The US is withdrawing from Afghanistan. Twenty years of the US-led foreign intervention has brought neither prosperity, nor stability, to the country. With hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the seemingly endless military operations and with thousands of Americans killed, the Biden Administration faces a harsh reality: A Western type political system is not likely to take roots in Kabul anytime soon. Washington has lost the war it waged for the last two decades. The main challenge for US President Joe Biden and his team is how to make the painful US defeat less humiliating and the ongoing retreat more graceful.
This is not to say that the US will play no role in and around Afghanistan after September 11, 2021. It might continue to support the government in Kabul for some time through economic and technical assistance, through intelligence data sharing, or even through limited US airstrikes against rebellious warlords in county’s provinces. Still, the place of Afghanistan in the US—and Western—strategic designs will go down dramatically. In the end of the day, only Afghans themselves can settle the conflict in their country through a political dialogue and an inclusive peace process.
On the other hand, from now on, the future of Afghanistan should be a matter of concern not for remote overseas powers, but for regional players around this country—such as Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, India and Central Asia countries. The ability or inability of these players to come to a common denominator on their respective approaches to Afghanistan will become the critical external factor affecting the country’s future.
Unfortunately, no consensus about Afghanistan exists between major regional players. Each of them has its own history of relations with the Afghan state and the Afghan people, sometimes quite controversial and sometimes even bitter. They have very different assessments of the current balance of powers inside the country, and often quite diverging threat perceptions. Their respective views on the military capabilities of the insurgent Taliban and on its long-term political goals are not the same. Each of the regional players has carefully developed its special lines of communication to the government in Kabul and, arguably, to various factions of the insurgent camp as well.
Still, the overall views within the neighboring countries on the desirable future of the country coincide or, at least, significantly overlap. Essentially, there are two fundamental issues at stake for all the Afghani neighbors. First, Afghanistan should not become an Islamic Emirate, which international terrorist groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda could use to plan their malign subversive operations in the region. Second, Afghanistan should stop being the major producer and exporter of narcotics, which it has become under the Western occupation. Of course, regional players would also prefer to see Afghanistan as a politically stable, economically striving, socially inclusive, culturally diverse and religiously tolerant country. However, everybody understands that this is too high a bar to consider for in the immediate future.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) might well be an appropriate platform to try figuring out how to approach these two critical issues in a multilateral format. Afghanistan, as well as neighboring Iran, has an observer status within SCO; Turkmenistan coordinates its Afghan policies with SCO countries; all other regional players are full-fledged members to the organization. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group has existed since the fall of 2005 and it has already accumulated a lot of useful practical experience. Still, until recently, the contact group operated in the shadows of the Western intervention in the country. The time has come for SCO member states to bring this body out to the light and to rise up to a new, post-US Afghan challenge.
One of the SCO comparative advantages is that, given its very broad and even ambiguous mandate, it is in a position to address simultaneously security, economic and human development agendas of Afghanistan, combining support for political stability, implementation of large-scale economic projects and assistance for social capital building. It can also coordinate efforts of other international actors ranging from the specialized agencies of the United Nations to private foreign companies to small NGOs interested in specific avenues of collaboration with partners in and around Afghanistan.
Keeping in mind significant disagreements between SCO members (especially between India and Pakistan) on a number of important Afghanistan related matters, one could envisage a multilateralism a la carte approach to specific projects in this country. It implies that select SCO states could form project-based coalitions to engage in initiatives of their choice without necessarily trying to involve all of SCO member states. However, it is important to make sure that such projects would not jeopardize or question core national interests of other SCO members.
The role of Afghanistan itself should not be limited to that of an SCO economic or security assistance recipient. Without an active Afghan involvement, some of the SCO plans would be hard to implement in full. For instance, engaging Afghanistan in major railway and energy infrastructure projects is indispensable for strengthening regional connectivity between Central and South Asia and in the SCO space as a whole. The China proposed-Belt and Road Initiative would remain incomplete, if it has to bypass Afghanistan due to unaddressed security concerns. In sum, Afghanistan should become a subject, not an object of the regional multilateral cooperation.
No doubt, Afghanistan stands out as a formidable challenge for SCO, but it is also a unique opportunity for the alliance of Eurasian nations. If the organization manages to succeed whether the US and its Western allies failed in the most dramatic way, this success would be the best possible illustration of the changing nature of international relations. After having successfully tested its institutional capacity in Afghanistan, SCO could find it much easier to approach various regional crises, civil conflicts and failed states in Eurasia—and even beyond the Eurasian continent. Regretfully, there will be no shortage of such crises, conflicts and failed states in years to come.
From our partner RIAC
The East Expands into NATO: Japan’s and South Korea’s New Approaches to Security
The 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid can be seen as a momentous occasion not just for NATO but also for security in the Asia-Pacific. For the first time in NATO’s 73-year-long history, Japanese and South Korean leaders participated in the meeting as “Asia-Pacific partners”. For the first time, the Alliance named China a threat in their documents. However, having approached the hic sunt dracones (here be dragons) mark, NATO and its partners will soon have to think about the limits and purpose of expanding the organization’s areas of activity.
The Bargaining Yen
Fumio Kishida was Japan’s first premier to ever attend a NATO summit. Japan’s leader called for enhancing Tokyo’s ties with NATO based on the 2014 Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme. However, he also proposed permanently attaching representatives of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to NATO’s headquarters, mutually exchanging observers at military drills, as well as to regularly involve Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea in NATO’s activities.
We should note Japan’s rather loose interpretation of the concept of indivisible security. For instance, Russia and China insist that the security of any state cannot be bolstered at the expense of other states. However, Kishida believes that security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific are inseparable from each other; therefore, attempts to change the status quo by force in any region should be stopped through joint efforts.
As part of the steps taken to assist European partners amid the events in Ukraine, Tokyo imposed additional sanctions on 70 Russian individuals and companies since Japan “is not ready to provide any military support to the Alliance.” In exchange, Japan hopes that NATO will fully support Japan’s course for militarization. Particularly, Japan is expected to publish its revised National Security Strategy to replace the 2013 Strategy by the end of 2022. Over five years, “the land of the rising sun” will ramp up its defense capabilities by significantly increasing its spending (up to 2% of the GDP) and by stepping up its interactions with the U.S. It is also possible that the Strategy will, for the first time, name China as a clear and present danger to Japan—previously, Tokyo avoided openly labelling China as its adversary.
The West heard the Japanese leadership’s message of European stability being impossible without eliminating the threats in the Asia-Pacific. Ultimately, the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept that determines the activities of member states for the next ten years states that Beijing’s “ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.” Principal threats include China’s non-transparent conventional and nuclear military build-up, malicious hybrid and cyber operations, confrontational rhetoric and disinformation, attempts to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains, and creating strategic dependencies intended to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains.
The list would certainly have been incomplete without sending an alarm regarding the deepening strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing. NATO’s Madrid Summit declaration also contains a statement on competition with China and on Beijing’s challenge to NATO members’ security and development.
At the summit’s sidelines, Kishida attended a trilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, and then a quadrilateral meeting with South Korea’s President and Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The leaders discussed the threats from China and North Korea, while the U.S. President reaffirmed guarantees to every party present military aid in case of an attack on their states. At the same time, it appears that the idea of putting China on NATO’s agenda and generally under the organization’s purview had been spearheaded by Washington that has less and less strength and willingness to challenge the “dragon” to an honest battle.
Korean Tanks in Polish Woods
Similar to Japan’s leader, South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol noted in his debut NATO summit address that security in any given region has global ramifications. Consequently, a crisis cannot be resolved through the efforts of a regional alliance or union. Therefore, South Korea’s President announced plans to consistently bolster security cooperation between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, primarily for counteracting the threat of North Korea’s nuclear missile program. Moreover, since, in Yoon Suk Yeol’s opinion, Pyongyang’s actions posit a major threat to peace and stability and to the non-proliferation regime, all NATO members will need to assist in resolving this problem. Generally, South Korea raised the issue of North Korea’s denuclearization at every event at the Madrid Summit, including the plenary session, the three-party meeting between the leaders of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, and a dozen of bilateral talks.
In turn, in order to bolster European security, Seoul is ready to expand its economic interactions with NATO states—in particular, to ensure uninterrupted deliveries of semi-conductors—assist in building NPPs and modernizing power facilities, and also ramp up military technical cooperation. Among the successes already achieved by the South Koreans is an agreement to deliver FA-50 jet trainers/light combat aircraft, K-2 main battle tanks, K-9 self-propelled howitzers and AS21 IFVs to Poland, and to participate in building NPPs in the UK, the Czech Republic, Poland, France, Romania and the Netherlands.
Curiously, unlike Japan, Yoon Suk Yeol avoided in every way directly mentioning Beijing in connection with threats to global and regional security. Moreover, Seoul believes that South Korea’s interactions, both with NATO and otherwise, should not be aimed against any specific country. Even though some surveys indicate that only 26% of South Koreans have a positive opinion of China, the country’s leadership is not prepared to oppose Beijing and fully commit to U.S.-led containment initiatives. Besides, in the near future, Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration will have to explain to China its own plans to deploy a second THAAD missile defense unit and Seoul actively arming its navy, air force, and ground forces with state-of-the-art strike missile weapons.
Despite of both Japanese and South Korean leaders attending the 2022 NATO Summit, questions still remain regarding normalizing relations between Seoul and Tokyo. The parties noted that there is potential for improvements and the problems of the past and the future would need to be discussed together. At the same time, internal forces in both states have very mixed feelings concerning the prospects of setting up practical interactions on security issues. Kishida’s government is concerned with South Korea’s growing military capabilities, unacceptable compensation demands to victims of the Japanese occupation, and its intractable stance on the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima islands). Particularly, Japan vehemently protested Korea’s military drill around the islands on July 30, 2022, although this time the drill was far more modest than before and did not involve a beach landing. One of the few shared sentiments between Seoul and Tokyo is their negative attitude to North Korea’s nuclear missile program, although Japan’s current potential for resolving this matter via talks is small since Tokyo has virtually completely severed contacts with Pyongyang.
Beyond the Purview
According to Le Monde, NATO’s focus on the events in Ukraine does not mean that the Alliance is ignoring threats emanating from beyond the organization’s traditional purview, for instance, like those from the Asia-Pacific. Asia-Pacific’s “collective West” representatives gradually expanding their involvement in the region evidences both the Alliance’s transformation into a certain global security body, and Seoul’s and Tokyo’s transforming approaches to protecting their interests by expanding their partnership network.
Japan is already a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) whose principal and implicit goal is to form a counterbalance to China. In Kishida’s opinion voiced on June 10, 2022 at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Russia’s actions in Ukraine may spur a similar scenario in Asia Pacific, particularly toward Taiwan, especially given a recent surge in the regional activities of China’s People’s Liberation Army. That, however, did not prevent Japan from sending a parliamentary delegation, including two former defense ministers, to Taipei to “discuss extensively the regional security situation in Taiwan, especially in the context of the Russia-Ukraine military conflict.” In this situation, it would be odd to expect anything from Beijing except a protest boosted by military aircraft patrolling around the island.
Yoon Suk Yeol seems intent on significantly increasing South Korea’s role in regional affairs by using the image of a liberal democracy in a crusade against authoritarian regimes around it. However, Seoul intends to wage such a battle solely against the neighboring regime, and even that is not quite a real crusade with clearly defined results. Getting North Korea, to abandon its nuclear weapons though intimidation during an exacerbating East Asian crisis is utterly impossible, particularly in view of Kim Jong Un’s proclaimed readiness for any military action against the U.S.
NATO believes that comprehensive security cooperation with “partners in Asia Pacific” should be conducive to making the international situation more predictable. However, given the Alliance’s track record, should it interfere in the Korean Peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait, there will be little cause to expect a positive outcome.
From our partner RIAC
A war where the machine decides who to kill! (LAWs wars)
Which country wants to be attacked by an AI-controlled system with no one in command? Which country wants their soldiers to be killed by an autonomous machine, and potentially, some civilians by mistake? The answer is evidently no one! No country wants that. But which country intends to possess such weapons, then the answer is more ambiguous. The last report of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) reflects this. After a week (25-29 July) of discussion at the Palais des Nations, UN Geneva, the adopted report is hollowed without meaningful conclusion or commitments.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) are military system that can autonomously search for and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions. LAWs are also known as killer robots.
Autonomous weapons have existed for many years; for example, land mines trigger and kill or an injury without any human action. With emerging technology, including AI, we understand the interest of certain states to include these technologies in weapons to improve their autonomy. Since the 70s, the US has used the Phalanx CIWS, which can autonomously identify and attack incoming missiles. With AI, its capacities are considerably increased! Continuing with the example of mines, Russia’s anti-personnel mines of the POM-3 type are particularly deadly. They are disseminated in the land of operations but do not explode immediately. When activated, they rise in the air before exploding and causing multiple ravages, which can be fatal within a radius of 16 meters. Equipped with sensors and software, they choose their target, when they explode or not, depending on the identity of the people or equipment that approach. There are, unfortunately, so many other systems that will be too long to cite here. To conclude this part, in Libya in 2020, a Kargu 2 drone hunted down and attacked a human target. According to a report from the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Libya, published in March 2021. This may have been the first time an autonomous killer robot armed with lethal weaponry attacked human beings. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_robot]
We quickly understand all potential ethical and legal issues. Autonomous systems can make mistakes; who is responsible then? Like mine killed millions of civilians, new systems may have bias and kill unstintingly, with no one to stop them. The range of potential problems is extensive.
A slow-downed convention
For nine years, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons or CCW, also known as the Inhumane Weapons Convention, has tried to regulate it with its GGE. For the most ambitious, it would be a question of agreeing on a treaty, or another international instrument, which would guarantee the prohibition that a weapon can operate autonomously, i.e., without the intervention of human supervision. Many Latin Americans, and European states are now advocating for this outright ban. The answer is less clear-cut for other states, including the USA. They consent to the prohibition of specific weapon systems as well as to a certain regulation but refuse a binding legal framework. Finally, Russia is slowing down all negotiations and reducing its content.
Russia and the game of consensus
A majority of States are now convinced of the need to act significantly, even asking for more days to debate in 2023. But the main problem is the rule of consensus, which prohibits any discussion breakthrough”.
Many little disagreements, for instance, delegations, wasted time discussing whether the CCW is an appropriate forum or the only appropriate forum for dealing with the issue of autonomous weapons.
These discussions have even been theatrical when Russia attacked many times the presence of civil societies to limit their intervention and participation in informal meetings. It was a tool to slow down the discussion, focusing the debate on organizational points. At the same time, we can also be afraid that this Russian posture is appearing in others GGEs. Meanwhile, some other states, like Israel and India, are discrete and do not oppose it. They probably use this condition to their advantage. Russia is doing all the work for them.
Therefore with the refusal of a few states, all the details about elements and possible measures for an agreement on autonomous weapons were removed. All conclusions about what kinds of control are necessary, and possible processes to achieve that control, were taken out. The present conclusions section just outlines the types of proposals discussed, recognizes ethical perspectives, and repeats the respect for international humanitarian law. It confirms then that states are responsible for wrongful acts in accordance with international law [link to report], so no new laws.
Not only are the conclusions disappointing, but the way the discussion was carried out was disappointing, and the mandate for 2023 remains uncertain.
We can not wait on CCW, the urgency of the problem is too critical.
The slow process is to the advantage of countries using these technologies. The Russian POM-3 mines, for instance, have been used in Ukraine, accordingly to Human Right Watch. The development and deployment by Russia and other countries will continue as long as no agreement is reached. LAWs have to be outlaws! And the CCW seems not to be anymore the right platform.
Escalating Big Power Contestation on Taiwan: Can It Lead to War?
Xi Jinping is seeking to hide his humiliation over US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. His premature and unjustifiable warning to the US about the visit caused him embarrassment, and Pelosi’s purposeful visit after the warning not only hyped it, but humiliated him. China is using its Three Warfare Concept which entails public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare along with aggressive military posturing, air violations, firepower power exhibition and some symbolic economic boycott of Taiwan, thus creating heightened tension around Taiwan as a face saving exercise to amuse its domestic constituency. China is attempting to turn it as an opportunity to stoke national sentiments in favour of Xi Jinping on ‘Anti America’ theme highlighting Chinese mutilated version of his heroics to ensure that he doesn’t lose out on his third term in the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) later this year.
The US side has likewise been under similar pressures. Following the announcement of Pelosi’s visit and the contentious debate between President Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, the US found itself in a difficult situation. The USA was unable to cancel the trip in response to Xi’s warning because doing so would have indicated that Joe Biden was caving in to Chinese pressure. This would have been catastrophic for the Biden Administration, which is already struggling to recover from the disaster in Afghanistan and the difficulties brought on by the Russia-Ukraine War. Although the visit was a risky move, it is still unclear whether the US will follow it up by replacing strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity to support Taiwan in any prospective Chinese attack or not.
Can it Lead to War?
With unprecedented military posturing by China, live missile fire East of Taiwan close to its coastline, and US aircraft carrier and maritime forces located not too far, the situation is tense and prone to accidental trigger causing escalation. It does not make any strategic sense for China to invade Taiwan, as it has all the negatives except false bravado, with bright chances of loss of face globally and domestically, in case the operations fail; hence, likely to contend with activities short of war.
Chinese strategist Qiao Liang, a retired PLA Air Force Major General, has warned that taking Taiwan by force is ‘Too Costly’. Chinese redline of “Taiwan going nuclear/declaring independence” has not been crossed as yet, giving no justification for China to cross US red line of ‘Changing status Quo by Force’. Xi Jinping may find it too costly to take such a risk before sealing his third term. The military drills near Taiwan have been conducted by Taiwan and US also in past and the much publicised blockade of Taiwan through military drills, if prolonged may invite similar military drills by US and other democracies in Malacca Strait too, to block Chinese Sea Lines of Communication, beyond the realm of optics of the current Chinese aggressive posture, and it is well aware of this vulnerability.
Taiwanese President Tsai has bravely given bold statements during visit of Speaker Pelosi and earlier to take on Chinese aggression. Taiwan with its national spirit, modern arsenal from US, determined armed forces and US backing is unlikely to give a walkover, although the first onslaught of potential offensive will have to be borne by it, till global response gets activated. Comparisons are being made with Hong Kong, but the major differences is that leadership, hierarchy in Hong Kong and police was manipulated by CCP, whereas the leadership in Taiwan is strong and resolute refusing to give in to Chinese coercion. The need for amphibious assault due to terrain friction makes Chinese misadventure in Taiwan more difficult than Hong Kong.
Chinese amphibious capabilities to capture Taiwan are suspect, more so if US warships like the USS Ronald Reagan are around. China has enough missile arsenals to destroy Taiwan, but such a massive destruction of Han Chinese (95 percent of Taiwanese population is Han), who have relations, investments and inseparable linkages with their relatives in mainland and vice versa will not go well with domestic population of mainland. Over two million Taiwanese live in China, mostly in Coastal areas, and over 20 per cent have married there.
This will also destroy Chinese and Taiwanese economy, which does not suit Chinese leadership struggling to revive its economy marred by trade war, failing BRI and COVID effect. China is top destination for Taiwanese export accounting for approximately 40% of total exports, with Taiwan having overall trade surplus of US$104.7 billion in 2021 with China.
A public opinion poll in Taiwan in 2020 indicated 73 percent people identified themselves as Taiwanese, who were against China, and 77 percent supported democratic movement in Hongkong and this figure has increased in last two years. Getting Taiwanese under its wings will also bring a fresh democratic wave in China, which CCP may not be used to handle. Taiwanese people do not want to sacrifice their democratic freedom and prosperity, which is the main reason for success of President Tsai. The conflict if imposed by China will be deadly and Chinese, who want to win without fighting are not known for their appetite to accept body bags of Han Chinese, for a cause which doesn’t give them economic benefit but takes it away its dream of national rejuvenation, as indicated by General Qiao.
Why Taiwan is a US-China Issue?
PRC may keep claiming Taiwan to be its domestic issue, but it has much greater external dimensions. Diplomatically US may claim to follow ‘One China Policy’ but it treats Taiwan no less than an ally. The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019, effective from March 26, 2020 is an indication. The Taiwan Relation Act,1973, Taiwan Travel Act signed 2019, and National Defence Authorisation Act signed earlier this year to facilitate sale of state of the art weaponry and joint exercises justify the statement. US will always like to trade and strategically partner with democratic Taiwan outside Beijing’s influence, and not Taiwan under CCP.
In any potential invasion of Taiwan, the spill over of the battle space to Japan is obvious due to geographic proximity, an ally which US is obligated to protect. Chinese initial offensive can be on Taiwan, but US could join forces with its allies in the region to use their sea and air advantages to cut off Beijing’s maritime lifeline in and outside South China Sea. Chinese supply lines outside Nine dash line are still vulnerable to choking, and it will draw out PLA to get into war outside its comfort Zone. Taking Taiwan by force, therefore involves mobilisation of all its combat resources, expecting an escalation from limited war to an all-out war, as the operation amounts to crossing US redline of “No Change in Status Quo of Taiwan”. Economically Chinese heavy reliance on the US dollar is far from over, and such a war over Taiwan would be a massive economic blow to China, that would see capital flooding out, and companies moving of the country, much sooner than it thought.
If Chinese aggressive posturing, air incursions and military drills announced for four days end as scheduled without escalation, may be that situation may still remain under control, as US and Taiwan have also done military drills in that region earlier. If it escalates into an attempt to unite Taiwan by force, it will certainly up the ante with US, prove China as irresponsible bully, may lead to loss of life of Han Chinese both ways, lead to economic destruction of its one of the largest investors and jeopardise China’s goal of national rejuvenation. Internationally, China may have miscalculated US resolve and Taiwan’s resistance and all may not go their way. If Chinese ambitions grow beyond global tolerance, it has bright chances to bring rest of the world against China. While the visit of Nancy Pelosi may have given a strong message to China, but the US resolve is still under test, because Taiwan can’t be expected to handle Chinese aggression alone, more so if it has been hyped by super power contestation. US therefore must consider starting similar military exercise in Malacca Strait with other navies to remind China of its vulnerable SLOC before it starts blocking Taiwanese shipping.
The aggressive posturing in Taiwan Strait, South and East China Sea will continue, even if the current crisis slows down. PRC’s aim is to pressurise President Tsai Not to declare independence, keep pressure on, hope DPP loses next election and work out favourable arrangements with opposition likely to be favourable to China. Neither China nor US want war, but none wants to give walkover as well, hence this strategic gaming and posturing is on and will continue.
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