians belong to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which doesn’t accept Shia ideology in the region. Qassem Soleimani, as a realist military strategist, soberly assessed the situation that Iran would not be able to create strong levers of pressure in the region with the help of fragmented Tajik Islamists. In addition, Russia could not allow the creation of Iranian interests in Central Asia, which it considers a zone of its influence. Soleimani convinced Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of the futility of creating pro-Iranian proxy groups in Central Asia. He expressed his concern that funding for Tajik radical Islamists could push Dushanbe away from Tehran, and, as a result, Khamenei abandoned this venture. What Iran failed to achieve in Central Asia, it more than compensated for in the Middle East ten years later.

After 15 years, Major General’s concerns have come true. Relations between Tajikistan and Iran seriously deteriorated in 2015. Tajik authorities accused Iran of supporting the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), attempting a coup d’état in the country and training Tajik Islamic militants in Iran. Iran incurred Tajikistan’s profound rage in December 2015, when Iran’s top leader Ali Khamenei received IRPT leader MuhiddinKabiri, who left the country due to political persecution of the authorities.

After the failure of Iran’s plan in Central Asia, Qassem Soleimani brilliantly completed the task assigned to him by Ayatollah Khamenei in the Middle East. He successfully created a pro-Iranian Shi`a Foreign Fighter Network of 50 000 bayonets, which became an effective tool of Tehran’s influence in the Middle East. Today Soleimani’s unique creation, Shia proxy groups such as Hezbollah, Liwa Fatemiyoun, Liwa Zainebiyoun, al-Hashd al-Shaabi, Asaib Ahl al- Haq, play the role of Iran’s shock transnational terrorist forces against interests of US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.

Iran-Central Asia Military Cooperation: Problems and Challenges

As we said above, the official government of Iran conducted military cooperation with Central Asian countries. In order to jointly combat the threats of terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking, Iran has signed a package of bilateral treaties with all governments of Central Asia.

 In particular, there are intergovernmental agreements between Iran and Uzbekistan on Border cooperation, Cooperation in reducing drug use and controlling the production of narcotic and psychotropic substances. In June 2000, a Memorandum on cooperation in the fight against terrorism, transnational crime and illegal migration was signed between the National Security Service of Uzbekistan and the Ministry of Information of Iran, which performs the tasks of intelligence, counterintelligence and counter-terrorism. 

However, the military cooperation between Uzbekistan and Iran was sharply reduced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the deployment of the U.S. military base in Uzbek Khanabad to combat international terrorism in Afghanistan. Tehran was opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia. Moreover, Uzbekistan was alarmed by unofficial allegations that Iran allegedly provided asylum to the militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its leader, Tahir Yuldash, after September 11, and the Iranian secret services allegedly trained and supplied them with documents, weapons and explosives. Tehran has repeatedly denied the allegations. However, given the fact that the IMU was closely linked with Al Qaeda, and after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, Iranian authorities allowed Osama bin Laden’s family to reside temporarily in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan, the claims of the Uzbek side about Iranian secret service would possibly have a solid foundation

Despite the denial of Iran’s intelligence services of any ties with the IMU, this assumption left a deep distrust between the two countries. Fearing Tehran’s declared “export of the Islamic revolution”, although this did not fit into Iran’s policy in Central Asia, President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, sharply reduced economic, cultural and military ties with Iran.

The political leaders of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were not interested in military cooperation with Iran because of their pro-Western views. They actively participated in the NATO Partnership for Peace program, under which they received military and technical assistance from Western countries and trained their military personnel in Russia. The activity of the U.S. military base at Bishkek’s Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan (2002-13) and the participation of Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping troops in the U.S. led coalition in Iraq (2003-08) deterred Iran’s desire to military cooperation with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

 Iran tried to develop close military cooperation with Tajikistan and through it to extend its military influence in Central Asia. The only Iranian military attaché in Central Asia worked at the Iranian embassy in Tajikistan, who was responsible for the development of military cooperation with other countries of the “Five Stans”. 

 Military delegations of Iran and Tajikistan regularly made mutual visits. More than 20 agreements were signed between the Ministries of Defense of these two countries, in particular, the Memorandum of understanding on military-technical cooperation, the Agreement on cooperation in training of the military personnel, and also Intergovernmental Memorandum of fighting organized crime and drug trafficking. In addition, the Iranian-Tajik intergovernmental commission on defense was created and conducted regular meetings.

 In 2005, Tajikistan began to cooperate with IRGC. The leadership of the IRGC declared its readiness to cooperate in training Tajik military personnel on the basis of two Iranian military universities in the fields of engineering and military medicine, communications and electronics. Iran also expressed readiness to send its military advisers to Tajikistan to train 500 Tajik soldiers to participate in maneuvers and to work out attacks in mountainous areas. Tehran was willing to take on the costs of their training.

 In 2010, the Ministry of Defense of Iran launched an initiative to develop military cooperation in the framework of the Union of Persian-Speaking Nations between Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran. According to the Iranian side, such cooperation can be effective in the fight against drugs and international terrorism and will ensure security in the region. 

 However, Iran failed to fulfill its intentions to expand cooperation with Central Asia in the military-technical sphere for several reasons. First, Russia was and remains the main military partner of Tajikistan, which did not allow the expansion of Iran’s military influence in the post-Soviet space. Tehran’s recognition of Moscow’s special interests in Central Asia forced Iran to hold its horses in the region, and such deft diplomatic maneuvering has been appreciated by the Kremlin. Tehran’s diplomatic courtesy in Central Asia allowed it to create a tactical alliance with Russia in the Middle East. According to Reuters, it was Soleimani who personally persuaded Putin to intervene in the Syrian war during an unofficial visit to Moscow in July 2015.

Secondly, the problematic state of Iran’s economy, the low potential of its national military industry, and outdated military equipment were an inhibiting factor of Iran’s ambitions.  

Thirdly, the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran played an important role to curb Iran’s military influence in Central Asia.

In conclusion, Iran’s strategy in Central Asia after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani is unlikely to change. It is to be expected that Tehran will continue to pursue its policy in the region taking into account Russian interests. The tactical alliance of Moscow and Tehran, and their strategic interests today are directed against the expansion of US influence in Central Asia and the Middle East.

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