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CIA National Intelligence Estimates on the Cross-Strait and Sino-Russian Relations

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In July 2011, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) published a declassified National Intelligence Estimate on “Russian-Chinese Relations: Perspectives and Implications” dating back to September 2000. The 45-page report highlights growing concerns in the American intelligence community about the future of Sino-Russian defense and trade cooperation, which could undermine Washington’s Smart Power in Central Asia and the South China Sea. However, the document also underlines the relationship between Russia and China “would not deepen much beyond its current state» and could even be «subject to occasional friction“.

The People’s Republic of China is perceived by the CIA as sceptical of US influence abroad at the moment of the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate (September 2000), the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade (May 7, 1999) becoming the symbol of animosity between the two countries.

Twenty years later, geopolitical tensions remain, as underlined by American support for the protests for greater autonomy in Hong Kong (2019), and Washington’s pressure on Beijing with the accusation of the military origins of Covid-19 (2020).

In 2020, all US attempts to implement Western Soft Power in China — with the exception of Hong Kong and Macao — have had mixed success. Washington’s struggle to establish mutual trust with Beijing is similar to that of Western European countries, and the tormented past and Chinese colonisation by the West is still a contentious issue.

In Western institutions, Chinese recovery of sovereignty goes back to December 20, 1999, with the transfer of Macao from Portugal to the People’s Republic of China. To the Chinese leadership, the inference by Western power is still going on with the US support to Taiwan (sales of US arms) and the Japanese presence around the Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands (Japanese Senkaku Islands) backed up by Washington.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, statement by Yang Jiechi in July 2019:

“Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory. The sale of US arms to Taiwan seriously violates the One China Principle and the three joint China-U.S. communiqués, undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests, and seriously undermines peace and stability across the Strait.”

Ultimately, Beijing’s desire to overtake the United-States (eg. Chinese space program) would be motivated by the post-colonial trauma, the desire to regain control of Taiwan and attempts to gain the respect of former European colonial powers and Washington.

Sino-Russian relations may prove to be better than Sino-American relations. Nevertheless, and as the declassified CIA document of 2000 points out, bilateral cooperations between Moscow and Beijing remain difficult because of the Soviet Union’s Changing Policies on China’s Nuclear Weapons Program (Zhihua Shen and Yafeng Xia. Between Aid and Restriction: The Soviet Union’s Changing Policies on China’s Nuclear Weapons Program, 1954-1960. Asian Perspectives, 2012).

As of today, Beijing is ready to support Moscow because the two countries share the same views on multilateralism. However, Beijing has not shown any support to Russia’s diplomacy in the Black Sea (Crimea, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia) and the Middle East (Syria). To date, China does not recognize the Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, and has rejected offers to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries.

This research paper will focus on two reports — CIA National Intelligence Estimate (1999) “China-Taiwan: Prospects for Cross-Strait Relations” and CIA National Intelligence Estimate (2000) “Russian-Chinese Relations : Prospects and Implications” — to explain how the CIA views Beijing-Taiwan and Beijing-Moscow relations in the late 1990s, after the return of Hong Kong (United Kingdom until 1997) and Macao (Portugal until 1999) to the People’s Republic of China.

The analysis will also highlight how the Balkans and the Black Sea conflicts have a direct impact on Chinese diplomacy according to the two declassified intelligence estimates of the CIA.

The CIA National Intelligence Estimate on “China-Taiwan: Prospects for Cross-Strait Relations” (NIE 99-13 – September 1999)

After the return of Hong Kong and Macao to the People’s Republic of China, the United States is the only Western power capable of hindering Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea (Taiwan). CIA reports in the 1990s, unlike those produced earlier by the CIA during the Cold War, attempted to determine whether Taiwan should remain an independent country backed up by Washington or follow the British and Portuguese examples of Hong Kong and Macao.

The CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate “China — Taiwan: Prospects for Cross-Strait Relations” published in September 1999, supposed to cover the evolution in the upcoming 3 years (2000–2003), and declassified in July 2011, answers this question and highlights the scenarii in which China could decide to regain control of Taiwan by military means.

The report has been produced at a critical moment in Sino-American relations because the return of Hong Kong and Macao under Chinese tutelage leaves the United States as the only military power capable of counterbalancing China’s regional ambitions, as Japan and South Korea do not have a nuclear strike force, unlike Great Britain.

Mention should be made of China’s rise to power, which is implied in the report. With the incorporation of Hong Kong and Macao, China has increased its GDP by attaching two bastions of capitalism, thereby weakening the British and Portuguese economy on the one hand and increasing the financial performance of Beijing on the other.

The CIA report also comes at a time when tensions between Washington and Beijing are increasing due to the NATO bombing of the People’s Republic of China embassy in Belgrade (May 7, 1999). The Balkans (Serbia) and the Caucasus (Chechnya) are recurring themes in the NIE on Taiwan, but also in the analysis on Russian-Chinese relations (CIA National Intelligence Estimate “Russian-Chinese Relations: Perspectives and Implications“).

The NIE is relying on complementary analysis conducted by several US institutions, including the following ones mentioned in the beginning:

  • NIE 98-05, “China’s Conventional Military Forces: Current Status and Future Capabilities (1998-2008)”, released in June 1998
  • China’s Strategic Priorities and Behaviour“ supposed to be published later in 1999

The number of specialized reports on Cross-Strait relations underlines the priority for the CIA to increase its expertise on the People’s Republic of China for military and diplomatic reasons in the late 1990s. These reports, which cover a period of three years, also highlight the rapid evolution of Chinese diplomacy and military power after the Cold War.

Beijing’s approach regarding partially recognized states in Asia (Taiwan)

The bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Serbia is considered a key moment in relations between Beijing and Washington, and the CIA National Intelligence Estimate does not mention the voluntary or involuntary nature of the bombing.

CIA director George Tenet testified before a congressional committee that the bombing was the only one in the campaign organized and directed by his agency. According to George Tenet, the CIA had identified the wrong coordinates for a Yugoslav military target on the same street (Tenet George (1999). DCI Statement on the Belgrade Chinese Embassy Bombing House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Open Hearing. Central Intelligence Agency). It is therefore interesting that the NIE does not mention the nature of the bombing. However, a report mentioning the voluntary nature of such an action would probably not have been declassified.

Following the bombing, China’s position vis-à-vis the United States presence in Asia will become even more sceptical and, unlike the United-Kingdom and Portugal, the possibility of negotiating with Washington regarding Taiwan’s future tainted by the bombing in Serbia.

The CIA considers that Beijing has a comfortable position in Asia since the Europeans left Hong Kong and Macao, and believes that “China is convinced that Taiwan will not gain more influence” and that “greater economic interdependence between China and Taiwan will bring the two entities closer together.”

Unlike other de facto states such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Europe, which live on economic and military aid from Moscow because Georgia and the West do not want to increase their economic relations with the two territories, Beijing seems to have adopted an innovative strategy regarding Taiwan (also considered to be a de facto states according to the People’s Republic of China’s law). China is thus developing its commercial relations with the Island, hoping to see the two entities move closer together.

Beijing wishes to develop its relations with Taiwan in order to bind a prosperous territory when the time comes (like Hong-Kong and Macao) and to user Soft Power and economic ties instead of Hard Power. That is why Beijing wants to put more pressure on the United States to reduce the sale of arms to Taiwan and focus on economic cooperation.

Moreover, the NIE mentions that Beijing wants to make Hong Kong an instrument of Chinese “One country, two systems” propaganda. In this way, Chinese leadership wants to present the future of Taiwan as similar to the future of Hong Kong, with a commitment to economic prosperity and more freedom compared to Mainland China.

The Chinese approach is presented as slow and gradual. According to the report, China has no deadline for reunification and the certainty Taiwan “will not gain influence in the coming years”. In addition, the CIA claims that China will not engage in a military confrontation with Taiwan as this would be detrimental to its economy and international trade. China’s wish is therefore to impress and frighten Taiwan and the United States.

China’s Smart Power and the United Nations

In order to recover control over Taiwan, Beijing is ready to use a combination of Smart Power and international pressures in international institutions such as the United Nations (UN).

According to the NIE, Beijing suspects that Japan and Taiwan have a secret military agreement. In addition, China is trying to weaken the United States and all states — such as Panama — that have good relations with Taiwan, using all available means to ensure Taiwan will be internationally isolated.

Moreover, the CIA believes the more tension there is between China and the United States, the more Washington will be willing to support the island. In this sense, there is an interest for Taiwan to push for more confrontation between the two superpowers in order to improve the bilateral relationship between Taiwan and Washington.

According to the analysis, if the United States does not show firmness towards Beijing, the possibility of a domino effect is to be feared, and recovering control over Taiwan will then lead to increased pressures from Beijing on Japan and South Korea. In that sense, Taiwan needs to be defended by the United-States in order to contain China’s influence in the whole South-East Asia. Following this reasoning, and according to the CIA analysis, the reunion of Taiwan and China will mark the beginning of the United States’ withdrawal from the Asian continent and further changes for Japan and South-Korea.

Finally, the most singular point of the CIA report on Cross-Strait Relations is that it takes us back to the Balkans several times. Beijing is said to have put pressure on Northern Macedonia (Macedonia before 2019) because of its diplomatic relation with Taiwan. China is said to have vetoed the presence of peacekeepers in North Macedonia at the UN to show Beijing’s power on the European continent, a strong signal sent to several countries that might require UN assistance in the future.

Beijing could thus use the UN and other international institutions to influence the entire Balkans and the Black Sea by recognizing new countries or refusing to recognize them (eg. Abkhazia) and destabilize the European continent.

The CIA analysis thus lays the foundations for the Chinese strategy regarding the non-recognition of Kosovo (de jure a part of Serbia before partial recognition in 2008) to weaken the West, and at the same time the non-recognition of Abkhazia, Transnistria, South Ossetia to weaken Russian, and the non-recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh to weaken Armenia.

Beijing’s policy in Europe regarding de facto and partially recognized states will have consequences for the recognition of Taiwan and vice versa. In this sense, the CIA underlines how international institutions can be used by Beijing to achieve its objectives and how its policy in Europe is related to Taiwan.

The CIA’s Red Lines

These are the scenarii that could prompt Beijing to conduct a direct military attack on Taiwan:

  • Taiwan new referendum on Independence
  • Foreign support for pro-independence forces in Taiwan
  • Taiwan development of nuclear weapons
  • Political instability on the island

Despite this, the CIA believes that China will follow its plan to develop Soft Power in the coming decades, as relations with Russia will bring economic prosperity and military cooperation in order to counterbalance American influence in Asia.

The relationship between Moscow and Washington is not present in the NIE on “China-Taiwan: Prospects for Cross-Strait Relations” and we have to focus on the National Intelligence Estimate on “Russian-Chinese Relations: Perspectives and Implications” to understand how Sino-Russian relations are done in order to diminish the US influence in Taiwan.

A section entitled “What if we were wrong” also shows that the CIA is unsure of future developments, although it does present possible scenarii. Moreover, Washington does not seem to be ready for military intervention (no details in the report) and military support to Taiwan will probably take the form of military equipment only.

Conclusions on the National Intelligence Estimate “China-Taiwan: Prospects for Cross-Strait Relations

In May 2020, the US State Department authorized a possible sale of eighteen MK-48 Mod6 Advanced Technology Heavy Weight Torpedoes and related equipment for an estimated cost of $180 million to Taiwan.

In response to the announcement Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on May 21, 2020, that:

“China is firmly opposed to the US arms sales to Taiwan and has made solemn representations to the US. We urge the US side to strictly abide by the one-China principle and the provisions of the three Sino-US joint communiques, and stop arms sales to Taiwan and military links between the United States and Taiwan to avoid further damage to Sino-US relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

Some 20 years after the publication of the CIA National Intelligence Estimate report “China-Taiwan: Prospects for Cross-Strait Relations,” the approach between the United-States and China seems to show no significant change. Beijing opposes any US military presence and equipment sales to Taiwan, while the United States is not ready to abandon the island for fear of losing influence in South Korea and Japan.

Another element that emerges from this report is the CIA’s anticipation of China’s diplomacy regarding de facto and partially recognized states in Europe and the influence they have on contemporary Chinese diplomacy at the UN, bilateral relations with Moscow (Crimea, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia), Armenia (Nagorno-Karabakh), and the West (Kosovo).

The report also bears witness to the upcoming ambivalence of relations with Russia, which wants China to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia (de jure independent according to Russia and de jure part of Georgia according to the West).

On reading the CIA report, it is clear that Beijing will not vote in favour of diplomatic recognition of any de facto states in Europe in the late 2000s, forcing it to reopen the debate on the recognition of Taiwan and the application of the Montevideo Convention.

As the CIA shows, relations between China and Taiwan will lead to a debate on the recognition of Kosovo, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and possibly Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Although apparently focusing on Taiwan-China relations, the report provides multiple references that link Taiwan and Chinese diplomacy to the Balkans and the Caucasus, as evidenced by the reference to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the lack of support for UN Peacekeepers in North Macedonia.

The CIA National Intelligence Estimate on “Russian-Chinese Relations: Perspectives and Implications” (NIE 2000-10C–September 2000)

Alongside reports on Beijing’s growing influence in Asia, the CIA conducted a study on relations between Russia and the Republic of China during the same period (1999-2000). The NIE on “Russian-Chinese Relations: Perspectives and Implications” is partially declassified, and a considerable part of this study remains “top secret” (pages 27-36) to this day.

The early release raises the question of whether it is worthwhile for CIA archivists to provide access to the document in question, especially in view of the classification, which usually includes results that must not be accessible to the public before several decades:

  • The elements of the report that are now accessible are no longer of strategic interest (which is the case for the majority of declassified archives).
  • The CIA report shows that relations between Russia and China are ambiguous, and could lead to a form of discord between the two superpowers.
  • Technological developments (Russian S-400; Chinese J-20) are showing the report no longer covers contemporary military threats.

It seems important to mention that at the time of disclosure (2011), Russia has not yet returned to the international arena and is in the process of losing ground in Central Asia and the Black Sea area. Russia’s comeback goes back the Crisis in Crimea (2014 — nowadays) and the launch of the Eurasian Economic Union (2015).

The CIA could therefore have downgraded a document, like those on the USSR, without envisaging that the latter might have a deeper strategic relevance a decade later in 2020 and that Russia would experience a significant resurgence of influence.

Political Coordination and the fight against American unilateralism

From the very beginning, the NIE on Russia-China relations mentions the next 5 years ‘would not develop in a manner that is threatening to the US and might even stabilize Asia.’ The report adds that the 2000s will see an increase in arms sales between the two countries, particularly of SA-10 and SA-20 (S-300PMU-1/2 (SA-20)) from Russia to China.

Sino-Russian relations, in line with the CIA’s vision, should stagnate and focus on economic cooperation without any further political and military integration. The CIA also claims that the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will continue to sell military equipment because the Russian economy would struggle to without China. Beijing should also agree on buying more Russian military equipment because the People’s Liberation Army wants to scare Taiwan with military technology that can compete with that of the United States. According to the report, the Russian approach would be to sell military equipment in the hope that this would lead to the sales of other non-military products to China in the future.

As the NIE shows, Sino-Russian relations should not lead to supranational cooperation:

  • The Kremlin is afraid China could become more powerful economically and militarily and thus threaten Washington’s influence in Asia and Moscow’s influence in Central Asia.
  • China is skeptical regarding Russian policy since the 1950s because of the lack of support from Moscow for the development of an independent Chinese military nuclear programme (Chinese CHIC projects).

However, both countries wish to witness the emergence of a multipolar world and the attitude of American diplomacy in the 1990s has exacerbated tensions because neither Russia nor China seems capable of opposing Washington’s military ambitions. Indeed, Washington’s military power in the 1990s is such that the United States are able to bypass international bodies such as the United Nations.

The CIA therefore openly mentions the reasons for the fears of China and Russia in the 1990s, as these two countries were not able to contain American Smart Power:

  • Russia and China are angry at the American decision to launch air strikes against Baghdad (December 1998). France, Russia and China opposed such military intervention at the UN without any results.
  • Suspicion of NATO’s revised strategic concept of April 1999, which expands the geographic scope and justifications for the use of force.
  • Outrage at the US approach to the Balkan crisis from March to June 1999 and the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999.

Contrary to the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate (1999) “China-Taiwan: Prospects for Cross-Strait Relations,” the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade is mentioned as ‘accidental’ in the “Russian-Chinese Relations: Perspectives and Implications” NIE.

The CIA adds that cooperation between Japan and the United States could weaken both China and Russia, bringing Moscow and Beijing to adopt a shared policy in Asia. Moreover, to counterbalance American influence, Russia has decided not to support Taiwan, and China has decided to support Russian involvement in Chechnya. The CIA establishes a direct link between China’s diplomacy regarding Chechnya and Russia’s policy towards Taiwan.

The NIE does not fail to add that anti-American sentiment in both countries is also based on the fact that Moscow and Beijing are dealing with internal instability in the late 1990s.

The Balkan Crisis and the Sino-Russian Cooperation

Another part of the report which concerns the sale of arms from Moscow to Beijing requires attention. The CIA thus mentions that China will not hesitate to ‘shop around’ to find the best military equipments available on the international market. Although Beijing appreciates Russia for its quality and affordability, China seems to be interested in another supplier. The name of the country has been removed from the NIE and there is no evidence to identify it.

The National Intelligence Estimate states that the crisis in the Balkans is a key moment in Sino-Russian relations because it has brought Moscow and Beijing closer together in international institutions (UN) and in their anti-Americanism. However, the CIA believes Putin, contrary to Yeltsin, is “sceptical” when it comes to China. The NIE also mentions the new Russian president has a “mercenary” approach in his relations with Beijing (page 24).

What could undermine Sino-Russian relations?

The NIE tells a policy by Vladimir Putin aimed at redirecting arms sales to the West rather than to China could have a negative impact on bilateral relations. With regard to arms sales in the 2000s, it can therefore be said that the West, and in particular the United States, have chosen not to weaken relations between Beijing and Moscow. Indeed, the CIA could have encouraged partner countries to purchase Russian military equipment and thus counterbalance the economic weight of China in the Russian economy.

This option might have been considered at the beginning of the 2000s. However the successive crises — Kursk submarine disaster (2000), September 11 attacks (2001), Iraq War (2003), the financial crisis of 2007–08 — have made it difficult for a rapprochement between Russia and Western countries.

The report adds that Russia’s lack of support for China’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ project could also have a negative influence on relations. In the 1990s, Russia supported a more autonomous policy in non-recognized states. The CIA speculates that Russia might consider recognizing Taiwan, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria on the basis of the Montevideo Convention, which it will do for Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. The possibility of Russia recognizing Taiwan to justify its own recognition of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia is therefore a hypothesis suggested by the CIA in its report.

Finally, the analysis considers that China’s refusal to allow Russia to exert influence in Xinjiang and China’s western territories, as well as tensions in the Russian Far-East, could undermine bilateral cooperation.

In 2020, the context is rather similar and Beijing’s influence in Central Asia remains an issue as much as China’s influence in the Russian Far-East. Projects such as the Eurasian Economic Union (2015) are aimed at securing Russian control over Central Asia and halting the possibility of a political partnership between China and Central Asian countries. In fine, tensions between Moscow and Beijing remain, however both countries seem to have found a compromise with the coexistence of the Eurasian Economic Union supported by Russia and the One Belt One Road project sponsored by Beijing.

Sino-Russian Cooperation in Military Intelligence and/or Energy Cooperations (Classified)

The NIE remains partially classified to this day, and a considerable part (pages 27-36) has been deliberately omitted and its content is unknown. The US Department of Energy participated in the report (mentioned page 42) and the missing part might focus on Sino-Russian economic energy cooperations and pipelines.

However, the conclusion of the CIA report and the annex are mentioning a cooperation between Russia and China in the field of military intelligence (‘Russia-China Military Exchange’). It therefore seems inconsistent to see a conclusion on cooperation in this specific field when only one mention is made of it in the report (page 18). This first element leads us to believe the remaining part classified is linked to this issue. Moreover, the CIA had already made public a report on the subject “Soviet espionage schools” dating back to 1946. It therefore seems likely that the CIA will mention Sino-Russian intelligence cooperation in the National Intelligence Estimate on “Russian-Chinese Relations: Perspectives and Implications.”

On the basis of the report “Soviet Espionage Training Schools” (1946) report, one could put forward the idea that the NIE on Sino-Russian cooperation covers the following topics:

  • Suspicion of joint training between Russia and China in Tientsin and Beijing (mentioned in the 1946 report).
  • Joint training in Harbin at the National Defence Technology University. The CIA designates Harbin as the epicentre of Russia-China military relations, and to this day the National Defense Technology University remains an essential element in the training of China’s military elites.

In the NIE, the CIA also mentions that Russia is training Chinese troops in the handling of Su-27 (page 38) and Su-30 for a period of 6 months at the Krasnodar Foreign Pilot Training Centre.

In March 2000, Chinese students at the Smolensk Army Air Defence University are studying the strategy and systems of the SA-10 and SA-20 (S-300PMU-1/2 (SA-20) known as S-300 (NATO’s report name SA-10 Grumble), a series of long-range ground-to-air missile systems, first Soviet and then Russian, produced by NPO Almaz, based on the initial version of the S-300P.

The CIA claims that Russian commanders of the Siberian and Far Eastern military districts meet regularly with their Chinese counterpart in the Shenyang military region. The Russian GRU leader Korabel’nikov would have visited the PLA’s head of intelligence, Xiong Guangkai in June 1999.

Conclusion on the National Intelligence Estimates

The publication of the two NIE a decade later shows the capabilities of the US intelligence community and is an essential part of the CIA’s Soft Power. In fact, few intelligence agencies in the world can afford to produce and release such documents on the People’s Republic of China and Russia, and to provide details about the military cooperations between the two superpowers.

The choice to publish the National Intelligence Estimates may be linked to the fact that the documents are no longer relevant to the United-States and US allies. In January 2011, China unveiled its Chengdu J-20 fighter jet, and Russia’s weight in the Chinese defense industry is not the same as in the late 1990s, making the report outdated. Consequently, the documents are providing some interesting historical elements but need to be updated, especially when it comes to Russian and Chinese diplomacy regarding de facto and partially recognized states.

In 2000, it was difficult to know whether Beijing would be ready to recognize Kosovo, Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia or even Nagorno-Karabakh. On decade later in 2011, it is clear that Chinese diplomacy will not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia (recognized by Russia in 2008) and that Moscow will not venture to recognize Taiwan.

Finally, the report could shed light on the tensions between Russia and China in the 1990s, and its disclosure would therefore be aimed at creating tensions between the two countries.

It is also possible that the report’s analyses are irrelevant or even incorrect, and that its disclosure is intended to suggest that the CIA has shortcomings in Russian-Chinese relations, whereas the CIA would keep the best reports on the subject without disclosing them.

Both documents are based on previous CIA analysis on China and Russia. It can thus be seen that between 1946 and 2000, the CIA monitored relations between China and Russia and had at its disposal strategically knowledge such as the location of the joint training centre for Russian and Chinese officers in Harbin.

The most original aspect of these two NIEs remains the relationship between Europe (Balkans and the Black Sea area) and Chinese policy regarding Taiwan. The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade is perceived to be a key element in Sino-Russian relations, bringing the two countries closer together in their anti-Americanism. Moreover, the reports are establishing a connection between events in Europe and Asia, underlining both Moscow and Beijing have a global strategy regarding de facto states (Taiwan, Kosovo, Abkhazia, South-Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh).

The CIA report therefore takes on an additional dimension. Whereas organisations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) bring together de facto states in Europe to do a comparative analysis, the CIA has a worldwide approach and also includes Asian de facto states (Taiwan). Russia and China seem to have adopted the same approach and the Chinese policy in Chechnya is interconnected with the Russian diplomacy in Taiwan.

It can therefore be said that the US, Chinese and Russian strategies towards Taiwan, as well as towards partially and unrecognized states in Europe, are global and interconnected, raising questions about Washington’s interest in recognizing Kosovo in February 2008. The CIA was aware the diplomatic recognition of Kosovo would have an impact not only on the stability in the Balkans, but also on Russian and Chinese diplomacy in the Black Sea area (eg. recognition of Abkhazia and South-Ossetia by Moscow) and the South China Sea (more tensions between China and Taiwan).

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

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Intelligence

How Taliban Victory Inspired Central Asian Jihadists

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Old and young generations of Uighur jihadists

Following the fall of the US-backed Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani on August 15, al-Qaeda-linked Uighur, Uzbek and Tajik jihadi groups widely celebrated the Taliban’s “historic victory” over the “enemies of the Muslim Ummah”. In honor of the Taliban’s rebuilding of the Islamic Emirate, leading Jihadi groups from Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region issued special congratulatory statements, echoed jihadi nasheeds (chants of jihadi glory), arranged a festive feast for their Muhajeers (who immigrated to spread Islam and wage jihad) and gloatingly booed the US military forces leaving Afghanistan on jihadi media.

Turkestan Islamic Party called on all Muslims to unite around the Taliban as one body

Uighur jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from Western China, were one of the first to congratulate the Taliban victory. On August 16, in a statement of the TIP’s Syrian branch, released by its propaganda arm, ‘Muhsinlar’, Uighur militants congratulated the Taliban’s emir Haibatullah Akhunzada and all Afghan fellow believers on the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Notably, in its statement, TIP ‘discovered’ the root causes of the Taliban’s victory in the Muslim holy book of the Quran, which refers to Surah al-Fatiha “Indeed, we have given you, o Prophet, a clear conquest” (48:1). The TIP further emphasized that “one generation of Muslims have sacrificed themselves for the religion of Allah, for today’s boundless joy and rejoicing.” The Taliban’s victory is “a fruit of long and arduous struggle and God’s big gift to Muslims worldwide”, the statement reads.

The TIP’s Syrian branch has called on all Muslims to make dua’s (invocation of God) for the Afghan Mujahedeen, to cooperate and support their fellows of Taliban. Uighur jihadists emphasized the need for the integrity of the Islamic Ummah, which should be governed only by the rule of the Almighty as one nation and one country. At the end of the statement, TIP noted that “East Turkestan Mujahedeens, as an integral part of the Great Ummah, celebrated the historic victory of the Taliban with boundless joy, and will stand alongside them shoulder to shoulder.”

Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad’s amir Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki celebrates Taliban victory

It is recalled that ETIM was designated as a terrorist organization by the UN Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1390 on September 11, 2002, for its alleged association with al-Qaeda, its leader Osama bin Laden, and the Afghan Taliban. As part of the “global war on terror,” the US Federal Government designated ETIM as a terrorist organization on August 19, 2002. At that time, China skillfully took advantage of the situation emerging after the 9/11 attacks, achieving the recognition of ETIM as a terrorist group by many members of the U.S.-led “war on terror” coalition.

However, on November 5, 2020, the US Department of State removed ETIM from the blacklist, which provoked a fuming reaction from official Beijing. China on the other hand is pursuing a harsh repressive policy against the Muslim minority in its Xinjiang region detaining more than one million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in so-called “re-education camps.” Despite the US decision, the post-Soviet Central Asian countries, Russia and China did not exclude TIP from their banned list of terrorist organizations.

According to the latest 2021 UN Security Council’s report, “several hundred Uighur jihadists of TIP located primarily in Afghan Badakhshan and neighboring provinces, whose strategic goal is to establish an Islamic Uighur state in Xinjiang, China.” The report stated that TIP affiliated with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and their ties remain “strong and deep as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties.” Moreover, the notorious leader of TIP, Abdul Haq al-Turkestani, has remained a member of al-Qaeda’s elite Shura Council since 2005. For more two decades, the most wanted key Uighur jihadist has been openly loyal to the Taliban’s top leader Haibatullah Akhunzada and the al-Qaeda’s emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Today, all three top emirs are successfully continuing their faithful jihadi fellowship, skillfully hiding their close relations, and throwing dust in the eyes of the US and its Western partners, tired of the “longest war”.

Thus, it can be assumed that despite the Taliban’s warm relations with the Chinese government after their return to power in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that they will break ties with the Uighur jihadists of TIP. On the contrary, both are expected to remain loyal to the oath of allegiance (bayat). The long relationship between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and TIP has shown that the bayat has a sacred religious value for them.

Taliban is a source of inspiration for Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad

The Uzbek jihadist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) on its Telegram channel posted a video congratulating the Taliban on the victory over the most powerful evil empire in the world, which it considers the US. The congratulations were unusual, as the three KTJ leaders via video addressed the Taliban comrades in joint jihad in three official languages of Afghanistan – Pashto, Dari and Uzbek. In particular, the KTJ’s top emir Abdul Aziz al Uzbeki, whom the UN identified as ‘Khikmatov,’ spoke in Pashto, the military commander Sayfiddin in Dari, and the main ideologist of Central Asian Salafi Jihadism, the group’s imam Ahluddin Navqotiy in Uzbek.

Abdul Aziz glorified the Taliban’s victory over the foreign invaders and occupiers as a gift from Allah Almighty to the Ummah. He eulogized the vision of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s first emir, who once said, “Allah has promised us victory and America has promised us defeat, so we shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.” Top Uzbek jihadist further noted that “today, after a long-suffering patience, tireless struggle and great jihadi perseverance, finally came Nusrat (victory) in Khorasan, promised by Allah.” “Because the Mujahedeen are stronger in spirit and faith in God than the invaders, who, despite their military might and immeasurable wealth, fled the country in shame”, concluded Abdul Aziz.

Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad leader Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki (second right) and KTJ military commander Sayfiddin (second left)

Then, in an emotional speech, the group’s hard Salafi ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, congratulated the Taliban Mujahedeen on behalf of KTJ Muhajeers waging a jihad in Syria’s Idlib province against Bashar al-Assad regime and pro-Iranian radical militias. He expressed confidence that today’s Nusrat of Allah in Afghanistan will become the driving force behind the establishment of Sharia rule in Central Asia.

Noteworthy, the KTJ leader, Abdul Aziz, had close ties with al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, in particular with the Haqqani network. As a native of the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, Abdul Aziz made a hijrah (migration) to Afghanistan fleeing the repressive policies of Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the early 2000s. He waged a jihad in Afghanistan as part of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Then, in 2015, along with dozens of comrade-in-jihad, he split the group and joined the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a splinter faction of the IMU. At the time, Central Asian jihadists split over the internal conflict between al-Qaeda and ISIS struggling for the leadership of global jihad.

On August 20, 2015, when the IMU officially swore allegiance to the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the IJU followed in al Qaeda’s footsteps and renewed bayat to the Taliban’s emir Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. In May 2005, a decade before these events, the US government listed the IJU as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization in May 2005.

He belongs to the first generation of foreign fighters from Central Asia, who went through Taliban’s jihadi school in Afghanistan. He gained prestige among the fellow militants as a military strategist, and not as a deep scholar of the Quran or a public orator-ideologist of Salafi jihadism. In 2008-15, Abdul Aziz, along with the IJU’s leadership, was based in the al-Qaeda’s military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan. In one of his Jummah Khutbah preaching he admitted that allowing the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) to take refuge in North Waziristan saved the lives of many Uzbek jihadists from the US drone strikes. In 2019, Abdul Aziz made a hijrah to Syrian Idlib province and became the leader of the KTJ group.

Motivations and Strategies of the Central Asian Jihadism

The congratulations from the Central Asian Sunni militant groups to the Taliban were a vivid manifestation of their long-term and tested joint jihadi cooperation, which began in the late 1990s. Thus, Uighur’s TIP and Uzbek’s KTJ complemented a long list of global jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda’s Central Command and its franchises in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Hurras al-Deen (HD), Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Hamas, congratulating the Taliban on their ‘victory’ over the US and NATO forces.

To celebrate the Taliban’s ‘victory’, Uighur, Uzbek and Russia’s Caucasian Jihadists in Syria also hosted grand feasts for foreign and local Sunni Arab militants and heroized the Afghan Mujahedeen during Jummah Khutbah Sermons. The Central Asian jihadi media widely published photos and videos from these parties and against this background tried to recruit new supporters to make hijrah to Afghanistan and Syria to protect the values of Islam and wage the sacred jihad against the infidels. The dramatic picture of Afghan government soldiers fleeing to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan has made the Taliban and al-Qaeda more attractive for recruiting a new generation of Islamists from Central Asia. Calls to make hijrah, or migrate, to the Taliban’s so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are also surfacing on jihadist forums. If the Syrian province of Idlib falls, al-Qaeda-aligned and HTS-backed Uzbek and Tajik jihadists’ migration to Afghanistan will be inevitable. The Taliban can easily melt them into Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz societies in northern Afghanistan and use them as leverage over rebellious ethnic minorities.

So, analysis of the jihadist media indicated that al-Qaeda-linked and Taliban-backed Central Asian extremist groups, operating in both Afghanistan and Syria, were deeply inspired by the Taliban’s victory over the pro-Western government of Ashraf Ghani. As a result, small and fragmented Salafi-Jihadi groups from post-Soviet countries have received the biggest boost to unite around the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Consequently, conducive conditions after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan are expected to lead to a resurgence of al Qaeda in the Central Asian region. Latent al-Qaeda sympathizers and other radical Islamists in the “Five Stans” view the restoration of the Islamic Emirate on the other side of the border as the beginning of the great jihad’s revival and the approach of Nusrat. With the decline of ISIS and the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, internal divisions, and inter-group feuds between the jihadist jamaats (group) of Central Asia, sometimes accompanied by bloodshed, are expected to diminish, and the volume of clandestine donations to jihad in the region are also expected to increase markedly.

But the main fear for local authoritarian and corrupt pro-Russian governments is that a Taliban victory could provide a historic boost for Uzbek, Tajik and Uighur violent extremist groups encouraging them in their campaigns to overthrow and replace local regimes. And although the Taliban is viewed by the world community as a Pashtun nationalist jihadi movement, and the Afghan jihad has always been more inward and parochial, nevertheless its ideological influence has always been strong among the Central Asian jihadists.

Despite the fact that the Taliban leadership publicly denies the presence of transnational terrorist groups in the country, a recent UN report revealed that there are about 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan, who are members of al-Qaeda, Uighur’s TIP, Uzbek militant groups Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), KTJ, IJU and Tajik’s Jamaat Ansarullah (JA). Moreover, some of them took an active part in the recent military attacks against the Afghan army on the side of the Taliban, which led to the rapid fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, the strategically important capital of the Northern Alliance. As we predicted earlier, the Taliban exploited the Central Asian jihadists during the fighting in the north of the country as their “hard power” and political leverage on the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. When the Taliban captured a strategically important security checkpoint near Afghan border with Tajikistan in July, they assigned a Tajik jihadi group Jamaat Ansarullah (JA) to raise the Taliban flag on the site. They also put JA in charge of security in five districts of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province – Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay – near the Tajik border.

Although the Taliban has repeatedly promised not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a staging ground for any attacks, they will not sever their ties with Central Asian jihadi groups and will not violate the bayat. Uzbek, Uighur and Tajik jihadist groups are expected to maintain a safe haven in Afghanistan under the tacit and tight control of the Taliban. In the jihadist world, bayat or pledging allegiance is a heavy Islamic commitment reaching under the holy gaze of Allah Almighty, and reneging it is considered a serious offence. Therefore, the Taliban has never disavowed the group’s pledge.

In conclusion, the high fighting spirit and ideological strength of al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian jihadist groups in Afghanistan is associated not only with the Taliban’s lightning victory, but also with the humiliating and chaotic US withdrawal from the country. One of the Kyrgyz jihadists in Syria wrote on the KTJ Telegram channel that “the honor and dignity of America today is under the Taliban’s feet in front of the great Ummah.” This indicates that a new generation of Central Asian extremists has emerged on the scene of global jihadism, absorbing in itself the al-Qaeda’s Salafi-Takfiri military ideology, and synthesizing it with the Islamist nationalism of the Taliban, based on the common kindred Hanafi’s al-Maturidi Aqeedah (Sunni Islamic theology school). As the US counterterrorism capacity in Afghanistan weakened in the foreseeable future, the terrorism threat from Central Asian region will grow symmetrically for the US and the West as a whole.

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Russia, Turkey and UAE: The intelligence services organize and investigate

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The FSB (Federal’naja Služba Bezopasnosti Rossijskoj Federácii, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) – created in 1995 from the ashes of the Komitet Gosudarstvennoj Bezopasnosti (KGB), the State Security Committee – is ready for additional responsibilities under the new national security strategy. President Putin’s recent redefinition of the FSB’s role provides some indications on the national security strategy that will soon be announced – a strategy that will affect seas, borders and the security of strategically important intelligence.

On June 1, 2021 President Putin issued a decree outlining the new priorities that will be given to the FSB in Russia’s revised national security strategy, which replaces the one that officially ended last year.

The changes to the Intelligence Service’s regulatory framework, including the peripheral one, provides some indications on the Russian security priorities. Some of the main changes include additional responsibilities for intelligence security, counterterrorism, border control and stronger protection of maritime interests.

Border control and the various references to counterterrorism in its broadest sense – as recently defined by Russia – means entrusting the security service with a number of new areas and tasks, including the redefinition of procedures to detect political radicalisation.

Border control is also strengthened in the revised rules, with FSB border guards acquiring records, filing and storing biometric data and obtaining and processing DNA information obtained during border checks.

The details on access to Russian soil shed light on the Kremlin’s problems with its own fellow countrymen. In the article on the FSB’s involvement in controlling entry into Russia, the decree mentions the “territories requiring special authorisation” such as Transnistria, some parts of Georgia and Eastern Ukraine, and states that the FSB will be involved in a national programme to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Russians living abroad.

Intelligence is a valuable asset and its security has always been one of the Kremlin’s main concerns. Therefore, the new strategy makes the FSB the leading agency, not just the end user regarding computers, security and telecommunication encryption.

It will oversee and supervise the implementation of the new technological security throughout the community. All this was outlined in December in a law that redefined the role of the FSB’s Centre for State Licensing, Certification and Protection. It will grant licences for the use of “special technical means and equipment intended to receive information secretly”.

The FSB will also examine patents for classified inventions. In addition to its official role in intelligence warfare, the FSB has been tasked with producing more security measures to protect the identity of Russian intelligence agents, and keep the confidentiality of its own officials, officers and soldiers.

The Internal Security Service will also set up a new procedure to inspect agents and individuals entering the army, the intelligence services and the Federal Administration. Using the protection of marine life as an additional task, the FSB will also have increased responsibilities for the seas, including competence and powers over the protection of fishing grounds outside Russia’s exclusive economic zone, the establishment of checkpoints for fishing vessels entering or leaving the zone, and the power to suspend the right of passage for foreign vessels in certain Russian maritime zones.

The Service will also define the structure of operational offices in maritime zones. These measures follow a law adopted last October outlining the FSB’s role in “establishing control and checks in fisheries and the conservation of sea biological resources”.

An important concept in Russian history and life is the silovik. He is a representative of law enforcement agencies, intelligence agencies, armed forces and other structures to which the State delegates the right to use force. This concept is often extended to representatives of political groups, but also to businessmen, associated with power structures in Russia or formerly in the Soviet Union.

As a jargon term, this word is used in other languages as a broad political term in everyday conversation and in journalism to describe political processes typical of Russia or the former Soviet Union. The etymology of the word is the Russian word sila, meaning strength, force and power.

Trying to renew the aforementioned concept, President Putin provides momentum and injects new impetus into the meaning of this word. After putting the issue on the agenda of the National Security Council of May 28 last, the President is now pushing for the publication of the national security strategy. It has been delayed despite the fact that the Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation (Sovet bezopasnosti Rossijskoj Federacii), Sergej Vachrukov, had announced it was to be published in February.

As we might commonly believe, the steps to strengthen the Russian secret services are not so much focused on the aforementioned and movie-style “derby” between secret agents, but are mainly targeted to Russia’s traditional “Ottoman” adversary, namely neighbouring Turkey.

President Erdogan’s official meeting with the UAE’s National Security Advisor, Tahnun bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and the renewed ties with Abu Dhabi are the result of behind-the-scenes regional intelligence operations in which the Kremlin wants to see straight and clearly.

While there is still a deep political divide both between Russia and Turkey, and between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, the Turkish President hopes to encourage future Emirates’ investment. Turkish President Erdogan’s unprecedented meeting with the UAE’s national security representative, the aforementioned al-Nahyan, in Ankara on August 18 can be largely attributed to the work of the two countries’ intelligence services over the last few months.

There is a desire to turn a new page after eight years of icy relations, crystallised by the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s leader Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood’s member close to Turkey and firmly opposed by the United Arab Emirates.  

Steps towards reconciliation began on January 5, 2021 at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in al-Ula. The Summit marked the end of Qatar’s isolation, thus paving the way for a resumption of relations between the UAE and Turkey. After the Summit, al-Nahyan flew to Cairo where he met President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who strongly encouraged him to begin a new chapter with Turkey.

At the same time, Egypt’s intelligence service, Mukhabarat al-Amma, engaged in secret talks with its Turkish counterpart, the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatıı. However, it was al-Nahya’s meeting with the Turkish intelligence Chief, Hakan Fidan, in Cairo a few weeks later that achieved the first results.

That meeting was organized by the Chief of the Mukhabarat al-Amma and by Abbas Kamel, al-Sisi’s regional Director, along with Ahmed Hosni, the strongman of Jordanian Dayirat al-Mukhabarat al-Amma, that King Abdallah II had sent from Amman. Since then, there were eight additional meetings between Turkey and Abu Dhabi, which then led to the aforementioned meeting of President Erdogan with al-Nahyan, with the possibility of holding a future Summit between them.

This rapprochement still has difficulty hiding the deep divide between the two countries on key regional issues such as their respective positions on Syria and Libya, in particular. While they have managed to find some common ground for understanding – ending smear campaigns and trade blockades; resuming visa issuance; direct air links and the return of Ambassadors – President Erdogan and al-Nahyan are simply keeping quiet about their current irreconcilable differences.

Political considerations are put aside to facilitate future UAE’s investment in Turkey.

On August 25, the Emirates’ Group International Holding CO announced it would invest massively in Turkey’s health and agrifood industries, while it seems that the sovereign fund Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is willing to lend Turkey 875 million US dollars.

Is it just business? Russia is investigating.

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Power Vacuum in Afghanistan: A By-product of An Incompetent Geopolitical Contract

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taliban afghanistan

I still recall the evening of December 18, 2011, when I read the news of the last U.S. troops being pulled out of Iraq, that ended an eight-year-long military involvement in the region. Somehow the news instantly gave me an uneasy feeling knowing that a catastrophic storm was awaiting and will mark the beginning of a cataclysmic civil war. Within hours of U.S. military troops leaving the land, Iraqi’s rival Sunni and Shi’ite factions resumed a kind of political infighting that threatened a lurch back into turmoil. Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered an immediate dissolution of his Sunni deputy and issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni Vice President. Not only Sunnis gradually lost the authority of power in the government and security discourse, but the Sunni elites, who challenged Maliki were subsequently either tortured or killed. Out on the streets, after the ISF raided the home of Iraq’s minister of finance, who was also a member of Iraqiya coalition, Sunni protest broke out in Fallujah; and the fire spread across the country. Iraqi Security forces killed between 50-65 civilians on Maliki’s order. This led to the most notorious consortium in the history of global terrorism – an alliance between the Sunnis and ISIS. On July 21, 2013, ISIS initiated a 12-month campaign called the ‘Soldier’s Harvest’ on Iraqi security forces, teamed up with Sunni tribal leaders and former Baathists, and ultimately forcing ISF to evacuate Fallujah and remnants of its government. Soon after, ISIS attacked Abu Ghraib prison freeing up to 1000 minacious inmates, including senior al-Qaida leaders and militants. Empowered and endued with Sunni support, ISIS officially seized Fallujah, parts of Ramadi and Mosul, by June 2014. By gripping Mosul alone, ISIS gained $480 million in stolen cash and armed itself with two divisions’ worth of military weapons and ammunition that were left behind by the U.S. military troops. And, within six months, ISIS became the world’s most well-funded and equipped terrorist group in the world – controlling approximately 100,00 square kilometers of territory across Iraq and Syria at its zenith. Not just the Middle East, ISIS spread its terror tyranny globally as well with strategic attacks on Paris and Brussels.

So, what led to the birth of ISIS? Two words – Power vacuum; and the U.S. policy in Iraq between 2010 and 2011 actively created this geopolitical conditions in which ISIS thrived.

Stages of Power Vacuum – From The Birth of ISIS in Iraq to Rise of The Taliban in Afghanistan

If one thing that we have learned from the U.S led invasion in Iraq is that an incompetent geopolitical contract abhors a political vacuum. In political science, the term power vacuum is an analogy that deconstructs and artificially manufactures power relations and political conditions in a country that has no identifiable central power or authority. In a critical situation like this, the inflow of armed militia, insurgents, warlords, dictators, and military coups to fill this vacuum becomes an organic response, and it comes with a cost – the cost being a noxious civil war and national unrest. On the other hand, a power vacuum can also thrive in conditions following a constitutional crisis where the majority of the ruling government entities resign or are removed, giving birth to an unclear anecdote regarding succession to the position of power. 

What happened in Iraq starting December 2011, and what is happening in Afghanistan today in 2021, is a result of a power vacuum – a by-product of an incompetent geopolitical contract. Twenty years after being forced into power annihilation by the U.S led military bases in Afghanistan, the Taliban is now actively resuming its power as the U.S continues to execute its full exit. Within hours of Joe Biden announcing the official termination of U.S military involvement in the country, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani worded a farewell post on social media, vocalizing that he must leave the country to prevent bloodshed. Today, the only remnant left of his political presence is his departing statement, “Long Live Afghanistan.” With the President fleeing the country, and creating a constitutional crisis of succession to the position of power, what we are witnessing is the manifestation of the initial stage of power vacuum. Soon after the President abandoned the country, the Taliban released a statement declaring that the group has taken over Kabul, a capital city of 6 million civilians, and is working to restore law and order. Considering the reputation of the Taliban – infamous for brutality, repression of women, and execution of religious minorities in the past, the idea of restoration of law and order appears antagonistic.

However, I am not interested in deconstructing the inimical and deleterious ideologies of the Taliban, but unfolding the mechanisms of the power vacuum in Afghanistan. With the Taliban now actively trying to fill this power vacuum created after Ghani’s disappearance, the second stage is at play. The primary question here is not about who will form the national government, but what type of alliance will be established among entities to procure this power. The typology of this alliance – its fundamental values, utility, durability, and workability, will regulate Afghanistan’s democracy and sovereignty in the coming years. If one turns back to 2011 in Iraq, you will recall how the alliance between Sunni tribal leaders and ISIS gave birth to a global terror reign. This was a direct result of abysmal policy deliberation and the abrupt exit of the U.S military troops from Iraq. So, the question is – now that the U.S military troop has ended its twenty-year-long involvement in Afghanistan, what type of alliance will be formed to fill this power vacuum? Will it be as catastrophic as Iraq? As the Taliban continues to coercively occupy the cities, Matthew Levitt, Director of Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy adds, “The possibility is very strong that Afghanistan will have both – a weak government and a government that has a close alliance with the elements of al-Qaeda. To add, there is an element of ISIS, ISIS Khorasan, as well. Although the Taliban doesn’t like them, but as we are witnessing the effort to evacuate people through Kabul airport and the threats of ISIS suicide bombers coming into Kabul, the fact is that the Taliban probably won’t for a very long time have control over all of the city, let alone all of the country. So, there will be an element of a safe haven even for groups that the Taliban doesn’t like – groups and alliances that will use Afghanistan as a base from which to operate and carry out terrorist attacks nationally and globally.” 

It is worth noting that the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda started with its leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who pledged their allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in kid 1990s, and accepted Omar as Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful) of all Sunni Muslims. Al-Zawahiri later re-affirmed this pledge to Omar’s successors. Soon after, al-Qaeda gained substantial freedom to operate in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In return, al-Qaeda doled out money to the Taliban. Since then, to up till now, the alliance between Taliban and al-Qaeda has flourished mutually. Soon after the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda congratulated the group and spoke about their alliance for Kashmir liberation in India. A letter was addressed to the Taliban by al-Qaeda and was shared on Twitter by a journalist. It read, “Allah! liberate the Levant, Somalia, Yemen, Kashmir, and the rest of the Islamic lands from the clutches of the enemies of Islam.”

If this alliance continues to grow stronger to seize power, the probable birthing of one of the deadliest terror organizations is certain – a terror entity that would not only have passive support of the Taliban but would surpass the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq. This is a direct result of Biden’s ham-fisted deliberation to exit Afghanistan abruptly, leaving a space to harbor national unrest, the collapse of a democratically elected government, procurement of this political vacuum by insurgents, and brutal violence by the Taliban against its civilians. In short – the fall down of Afghanistan democracy.

The third stage of the power vacuum is yet to mature in Afghanistan. This stage expediates the process of procurement of power, if any of the entities trying to seize power acquires economic funding and gets equipped with advanced military weapons. Jan Pieterzoon Coen, a leading officer of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, said, “There’s no trade without war; there’s no war without trade”. He was right. The establishing of power requires a trade that allows an alliance of immaterial ideology between groups and hoarding of material resources (weapons and money)  to execute the ideology. In 2011, the Islamic State armed itself with two divisions’ worth of military weapons and ammunition that were left behind by the U.S military troops. They used these weapons to terrorize the civilians, execute opposition, and expand their captured territory. Another material resource may include stolen or funded cash apart from military machinery. For example, by gripping Mosul alone, ISIS gained $480 million in stolen cash. And, within six months, ISIS became the world’s most well-funded and equipped terrorist group in the world – controlling approximately 100,00 square kilometers of territory across Iraq and Syria at its zenith. So, what we observe here is that the acquisition of economic funding or military weapons gives birth to an effectively exercised political control through coercive means, and internalization of this coercive mechanisms by the civilians. In both cases, the mission is accomplished – an attempt to seize power vacuum by occupying the land and psyche of its civilians. Today, a similar narrative is at play in Afghanistan. The speed with which the Taliban swept across Afghanistan is reminiscent of Islamic State militants taking weapons from the U.S.- supplied Iraqi forces, who like the Afghan Air Force offered little resistance. Grey Myer and Scott Neuman writes, “The Taliban wasted no time in gloating over their new war booty. Photos and video posted to social media show the Taliban posing with captured aircraft, trucks, Humvees, artillery guns and night-vision goggles captured. Such equipment could be used to suppress internal dissent or fight off their rivals. Before the Taliban captured it, the Afghan air force had more than 40 operational U.S.-made MD-530 helicopters. The Taliban has already shown itself ready and willing to use U.S.-made small arms and other technology. Non-weaponry technology like the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, U.S. devices containing biometric data, could be used to find potential threats in hiding. I have fallen into the hands of Taliban.” This stage is climacteric

in materializing the procurement of power into a reality. Even if they would be protest in Afghanistan against the rise of the Taliban as the central power, Taliban will use the overwhelming amount of potential weaponry to stifle the dissent and expand their captured territory to places like Panjshir valley.

Who will procure the power in Afghanistan?

The Taliban will eventually seize power, but it would form a weak government, with under-the-table alliance with al-Qaeda; and would potentially foster the inflow and breeding of other groups like ISIS and  ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan. With opium and rich copper deposits, the international intervention is likely to be seen – motivated by self-interest as opposed to the interest of advocating for civil rest and peace in Afghanistan. Beijing has already held a talk with Taliban officials over the implementation for strategic engagement. It is highly possible that the $25 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project is extended to Afghanistan now that the U.S has vacated the country. Financial support would most likely be delivered hand-in-hand with Beijing’s strongest ally in the region – Pakistan, allowing the Chinese government to persuade the Taliban to sever links with East Turkestan Islamic Movement group, who have executed terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province. On the other side of the border, India – a Hindu extremist governed country, is also in injudicious talks with the Taliban.  Taliban’s close association with al-Qaeda can potentially create a political defilement and unrest in Kashmir, India. This may manifest into border security threat and infiltration of terrorists – manufactured by al-Qaeda, but with the Taliban’s blessings as the central power. To conclude, to think of Afghanistan as a ‘graveyard of empires’ is a zombie narrative. It is being revived to deflect, distract and distort the failure of Biden and the U.S military policies in Afghanistan. The truth is far simpler than we complicate – The creation of a power vacuum in Afghanistan is a direct result of abysmal foreign policy deliberation and the abrupt exit of the U.S military troops. It is indeed a by-product of an incompetent geopolitical contract. Biden’s administration must be held accountable for harbouring a space for demolition of a democratically elected government and rise of the Taliban terror in Afghanistan.

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