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It’s Hard to Find a Black Cat in a Dark Room, Especially If It Isn’t There: RAND on the Search for Cyber Coercion

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What is cyber coercion and how have states used cyber operations to coerce others? These are the questions addressed in the RAND think tank’s recent reportFighting Shadows in the Dark. Understanding and Countering Coercion in Cyberspace“. The authors discuss cyber operations conducted by four states — Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — and try to determine whether those activities amounted to cyber coercion.

Starting with the study findings, we will highlight the following points. Cyber operations intended to coerce are a small subset of overall cyber operations globally. Espionage remains the predominant purpose of states’ cyber operations. Despite that, the authors think that states like Russia and North Korea appear to be more likely to have used cyber operations as a coercive tool than China and Iran. The authors also find that, contrary to what coercion theory would predict, states do not make distinct threats with unambiguous demands for changes in behaviour often. Instead, they deny responsibility, hiding behind proxies. Despite the low probability of success, the authors anticipate states will continue to use and may, in fact, come to employ cyber operations more often in the future to coerce. To prepare for this outcome, the United States and its allies need to work now to develop methods to discern cyber coercion as it emerges and strategies to deter and counter it in the future.

Even though the report has certain scientific value, the authors have left quite a lot of space for criticism. First, we need to examine several serious methodological issues. Second, setting aside the fact that the study was sponsored by the United States Department of Defence and its affiliated entities, the authors specifically mention that they only used data from open sources. Indeed, the evidence is mostly taken from reports published by companies such as Mandiant and its eventual buyer FireEye, whose leadership has certain connections both with the Department of Defence and with the U.S. intelligence community. So the evidence of countries’ involvement in cyber operations cannot be seen as objective. Finally, it is lamentable that the ways suggested by the authors for solving problems are strikingly one-sided and do not contain the slightest hint of any possible affirmative action.

Coercion

The authors attempt to base their methodology for defining coercion in cyberspace on the seminal work by the American economist Thomas Schelling Arms and Influence, among other things. They claim that Schelling described two forms of coercion: active coercion (compellence) and passive coercion (deterrence). In their words, the former involves the active use of force in some form to compel action by another. In contrast, the latter involves the threatened use of force to either motivate action or refrain from a particular activity. Schelling himself says the following:

“… partly deterrence has been a euphemism for the broader concept of coercion, as ‘defence’ has replaced words like ‘war’ and ‘military’ in our official terminology. It is a restrictive euphemism if it keeps us from recognizing that there is a real difference between deterrence and what, in Chapter 2, I had to call ‘compellence,’ that is, a real difference between inducing inaction and making somebody perform.” [1]

“… brute force succeeds when it is used, whereas the power to hurt is most successful when held in reserve. It is the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, that can make someone yield or comply. It is latent violence that can influence someone’s choice — violence that can still be withheld or inflicted … The threat of pain tries to structure someone’s motives, while brute force tries to overcome his strength. Unhappily, the power to hurt is often communicated by some performance of it. Whether it is sheer terroristic violence to induce an irrational response, or cool premeditated violence to persuade somebody of your intent and willingness to repeat, it is not the pain and damage itself but its influence on somebody’s behaviour that matters. It is the expectation of more violence that gets the wanted behaviour, if the power to hurt can get it at all.” [2]

It is obvious that Schelling draws a clear line between deterrence and coercion and, more importantly, points out that coercion implies limited use of force: force plays a secondary part, while the central condition is threatening damage.

Further, while describing the logic of coercion, the authors quote several scholarly works that repeat the key points made by Schelling. In one of them, coercion is summarized with the phrase “if you do not do X, I will do Y.” [3] Another work states that a coercive action or threat “demands clarity in the expected result … [and to] be accompanied by some signal of urgency.” [4] These appear to be true and ought to have been taken as the basis. Yet the authors of the report choose another path: they declare that the observed practice differs from the theory of cyber coercion (which, it should be noted, was inferred from practice) and claim that demands and threats expressed as part of such coercion are sometimes ambiguous, as identification of the threatening party can be. But what remains of coercion if its defining characteristics are removed? Large-scale cyber-attacks are not just a show of force but achievement of specific objectives, so they have nothing to do with coercion.

The above seems to challenge the accuracy of the question asked at the beginning of the paper under review: “What is cyber coercion?” Let us first consider what coercion is. It appears to be primarily a form of policy aimed at maintaining or changing the existing order of distribution of power and wealth in the global community [5]. From this standpoint, the essence of coercion is to change the political behaviour of other actors in the global political arena with the possibility of a limited demonstration of force that does not escalate into full-scale warfare. To some extent, the essence of coercive policy is described in the Art of War by Chinese General Sun Tzu: “Therefore the skilful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.” Even so, coercive violence is also possible: discussing this, Schelling cites an example from the history of the Wild West: raids on some Indian settlements were intended to break the resistance of and subjugate all tribes. But here the Indians were clear about the source of the threat, the possible consequences of resistance and the demands that were put forward, as well as the ways out — either to submit or to retreat.

If we base our discussion on the above premise that coercion is a form of policy, a more appropriate question arises: can cyber-means be used to implement a coercion policy and, if so, how effectively? Based on the definition of coercion, its implementation generally requires A to demand that B change its policy in a specific way — with a demonstration of force that can be used to its full extent if the demand is not satisfied. In individual cases, demands, threats or demonstration of force can be implicit. Still, it is evident that the victimized party needs to be aware of such risks and understand them correctly. This imposes certain conditions on the means used for implementing a coercion policy.

The ICT environment has a number of properties making it an attractive medium for influence. First of all, it offers anonymity and action across borders, which complicates attribution, i.e., identification of the source of influence. The “plausible deniability” of involvement in cyber-attacks is one of their most significant benefits as a military-political tool. Experience shows that cyber-attacks can be used to project and demonstrate power. Still, the party that uses them for coercive purposes has to assume responsibility or reveal its involvement in some other way. According to some statistics, numerous cyber-attacks are carried out against the Russian public infrastructure every day (2.4 billion hostile actions were detected in 2017, rising to 4 billion in 2018). Recognizing a demonstration of force or a demand to change one’s policy within such a torrent of events appears impossible. Using the possibility of a cyber-attack as a threat also seems ineffective because it allows the potential adversary to prepare for the attack and to fend it off.

Public Policy

The authors of the report claim that, as the development of more connected and interconnected information systems and networks proceeds, the potential for actors to use cyber operations to exert influence and impact the economic, political, and social wellbeing of other states is incresing. When examining possible episodes of cyber coercion, however, the authors confine themselves to just four key global political actors identified by the U.S. Government: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. For each country, open-source research was conducted to develop an overview of their capabilities, published doctrine on cyber operations, as well as available data on government-affiliated cyber operations groups.

The authors’ research into doctrines and documents disclosing states’ positions concerning operations in cyberspace is incomplete, inconsistent and sometimes merely erroneous. For example, when quoting strategic planning documents of the Russian Federation, the authors state that “[a]lthough Russia sees its adversaries conducting such [information] operations against it, these writings indicate how Russia thinks about the potential role for cyber operations in its operations as well.” Here it would suffice to consult the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ Information Space Activities Concept, which reads: “Cyberspace conflict settlement shall be carried out in the first place by means of negotiation, conciliation, addressing to the U.N. Security Council or regional agencies or agreements, or by other peaceful means.” The authors also quote Chinese experts, who point out a whole range of disadvantages of network deterrence and coercion operations, above all the fact that the ambiguous nature of cyber operations may reduce their efficacy [6]. Successful deterrence and coercion results from effective signalling — the adversary must first be aware of the source and motivation for the influence for it to take actions expected by the attackers. The authors conclude that China “is taking a more circumspect approach to using cyber operations for coercive purposes, focusing largely on stealing data or silencing critics of the regime. China may, however, seek to expand its use of cyber operations to coerce in the future.” It is an entirely groundless conclusion, especially considering all the disadvantages the Chinese experts have pointed out.

As for the specific cyber capabilities of each state, the work done by RAND is not based on concrete facts. For example, as corroboration of the claims of Russia’s involvement in cyber-attacks on Montenegro in 2018, they refer to an article stating that: “Three international I.T. security companies say the emails [containing malware] came from APT28, also known as Fancy Bear, which U.S. intelligence services say is connected to the Russian military intelligence service, GRU.” China’s involvement in cyber-attacks on South Korean networks and systems, as well as other episodes of cyber influence, are proven similarly. A case from 2017 is mentioned, when the U.S. Department of Justice brought cyber-espionage charges against three employees of the Chinese company Boyusec. Even though federal prosecutors deliberately avoided the question of whether Boyusec was affiliated or connected with the Chinese government, private sector representatives noted that they assumed that Boyusec had been working for the Ministry of State Security of China. Myths are born from repetition and persistent emphasis on facts long disproven. For instance, Russia is alleged to have carried out cyber-attacks on Estonian government agencies in 2008, even though this allegation has long been refuted: an independent investigation confirmed that the operation was, in fact, the work of activists with no government affiliation.

The RAND report relies on a biased selection of evidence provided by entities associated with the United States intelligence community, and it gives the impression of stretching facts to create a negative image of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as malicious actors in cyberspace. Meanwhile, it is the current U.S. strategic planning documents that articulate a clear vision of a threat to freedom and democracy and set the goal of ensuring peace using force. This implies identifying adversaries and exerting influence using all available means. Coercion policy has already become the norm in the United States. Take, for example, this summer, when The New York Times published a piece claiming that the U.S. secret services have carried out offensive operations against the Russian electricity grid and power plants. The purpose of that publication is still unclear: was it a leak and, if so, was it intended? Or was it disinformation? U.S. President Donald Trump accused journalists of treason, and representatives of the U.S. National Security Council said there were no risks to national security. If we take the lead from RAND, however, and look at the broader context, we see that, against the backdrop of tension between Russia and the U.S., this publication was a clear signal of coercive policy.

Establishing peace through force does not provide a mutually acceptable mechanism for reducing tensions in the ICT sphere. And though, as the authors themselves note, not all of the cases examined in the report are explicit acts of cyber coercion, it is necessary to develop the means to detect early signs of cyber coercion and to craft deterrence and resilience strategies. It is assumed to be enough to respond successfully to cyber coercion. The authors see no ways of solving the problem other than developing strategies to counter this phenomenon (it may be assumed that those will include all available means, including “public attribution”).

In conclusion, the authors repeat the message that cyber operations may not be accompanied by clear signalling of a threat or expected behaviour, let alone means that can be used for coercion. It is also challenging to determine what exactly cyber operations carried out against another country are aimed at. Maybe the argument would benefit from Occam’s methodological principle: “entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” Indeed, just as the authors state, ICT tools are widely used by many states to accomplish military and political objectives. Yet, if an action is not aimed at changing the political behaviour of another country and if there is no direct threat or use of force (which would be a violation of the United Nations Charter, by the way), should we speak of so-called coercion or is it just regular cyber activity, which is now commonplace? A vivid example of a coercive policy that is mentioned, but not discussed by the authors, is the cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear programme facilities in 2010. First, specific countries demanded that Iran wind down its nuclear programme. Second, there was talk of a possible strike if the conditions were not fulfilled. As we know, Iran did not change its policy, and the cyber-attack that followed was not an act of coercion or a limited demonstration of force but fulfilled particular tasks: Iran’s nuclear programme was slowed down considerably.

What we need is not strategies against cyber coercion, which RAND experts call for, but international frameworks for precluding conflicts in cyberspace. One such framework could be built up from the norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviour in the ICT environment formulated by the international community through the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts.

From our partner RIAC

1. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966., P. 174–175.

2. Ibid. P. 3.

3. Erica D. Borghard and Shawn W. Lonergan, “The Logic of Coercion in Cyberspace”, Security Studies, Vol. 26. No. 3, 2017, pp. 433–34.

4. Christopher Whyte, “Ending Cyber Coercion: Computer Network Attack, Exploitation and the Case of North Korea”, Comparative Strategy, Vol. 35, No. 2, 2016.

5. For a definition of policy, see Kokoshin A.A. Global politics: theory, methodology, applied analysis [Mirovaya politika: teoria, metodologia, prikladnoy analiz]. Komkniga, 2005. ISBN 5484000874 (in Russian).

6. Shou Xiaosong, ed., The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], Beijing, China: Military Science Press, 2013, p. 194.

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The New World Order: The conspiracy theory and the power of the Internet

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“The Illuminati, a mysterious international organisation made up of the world’s top political and social elites, controls the workings of the entire world behind the scenes”. This is the world’s most famous conspiracy theory about the New World Order.

For hundreds of years, legends about the Illuminati have been spread and many people currently believe that the Illuminati still exist. It is believed that the Illuminati operate in various fields such as global politics, military affairs, finance and mass media and control the historical process of the entire world.

The ultimate goal is to establish a New World Order. Nobody can prove it, but many people believe it. This is the greatest paradox about conspiracy theories.

In the 2009 film, Angels and Demons – based on Dan Brown’s best seller of the same name about Professor Langdon, played by Tom Hanks – the story of the Illuminati, who supposedly originated in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, was recalled. There were physicists, mathematicians and astronomers who questioned the “erroneous teachings” of the authority of the Holy See and dedicated themselves to the scientific field of the search for truth.

Eventually, the Illuminati were forced to become a clandestine organisation and have continued to recruit members for hundreds of years to this day. In Angels and Demons, the historical facts are clearly questionable, and the movie appeared after the great economic crisis of 2007-2008.

The New World Order conspiracy theory has been circulating for a long time and is full of mysterious theories that, however, convince many people who are powerless and dissatisfied with the current state of the world.

The Illuminati, who advocate the establishment of a New World Order through the planning of a series of political and financial events (the financial tsunami of 2007-2008 is said to have been planned by the Illuminati), attempt to influence the course of world history, and ultimately establish an authoritarian world government.

Supporters of the New World Order theory believe that even the powerful US government is now just a puppet government. While another “shadow government” made up of a few people makes decisions that will change the fate of the planet.

You might think that all of the above is just crackpot theories. Many people, however, believe this is true. According to a 2013 poll conducted by the Public Policy Polling Foundation, 28% of US voters believe that the New World Order is actually taking hold.

Brian L. Keeley, a professor of philosophy at Pitts College who devotes himself to the study of modern conspiracy theories, believes that an important feature of conspiracy theorists is that they cite some trivial and overlooked incidents and then propose a perfect explanation compared to an embarrassed official response. The reason why the conspiracy theory explanation can be widely disseminated is that it has no argumentation process to deny. It is just a judgement that jumps directly from hypothesis to conclusion. In the argumentation process, it is only a subjective interpretation of the event.

Nevertheless, for the public that does not fully understand the incident, the conspiracy theory provides an “explanation” for the unknown part of the said incident, and this “explanation” cannot be denied (because its very existence is not corroborated by real arguments and facts). It is therefore recognised as a valid argument by many people.

For example, no one has substantial evidence to prove that the Illuminati actually exist, but no one can prove that the Illuminati are purely fictitious. Therefore, you cannot deny their existence because their existence is “perfection without evidence”.

Columnist Martha Gill wrote in The Guardian on the subject, describing the Illuminati as the most enduring conspiracy theory organisation in world history.

“Conspiracy theories relating to the 1969 moon landing mission, the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks, etc., are all limited to a specific time and place. But conspiracy theories supporting the existence of the Illuminati can connect them. Anything about these connections, however, is difficult to prove”. In other words, the supporters of conspiracy theories may have common imagination and attribute everything to this organisation, so that every irrational phenomenon in the world can be explained.

Although no one can prove the real existence of the Illuminati, there is actually an alleged “global shadow government” in the world whose name is the Bilderberg Group. The Bilderberg Group holds an annual world-class private meeting and participants include elites from all walks of society such as government, business, media, science and technology.

Known as the “World’s Most Mysterious Conference”, the Bilderberg Group invites various famous political and economic figures to participate in its meetings every year.

Prince Bernhard van Lippe-Biesterfeld (1911-2004) held the first meeting in 1954. As the venue for the meeting was the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, that name was used as the name of the group.

The existence of the Bilderberg Group is not a secret, but the content of the topics discussed at the Conferences is absolutely confidential and mainstream media cannot report on the content of the meetings.

The Bilderberg Group issues a press release every year to introduce the Conference participants and the outline of the topics discussed. Over the years, participants have come from many places, including Prince Philip of Edinburgh (1921-2021) of the British Royal Family, Crown Prince Charles, former British Prime Ministers, French President Macron, German Chancellor Merkel, former US Presidents Bush and Clinton, and even Bill Gates and other Internet giants. There were also Italians, as reported years ago in a newspaper of our country.

The 2018 Conference was held in Turin, Italy, in June. According to the description on the Bilderberg Group’s official website, the main topics included European populism, the development of artificial intelligence, quantum computer technology and the “post-truth” era. Obviously the actual content and results of the meeting’s discussion have never been reported.

Therefore, the Bilderberg Group has naturally become a locus where conspiracy theorists want to draw material. They describe the Bilderberg Group as true evidence of the theory that a very small number of elites controls the world, and the participants are planning a New World Order.

On the subject of strange things, let us give some examples. In June 2018, the British Royal Family was also caught up in conspiracy theories. When Prince Harry and his wife Meghan attended a show, they were caught on camera motionless, like two stiff and dull robots. Later related clips went viral on the Internet and netizens were in an uproar: many people believed that the distinguished members of the Royal Family were actually robots developed by high technology.

However, the management of the London museum, Madame Tussauds, later explained the mystery by stating that Harry and Meghan were only played by two actors who wore extremely high-realism wax masks on their faces – all to promote an exhibition of wax statues – and inadvertently caused an uproar.

In that short video, Harry and Meghan did not change their facial appearance and their expressions were stiff just like robots. Consequently, conspiracy theorists used this as evidence that they were robots secretly built by the British Royal Family.

This argument is an extension of the ‘trivial evidence’ mentioned above. The argument proponents ignore any argumentation process and directly draw the final conclusion through the above stated “trivial evidence”. This conclusion is highly topical and quite appealing. With the fast spread of the Internet, the “quick truth” will naturally be recognised and sought after by many people.

I think many people still remember the “Mandela effect” that spread wildly across the Internet in the early years as a false memory. The name “Mandela effect” is believed to have come from Fiona Broome, a self-described “paranormal consultant”, who created a website called the “Mandela effect”. Supporters of the ‘Mandela effect’ claim to “remember” that former South African President Mandela died in prison in the 1980s. But in reality, after being released from prison, Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and died in December 2013.

So why should anyone believe this seemingly absurd statement? The Internet has become a support platform for a lot of false content, fake news, as well as unreasonableness and lack of justification. When someone shared that ‘false memory’ with others on the Internet, many people believed it to be true, and even suddenly recalled having that memory: “Mandela died in prison that year”.

As a result, lies inconsistent with facts continue to spread. The lie is repeated thousands of times and many people consider it to be the truth: this learning phase is the first misleading rule on the Internet.

In the Internet era, multidimensional and multiplatform features have generated a number of online “malignancies” of conspiracy theories. Moreover, their dissemination ability is not limited to “believers” only. Since online social media provide a widespread and wide dissemination platform, one passes it onto ten people, ten spread it to a hundred, a hundred to a thousand, and so it goes on in geometric fashion, thus turning a ‘hot’ topic on the Internet into an absolute truth. Those who want to believe are naturally prepared and willing to do so. Moreover, these false opinions on the Internet may even have an impact on the real world.

For example, at the political level, everyone can now comment and participate in the online arena. For politicians to get the right to speak and set the agenda, the key is to rely on the public’s direction on the Internet. The Internet discourse has become the dominant factor of the political storytelling, and not vice versa. The characteristics of social networks are precisely the breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

The Internet is easy to spread among the public and it is exactly the breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

Nowadays, conspiracy theories are enough to influence politics and even political developments. A specific conspiracy theory gains a number of supporters through the Internet that promotes it to become a highly debated topic among the public. Consequently, it enters the real political arena coming from the virtual community and its influence can change the direction of governmental decisions.

Looking at it from another perspective, when conspiracy theories are put on the Internet and continue to proliferate – regardless of whether the Illuminati exist or not – they are enough to establish a New World Order. The real-world public opinions, as well as the composition of opinions and the basis of social discussions are changed, and thus world’s countries, politics and rulers are affected.

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USA and Australia Worry About Cyber Attacks from China Amidst Pegasus Spyware

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Pegasus Spyware Scandal has shaken whole India and several other countries. What will be its fallout no one knows as we know only tip of iceberg. Amidst Pegasus Spyware Scandal USA and Australia both have shown serious concerns about Cyber Attacks on US and Australian interests. Both say that China is hub of malware software and both face millions of such attacks daily.

I am trying to understand why a software is needed to spy on a particular individual when all calls, messages, data, emails are easily accessible from server. In most of cases these servers are located in USA and some cases these are located in host country. In certain sensitive cases Government Agencies have their own server like Central Intelligence Agency and hundreds of other agencies and military establishment world over including India. Now point is who installs those servers.

A couple of years back I had talked to Mr Mike Molloy who is Chief Executive Officer of Orion Global Technologies previously known as Orion SAS. He had explained me how his company installs servers in host countries on request of private or gov bodies. He talks about contract and trust. That means even when a company or Gov buys a server or software for designated uses the “Secrecy” Factor remain on discretion of company which has supplied server or software.

Now  if all data, e-mail, chat, messages, calls are accessible to Gov as per law and technology (Through Server all components of Communication are accessible and thats why  me and you see start seeing call recording of a person even after many years later), I am unable to understand why a Gov will be needing a software to Spy on any one.

Now coming to where Australia and USA wants to carry the whole debate.

Australian Foreign Minister Sen Marise Payne said, “Australian Government joins international partners in expressing serious concerns about malicious cyber activities by China’s Ministry of State Security.

“In consultation with our partners, the Australian Government has determined that China’s Ministry of State Security exploited vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Exchange software to affect thousands of computers and networks worldwide, including in Australia. These actions have undermined international stability and security by opening the door to a range of other actors, including cybercriminals, who continue to exploit this vulnerability for illicit gain”, She further added.

She opined, ”The Australian Government is also seriously concerned about reports from our international partners that China’s Ministry of State Security is engaging contract hackers who have carried out cyber-enabled intellectual property theft for personal gain and to provide commercial advantage to the Chinese Government”.

She warned China by saying, “Australia calls on all countries – including China – to act responsibly in cyberspace.  China must adhere to the commitments it has made in the G20, and bilaterally, to refrain from cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets and confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage”.

On other hand USA’s The National Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a Cybersecurity Advisory on Chinese State-Sponsored Cyber Operations. National Security Advisor said, ”Chinese state-sponsored cyber activity poses a major threat to U.S. and allied systems. These actors aggressively target political, economic, military, educational, and critical infrastructure personnel and organizations to access valuable, sensitive data. These cyber operations support China’s long-term economic and military objectives”.

The information in this advisory builds on NSA’s previous release “Chinese State-Sponsored Actors Exploit Publicly Known Vulnerabilities.” The NSA, CISA, and FBI recommended mitigations empower our customers to reduce the risk of Chinese malicious cyber activity, and increase the defensive posture of their critical networks. 

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Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geopolitical blocs

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pakistan-terrorism

Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini  and Varundeep Singh*

On July 14, 2021 a terror attack was carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in which a number of Chinese engineers, working on the Dasu hydropower project (a project which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) were killed. The attack predictably evinced a strong response from China. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi speaking before a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Minister’s meeting asked the Taliban to disassociate itself from ‘terrorist elements’ and in a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, asked Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to book. Earlier in April 2021, a car bomb attack took place at Serena hotel in Quetta which was hosting China’s Ambassador to Pakistan (four people were killed and twelve were injured)

Wang Yi significantly praised the Ashraf Ghani government, for its attempts towards building national unity and providing effective governance. Beijing clearly realizes that its economic investments in the country as well as big ticket infrastructural projects can not remain safe if there is no security. Afghanistan also criticized Pakistan for its role in sending 10000 Jihadis to Taliban, this is important in the context of the region’s geopolitics.

 Like all other countries, Beijing and Islamabad, would have expected uncertainty after the US withdrawal of troops but perhaps over estimated their capabilities in dealing with the turbulence which had been predicted by many.

Importance of Chinese Foreign Minister’s statements

Wang Yi’s statements are important because days earlier a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen had praised China and welcomed its role in the country’s reconstruction. He had also assured China that those involved in the insurgency in Xinjiang would not be given refuge in Afghanistan (one of China’s major concerns has been the support provided by Taliban to the East Turkmenistan movement)

While Beijing may have opened back channels with the Taliban and realized that it needs to adapt to the changing geopolitics, recent developments would have increased its skepticism vis-à-vis the Taliban. On the other hand, Russia has been more favorable towards the Taliban. Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission in India, Roman Babushkin argued that the Taliban are a reality which needs to be accepted, and also that any military activities without a political process are insufficient.

Babushkin did make the point that for successful negotiations, Taliban needed to end violence.

‘that Taliban should deal with the problem of terrorism and other related issues in order to become legitimate, in order to [get] delisted [at the UN Security Council], in order to go ahead with the future Afghanistan and creation of the inclusive government

It would be pertinent to point out, that Zamir Kabulov, Russian President’s Afghanistan envoy went a step further and said that the Afghan government was not doing enough to make talks with Taliban a success.

China’s statements subtle warning to the Taliban, indicating its reservations, and praise of Ghani indicate a possibility of greater understanding between Washington and Beijing (even though Beijing has repeatedly attributed the current troubles in Afghanistan to Washington’s decision to withdraw troops).

Can US and China find common ground

 It remains to be seen if Biden who has exhibited dexterity on a number of complex issues reaches out to Xi Jinping to find common ground with regard to Afghanistan. Significantly, while US-Turkey relations had witnessed a downward trajectory and Biden has been critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and Human rights record, both leaders met on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in June 2021. During the meeting Turkey agreed to secure Kabul Airport. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan while commenting on Turkey’s assurance said

‘The clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we are now working through how to execute to get to that,’

Taliban earlier this week warned Turkey of ‘consequences’ if the Middle Eastern nation increased its troop presence in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Russia’s statements with regard to the Taliban indicate that it is not totally on the same page as China (its prior experience in Afghanistan has made it more cautious and circumspect), and that the Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geo-political blocs and traditional lenses. All major stakeholders in Afghanistan, both within the region and outside, seem to be understandably befuddled by the turn of events. It is not just the US, but even China which would be worried not just from an economic stand point but the overall security implications of the turmoil in Afghanistan. The terror attack in KPK indicates that other CPEC related projects could also face threats from militant groups. Beijing would thus need to be quick to react to the overtures from the Taliban in order to secure its economic assets and lives of Chinese workers in neighbouring Pakistan.

 It is especially important for Washington, Beijing and other important stakeholders in the region to work together for dealing with the near term turbulence as well as long term challenges Afghanistan is likely to face.

*Varundeep Singh is an Independent Policy Analyst.

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