Russia and China’s Common Interests in Afghanistan
The interests of Russia and China in Afghanistan, as well as those of the adjacent countries in Central and Southern Asia, are arguably as follows.
1. A neutral Afghanistan with no foreign contingents on its territory
As the strife between the United States and China/Russia grows, both Moscow and Beijing regard the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as a security threat. This risk was previously offset by the neutralizing effect the foreign troops had on certain aspects of the terrorist threat to Russia and China. This largely set the tone for their cooperation with Washington in the fight against international terrorism.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Russia endorsed the U.S.-led “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF) and, later, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan, particularly with UN support, since Moscow was encountering difficulties in regulating the Afghan issue, especially on the Tajik–Afghan border.
August 1999 saw the threat of destabilization loom for the whole Central Asia, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)  was heightening their activity in Kyrgyzstan, acting from the Afghan territory. The armies of Russia and other parties to the Treaty on Collective Security (which would later become the Collective Security Treaty Organization) took military action. On 16 February 1999, the IMU orchestrated a number of large-scale terrorist attacks in Tashkent. The organization was supported by Al-Qaeda  and well-received by the Taliban .
During the 1990s, Mujahideen from Afghanistan took an active part in conflicts in the post-Soviet space, from Karabakh to Chechnya and Dagestan, involving various parts of the Muslim population. Russia’s biggest threat at the time consisted in ties between underground terrorist movements in the North Caucuses and Al-Qaeda (acting from Afghan territory) as well as the Taliban. In the mid-1990s, one Al-Qaeda emissary, Amir ibn al-Khattab, came to form an alliance with the influential Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, who underwent training in camps in Afghanistan. Together, they set out to seize power throughout North Caucasus. Amir ibn al-Khattab, with organizational and financial support provided by Al-Qaeda from the Afghan territory, notably with the help of the Taliban, succeeded in establising a whole network of schools in the Russian North Caucasus, where future terrorists could learn subversion tactics. Subsequently, graduates of Khattab schools organized a series of terrorist attacks in Russia’s other regions. Besides, from August 7 to September 28, 1999, Khattab and Basayev invaded neighbouring Dagestan, instigating an outbreak of the Second Chechen War (26 August 1999 – 16 April 2009).
It was against this backdrop that the Russian leadership counted on the U.S. military to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia, hoping that Moscow’s participation in the international anti-terrorist coalition would rid North Caucuses of its terrorist threat. China adopted a similar position, noting the need to ensure security in Xinjiang, neighbouring Central Asian nations and the entire SCO region as well as to fight against terrorism at large.
Today, Russia and China have a vested interest in ensuring security in the region on their own, albeit with involvement of other regional powers. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan provides favourable conditions for this, although with certain risks.
2. Providing Security in Central Asia
Three Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are members of the CSTO. As their CSTO ally, Russia guarantees their security and maintains military bases on their territory (Base No. 201 in Tajikistan and the Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan) as well as other military facilities. The CSTO believes any potential invasion by international terrorist groups from Afghanistan to be a serious threat. That is why the organization’s key activities in Central Asia focus on conducting exercises for rebuffing a military invasion across the Afghan border and countering associated threats, such as illegal immigration, religious extremism and drug trafficking.
China shares these interests. Although Beijing has no legal commitment to maintain security in Central Asia, military cooperation between China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan is increasingly stepping up. Even so, all Central Asian countries are CSTO members, and they are quite willing to enhance cooperation in the fight against terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.
3. Combatting Cross-Border Terrorism
Russia is keen to combat cross-border terrorism along the axis of Afghanistan—Central Asia—Russia as well as along the contour of Afghanistan—the Middle East—Russia. The threat of militia entering Russia from the Middle East and Afghanistan via Central Asia persists. The same goes for Xinjiang, China, via the respective corridors.
4. Ensuring Central Asia’s Steady Economic Growth to Counter Non-Traditional Security Threats
Two Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Since such membership implies open borders, any unrest caused by a worsening situation in Afghanistan could entail an influx of refugees, resulting in serious problems for Russia.
Steady development in Central Asia is in China’s best interests, since the former is economically, culturally and historically tied to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This is particularly evident within the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, its programmes linked to the EAEU as well as to national development programmes (for example, in Kazakhstan).
5. Controlling Migration Flows and Fostering Interpersonal Ties
The Central Asian nations, both in the EAEU and outside it, especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are a source of substantial migration flows into Russia. A destabilized Afghanistan—activities of various terrorist groups in its northern part as well as recruitment and radicalization of Central Asian labour migrants in Russia—might open the door for new security threats for Russia. Meanwhile, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic for the Central Asian economies, worsened by a temporary drop in oil and natural gas prices on global markets and falling money transfers from labour migrants in Russia, has augmented the region’s vulnerability to crisis. Reverberations from an increasingly unstable Afghanistan might serve as a trigger that could launch a series of negative events, following a “domino effect” scenario, while reaching Russia and potentially aggravating the exisiting crisis on the borders of the Union State of Russia-Belarus and the EU. All this particularly applies to migration.
Migration flows between China and Central Asia are not so significant, altough interpersonal ties between people living in the XUAR and in Central Asia are rather close. Many Uigurs reside in Central Asia, while many Central Asians, particularly the Kazakhs and the Kirghiz, live in the XUAR. Therefore, negative trends as regards the situation in Afghanistan could have quite an impact these ties.
Within the SCO and other regional forums, China (owing to its economic power and military potential) and Russia (owing to its military-technological power and “soft power” potential) act as the undoubted leaders of the region surrounding Afghanistan. They are naturally interested in both coordinating the positions of regional powers and avoiding a clash of interests in Afghanistan.
General Description of the Current Geopolitical Situation in Afghanistan and the Interests of Regional Powers
The situation in and around Afghanistan is complex and characterised by many contrasting trends.
The U.S. failed to instil the Western notion of liberal democracy in Afghanistan, which will impose its limits on such a policy to be implemented in the Middle East, Central and South Asia. The withdrawal of U.S. troops has diminished America’s influence and standing in the world, primarily in Asia and Eurasia, inducing U.S. allies and Washington-oriented countries to foresee such a situation repeating itself. So, such countries will be looking for an opportunity to “hedge their bets,” through building more trusted relations with Russia and China.
Influential media in the European allies of the United States (even those closest, like the United Kingdom) actively criticize Washington’s withdrawal of troops, which is indicative of centrifugal tendencies in the earlier Western coalition in Afghanistan.
Political turmoil is intensifying in the United States, with opponents of the Biden administration using the Afghanistan profile to discredit the President. Isolationism is becoming more marked in the rhetoric of the administration, with President Biden himself expressing similar sentiments, although he would previously adopt an opposite position. This could seriously affect U.S. policy in the future, at least in relation to the areas of Eurasia that border on Afghanistan. Phenomena similar to the Vietnam Syndrome are emerging in the American society, which could seriously limit the scope of U.S. foreign policy towards the Afghanistan-related part of Eurasia.
For the countries neighbouring on Afghanistan, such as Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, Central Asian nations and Turkey, serious questions have arisen regarding how the situation in Afghanistan will unfold, given potential threats to regional security. These include international terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, extremist and separatist movements supported from Afghanistan and radical Islamists in neighbouring countries being encouraged by the Taliban victory.
The positions of the above countries must also be co-ordinated to avoid clashes if they support rival ethnic and political factions in Afghanistan.
Iran has a clear interest in supporting the Hazaras and other Shiite groups living in central and western Afghanistan. In particular, Teheran has established the Hazara military movement “Fatemiyoun”, which is currently involved in the Syrian conflict.
In contrast, owing to the conflict with Iran, the Persian Gulf nations avidly support Sunni and anti-Shiite groups in Afghanistan and the neighbouring countries (Pakistan, Central Asia), including certain activities of anti-Shia groups within the Taliban and attacks against Shiites by radical organizations such as IS.
Pakistan, which is home to a large Pashtun diaspora, is historically associated with Pashtun political movements interested in suppressing the political activity of ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan.
India is interested in containing Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, so it supports any government and political force that pursues a policy independent from Islamabad (above all, this refers to the Tajiks). New Delhi will also support Pashtun political movements seeking either greater autonomy or independence in Pakistan itself.
The main minority group in northern Afghanistan, Tajiks, are closely linked with the neighbouring Tajikistan, a CSTO member whose protection is guaranteed by Russia. Another important minority in the North are the Uzbeks, whose long-time leader Marshal Dostum often calls for help from Uzbekistan, Turkey and Russia (via Tajiks).
Russia is interested in ensuring security of Central Asia, defusing hotbeds of international terrorism and preventing a migration crisis, the first signs of which can be seen on the border of the Union State, Poland and Lithuania. An increase in migration from Afghanistan could trigger a large-scale crisis.
Turkey is already dealing with a big flow of migrants from Afghanistan, second only to Syria, since Afghan refugees can enter the Turkish territory via Iran. Ankara is working on its relations with the Taliban and discussing options for managing Kabul International Airport, although Ankara is maintaining contacts with the pro-Turkish and anti-Taliban (anti-Pashtun) Uzbek minority as well.
Russia and the countries of Central Asia, Iran and Turkey (which include the Balkan and European countries to which they provide access), as well as Pakistan, intersect three drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan (northern, Iranian-Balkan and southern). This opens the door for organized crime and finances the activities of extremist and terrorist groups.
There are no Chinese ethnic groups in Afghanistan that share historical and cultural perspectives. Even so, within the Belt and Road Initiative, China is interested in investing in the country and in the security of the neighbouring countries. The fight against extremism in Xinjiang largely depends on the security situation in Central Asia. In addition, China and India may have clashing interests in Afghanistan. As in the case of Russia, China is seeking to reduce U.S. influence in the region, including within the Indo-Pacific project, having no interest in cooperation between the United States and Central Asia being boosted.
As for the Central Asian countries, their interest lies in preventing Afghan threats from reaching their territory. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are willing to find common ground with the Taliban. Tajikistan, on the other hand, has no choice but adopt a tough stance against them for a number of reasons. Central Asian nations seek to maintain their cooperation both with China and Russia, which will likely be strengthened, as well as with the U.S., which offered economic and military assistance while involved in Afghanistan. Finally, historical and ethnic ties play an important role: amongst others, Tajikistan with Afghan Tajiks, Uzbekistan with Uzbeks, Turkmenistan with Turkmen.
Development Scenarios for the Situation in Afghanistan
The multitude of factors that could affect the situation in Afghanistan make any forecasting a challenge. As for the domestic political situation, there are two likely scenarios, which could be called “A Strong Taliban” and “A Weak Taliban”. Both could have positive and negative implications for Russia, China and other regional powers as well as the global community at large.
Scenario 1. “A Strong Taliban.” Most Russian experts view this scenario as most plausible. It envisages representatives of the Taliban to create a relatively effective system of management, containing the crisis in the country, maintaining unity and suppressing the opposition.
Option A (good). The moderate wing of the Taliban gains victory, and principal agreements with external powers are respected: an all-inclusive government is established, international terrorists are expelled from the country, while there is no aggression demonstrated towards neighbours, primarily the countries of Central Asia.
Option B (bad). The radical wing of the Taliban gains victory, external expansion begins, primarily towards Central Asia, active support is provided to religious extremist and terrorist groups around the world.
Scenario 2. “A Weak Taliban.” The second scenario suggests that the Taliban will fail to establish an effective management system as well as cope with the crisis in the country so that an internal split will occur while—even if there is formal unity—strong discontent will remain in the country. From an applied point of view, this scenario is dangerous considering the importance to the Afghan economy of aid from Western donors and international organizations. Should serious allegations of human rights violations arise, aid could be withdrawn substantially, boosting the likelihood of a serious economic crisis in the country. This might lead to internal conflict within the Taliban (between moderate and radical groups) over resource allocation .
Resistance of ethnic minorities to the rule of the Taliban is also growing. The Panjshir Valley plays an important role in this, as two key Tajik representatives are located there at the moment (Ahmad Massoud Jr., who inherited influence and authority in the Valley from his father, as well as Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who took power in the country in the absence of the ousted President Ashraf Ghani).
Option A (good). There is no clash of external powers in the country, meaning that the war is between intra-Afghan forces without external support. The conflict is of an intracountry nature, without regional and global forces becoming involved. In this situation, it is easy to localize border security challenges (although the situation in Afghanistan itself will be very bad). In this case, enclaves controlled by international terrorist structures might arise, but they could be balanced by enclaves controlled by forces more favourable to Russia and other regional players (as in the 1990s).
Option B (bad) foresees external powers playing an active role in the Afghan conflict (a proxy war), as is the case of Syria or Libya. Moreover, highly dangerous terrorist originations might mobilize (for example, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, banned in Russia) in Afghanistan, while the chances of armed groups of international terrorists invading neighbouring countries, including those of Central Asia, will rise.
It is worth noting that the possible rapprochement between Afghanistan’s two most powerful military neighbouring countries and achievement thereby of a consolidated position on the matter would have a greatly positive influence on the situation in Afghanistan. It is also important that Russia maintain good relations with all and China with most of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. So, Moscow and Beijing can help other countries of the region align their interests.
Scenarios for the Geopolitical Situation Around Afghanistan to Evolvd & Security Threats for the Neighbouring Countries
Given the more positive scenario, the situation in Afghanistan will not affect its neighbours and the Taliban will be able to form a stable, inclusive government. The other scenario, also positive for its neighbours but negative for Afghanistan itself, presupposes disintegration of the country with violence localized within its borders.
There are two scenarios that can be considered unfavourable for Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. These are a strong Taliban led by radical groups that will carry out an external expansion in Central Asia – towards Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. In this case, they would benefit from the support of radical Islamist groups throughout the Islamic world. The geopolitical aspects of this scenario have not yet been elaborated in the literature but are still discussed by various Russian experts on social media (Telegram and Facebook). In particular, the well-known Russian orientalist A. Knyazev has noted that adoption by the Taliban of such a policy could be beneficial to the United States, since it would weaken Washington’s main opponents—China, Russia and Iran.
The second unfavourable option is a weak Taliban in the grip of a civil war, which could lead to the collapse of Afghanistan, as was in 1990s. This scenario could cause a “domino effect” for the Central Asian countries considered to be “fragile states.” It is rather easy to imagine, for example, how border clashes between various armed groups over division of the profits from drug smuggling along the northern route could trigger large-scale destabilization of the Tajikistan and Turkmenistan border with Afghanistan. One might recall the case of Kyrgyzstan, which does not share a border with Afghanistan, but where something similar already took place during the 1999 Batken War (moreover, a number of experts believed that the IMU, banned in Russia, not only tried to “break through” to Uzbekistan but also resolved the issue of consolidating its influence on the key drug transportation northern route, which passes through southern Kyrgyzstan ). Further destabilization of Afghanistan could increase the Islamic State’s presence in the country, as well as intensify the activities of Al-Qaeda. In this scenario, there is a threat of the Taliban collapsing, some of its former units becoming radicalized and Afghanistan’s boosted role as a haven for terrorist and extremist organizations from Central Asia and China. These groups would be able to conduct subversive actions from its territory in Central Asia and, from there, in Russia and China.
The traditional threat of a civil war, which has already emerged around the Panjshir Valley, is tied to the ethnic conflict between the Pashtuns (the Taliban is mainly a Pashtu movement) and the Tajiks of Afghanistan. The government of Tajikistan refusing to recognize the Taliban suggests that they might also be drawn into the conflict. Furthermore, Pakistan and India could also easily become involved in the conflict. Vice-President of Afghanistan Amrullah Saleh and former President Ashraf Ghani have made quite unequivocal accusations against Pakistan of being responsible for the fall of the Ghani government , which was actively supported by India . So far, the conflict only affects Afghan Tajiks—yet, should the Taliban initiate a policy of persecuting the Hazaras and other Shiites, as it did in the 1990s, Iran will automatically be drawn into the conflict. If the Hazara militia of Fatemiyoun, currently fighting in Syria, move to Afghanistan, they could constitute a serious military-political alternative to the Taliban, along with the Tajiks and representatives of other, weaker, national minority groups (such as Dostum’s Uzbeks). The United States has so far refused to support the Afghan Tajiks. However, in the event that the disagreements between the U.S. and the Taliban intensify, they could do so, for example, as part of a policy to establish a partnership with India in engineering and technical development.
One of the main dangers for Afghanistan is to become somewhat of a battlefield for the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East, between Iran and other countries of the region (primarily, Saudi Arabia). The Islamic State’s invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates this, as do the terrorist acts against Shias in these countries. It is possible that both the IS and other connected Sunni military groups from Central Asia and other countries might actively travel to Afghanistan from the Middle East. Finally, Guardians of the Islamic Revolution from Iran seek to actively involve Fatemiyoun in the Syrian conflict.
If this trend persists, the Afghan conflict might develop in a fashion similar to the crises in the Greater Middle East (as in the 1990s). In this case, Afghanistan and, therefore, Pakistan and Central Asia could turn into another theatre of the Sunni-Shiite and Saudi-Iranian confrontation, which already includes Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. In this case, two parallel conflicts will develop in Afghanistan: the confrontation between the ethnic minorities of the North and the Pashtuns of the South, as well that between the Sunnis and Shia Hazaras. In this case, the conflict will become structurally more complex (like the current conflicts in Syria or Libya). Russia and China might be indirectly drawn into it against their will. So, Moscow and Beijing are most interested in avoiding such a scenario.
Development Dynamics of the Afghan Terrorist Threat
The extent of terrorism overspill from Afghanistan will largely depend on which scenario materializes. Should events follow the negative scenario, the threat will only rise. In the event of the positive scenario, the threat will decrease. There are currently three levels of terrorist threat emerging from Afghan territory:
- A Significant Indirect Threat. There is a risk of international terrorist organizations from Afghanistan invading the neighbouring countries. It is worth noting that such terrorist organizations have emerged not as a result of domestic issues but rather of the unstable situation in Afghanistan attracting extremist organizations from the neighbouring countries. Nonetheless, invasion by terrorists from the Afghan territory could cause the neighbouring countries to collapse and call for regional powers to take action in preventing such a scenario, as in the case of the “Batken War”.
- A Medium Indirect Threat. International terrorist groups from Afghanistan might possibly enter the territory of other countries, especially Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Pakistan, but that their armed forces will successfully protect their borders.
- An Indirect Threat. Afghanistan is a haven for terrorist groups from various countries, including those in Eurasia. This affects the security, geopolitical, regulatory and economic interests of many countries, including Russia, China and even countries of the European Union.
Should the favourable scenario play out, current threats arising from the Afghan situation will persist at first but will dwindle in the coming years. If an unfavorable scenario prevails, a significant immediate threat will for some countries turn into a catastrophic one, which will require serious mobilization of all efforts. For other countries, a moderate immediate threat will turn into a serious one, and an indirect one will turn into an immediate one.
Recommendations for Russia-China Joint Action
A coordinated approach by Russia and China is required to deal with the common threat. It could include the following points.
Coordinating their policies towards the Taliban whilst ensuring that the neighbouring countries bordering Afghanistan are on the same page. This might include expulsion of international terrorist groups from the country, safeguarding peace and stability on Afghanistan’s borders, creating an inclusive government, ensuring respect for basic human rights and effective governance of the country.
Implementing joint mediation between the conflicting groups (for example, Pashtuns and Tajiks) within Afghanistan and bordering regions with the aim of maintaining peace in the country.
Regional powers with interests in Afghanistan, both members of the SCO and other regional organizations, should coordinate their activities in the country. This is all the more relevant considering that Afghanistan is an observer country in the SCO and that the Afghan issue is expected to be discussed at the upcoming Dushanbe summit. Other regional powers (like CICA, for example) should also coordinate their policies on the issue.
Given the emergence of various non-traditional security threats from the territory of Afghanistan (terrorism, religious extremism, organized crime), military cooperation and interaction must be strengthened between the Russian and Chinese special services in different formats (joint exercises, exchange of information on extremists and terrorists) on a bilateral and multilateral basis, particularly within the SCO and its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure.
Joint humanitarian assistance should be provided to Afghanistan at both the bilateral level and that of international organizations, which might already be necessary in the winter of 2021–2022 owing to the mounting economic crisis in the country.
Strengthening diplomatic and expert dialogue with countries that are not direct neighbours but might nonetheless suffer from unrest in Afghanistan. These include the EU countries (the threats of uncontrolled migration, drug trafficking, terrorism from Afghan territory). The EU countries are also seeking to increase connectivity with the countries of Asia and Central Eurasia through the interface with the IPP and prevention of a negative impact on these processes exerted by events in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries of Central Asia. The countries of the EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia were also major humanitarian donors to Afghanistan and neighbouring Central Asian countries.
Increasing expert cooperation between Russia and China on the topic of Central Asia using existing formats (RIAC, the Valdai Club, academic dialogue), as well as forming new, more specialized formats.
Strengthening the coordination of economic and security assistance to Afghanistan and the neighbouring countries of Central Asia. There are many mechanisms for this within the EAEU, the Belt and Road Initiative, the SCO and other bilateral and multilateral collaboration formats. For Russia, these are the formats of the CSTO, CIS, “5+1”. For China that of consultations on security in China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and others.
- A terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation.
- A terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation.
- A terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation.
- Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)
- Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)
- See discussion in the press centre “Russia Today” on 31 August 2021.
- Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)
From our partner RIAC
The Taliban-Afghanistan Dilemmas
The Blitzkrieg winning back of Afghanistan by the Taliban with the concomitant US pullout established Taliban 2.0 in Kabul. But this has created a number of dilemmas for the stakeholding states. The latter include Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, viz. Iran in the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the north, China in the northeast and Pakistan to the east. Russia is also affected since it considers former Central Asian Soviet republics like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as its backyard and since Moscow has its own share of extremist-secessionist problems in Chechnya. It is also worried about Islamic fundamentalism spreading to its Muslim population concentrated around its major cities and the Caucasus.
The dilemmas are as follows:
I. If the US-led withholding of economic aid and international recognition continues in essence, then conditions– as it is they are bad enough in Afghanistan—will further deteriorate. This will lead to greater hunger, unemployment and all-round economic deprivation of the masses. Such dystopia will generate more refugees in droves as well as terrorists who will spill out to seek greener pastures beyond the country’s borders.
Such condition will in turn mean a life-threatening headache for not only Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours like Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan but also for more distant lands. The liberal democracies of Europe. Germany, France, Italy, the UK and others have already had their share of refugees—and terrorists—when waves from an unsettled Syria hit them way back in 2015. Chancellor Angela Merkel even decided to act magnanimously and opened Germany’s doors to a million fleeing the civil war in Syria. Such acceptance of refugees from Asia and Africa in Europe, however, boosted right-wing parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and other movements throughout that continent. As a result the easy cross-border movements within the European Union came to be partly restricted in order to keep unwanted refugees out. Calls went out for hardening the external borders of the EU against more refugee invasion. The EU also made arrangements with Turkey to absorb and manage the refugee onrush in exchange for fat amounts of the Euro.
The prospects of a second such wave of refugees desperate not only to escape the clutches of the medieval Taliban but to find a promising future and remarkably better living conditions in the advanced lands of Europe are giving nightmares to the governments of the latter countries.
There seems to be a growing consensus among many in the international community that not only purely humanitarian but also larger economic aid to the Taliban-run Afghanistan should be extended—and without delay, if only to keep a lid on refugees—and terrorists—spilling across the borders. Islamabad apparently scored a remarkable ‘victory’ over New Delhi when its protégé Taliban replaced the pro-Indian Ghani government. Nevertheless, it is worried about the spillover into its territory across the Durand Line to its west. Pakistan, hence, leads this school of thought most vociferously[i]. It fenced its border with Afghanistan to a significant extent in anticipation of more refugees pouring in. It has been joined in the chorus by Russia, the EU, China, and others. China, for instance, has emphasized the need for releasing funds to Afghanistan at its talks with the G-20 on 23 September.[ii] However, no such stipulation is seen in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) declaration released at the Tajik capital Dushanbe on 17 September, though the document mentions explicitly the need for an “inclusive” government that includes the left-out minorities. India’s presence at the meet may have prevented the inclusion of a funds-release clause.
II. But even if the US unfreezes the $9.25 billion Afghan assets under its control, and allows the IMF and the World Bank to make available other funds and assets to the funds-starved Taliban’s Kabul, a major problem will still linger. This is the question of ‘inclusive’ government, which the Taliban had promised among other things in its February 2020 agreement with the USA at Doha. The composition of the current Taliban government shows the mighty influence of the hardliners within the Taliban, elements like the Haqqani network and the secretive hardcore Kandahar Shura—as opposed to the seemingly more moderate Pakistan-based Quetta Shura. The Prime Minister of Taliban 2.0, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, is on a UN-designated blacklist; its Interior Minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is on the top of the FBI’s most-wanted list with a multi-million dollars reward hanging over his head.
Although the Taliban did not officially take a formal position, a member of the new government in Kabul has also defied calls from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and from other quarters for forming a more ‘inclusive’ government. That would mean more Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and women holding important positions in the government, a phenomenon markedly absent in the current governmental setup dominated by male Pashtuns. The Taliban member shot back that the current government was as much ‘inclusive’ as it was possible to make and that the Taliban did not care for others to dictate to it what kind of government would suit Afghanistan.
If Taliban 2.0 remains essentially as it is today, with the minorities ignored, this would still create unrest and insurgency in the country. A civil war in the not too distant a future cannot be ruled out. This is the reason that even Pakistan, which certainly would not like to see its protégé Taliban’s power diluted, keeps harping on the ‘inclusive’ clause along with Russia and others.
A civil war will not be confined within the boundaries of Afghanistan but will attract intervention by neighbouring states and other more distant stakeholders like the USA. Tajikistan will continue to back the Tajiks living astride its southern border with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan will do the same with the Afghan Uzbeks. Shia Iran will stand up for the Shia Hazaras while the Western world will, in general, wish to see ‘human rights’ and especially ‘women’s rights’ given full leeway. The Chinese seemed to have cut a deal. They would extend economic aid to Kabul in exchange for assurances that no terrorism or separatism would go out of Afghan territory.
But Taliban 2.0, despite its smooth assurances at Doha and elsewhere, shows no signs of stretching significantly from its understanding of the Sharia law, which it said it wished to uphold as a framework within which all these rights would be respected. There are reports that the US is in talks with Russia seeking a base on Russian territory or again in Tajikistan for its future ‘over-the-horizon’ operations in Afghanistan, starting with monitoring purposes.
In sum, while option I, outlined above, promises an immediate disaster for South Asia and even beyond, option II holds out only marginally better prospects. It still has the Damocles’ sword of the probability of a civil war hanging over the head. The ideal solution would be to widen the Taliban 2.0 government to include the deprived minorities with an eye on keeping an effective lid on social instability. But the prospects for such a solution seem far-fetched, given the apparent domination of the hardliners in Taliban 2.0 and the long-standing animosity between the northern non-Pashtun Afghans and the Pashtun Taliban.. Also, the attacks by other extremist groups like the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), al Qaeda, and the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and so on will unlikely cease, even if option II is fully implemented. These extra-Taliban extremist groups will only encourage the radical elements within the Taliban to opt for more aggressive actions, both within and outside Afghanistan’s borders.
The future in and around Afghanistan looks grim indeed.
[i] Incidentally, the Pashtuns living on both sides of the British-drawn Durand Line of 1893 do not recognise it, and that includes the Taliban)
[ii] Reid Standish report, gandhara.org of rfe/rl.org, 27 September 2021, accessed 14 October 2021, 09.07 Indian Standard Time (IST)… All times henceforth are in IST.
How India utilised the AFSPA to suppress freedom movements?
The freedom movements in the volatile north-eastern state of India predate the Partition. The Englishman realised importance of the North East as it could provide a corridor to the Japanese in World War II. India applied the Armed forces Special Powers Act first to the north eastern states of Assam and Manipur, a cauldron of unrest. The act was amended in 1972 to extend to all the seven states in the north eastern region of India. The states affected by the draconian law included Assam. Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland, also known as the seven sisters. The forces brutally applied the AFSPA to the states. It ignored outcry by people against has mounting incidents of arbitrary detention, torture, rape and looting. Indian government continued to extend the initial period for imposition of the law ad infinitum sometimes with ex post facto notifications. Its pleas were without AFSPA all the north eastern states will secede from India.
A large part of the original region that constitutes the seven states of the republic of India had strong political, economic and socio-cultural links with South East Asia. The great Hindu and Muslim empires that reigned over the Indian subcontinent never extended east of the Brahmaputra River. The British colonists were the first to repress freedom movements. . In the early nineteenth century they moved in to check Burmese expansion into today’s Manipur and Assam. The British, with the help of the then Manipur king, Gambhir Singh, crushed the Burmese imperialist dream and the treaty of Yandabo was signed in 1828. Under this treaty Assam became a part of British India and the British continued to influence the political affairs of the region.
The resentment against the Englishman led to the bloody Anglo-Manipuri Conflict of 1891. The British were subdued by the fighting spirit of the local people. So, they preferred not to administer directly but only through the King.
During the Second World War, the Japanese tried to enter the Indian sub continent through this narrow corridor. But back home when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were A-bombed they retreated from the Imphal and Kohima fronts.
A buffer zone
Before leaving India, the British pondered over many proposals for post-Partition of India. The local people were however never consulted. Finally the British divided the region such that some parts went to Pakistan but the lion’s share to India.
Over the years local democratic movements erupted as the people aspired to a new social and political order. One important example is a strong popular democratic movement against feudalism and colonialism in Manipur, led by Hijam Irabot Singh.
The treacherous annexation of Manipur
The post-Partition India reconstituted the kingdom of Manipur as a constitutional monarchy by passing the Manipur Constitution Act 1947. Elections were held under the new constitution. A legislative assembly was formed. In 1949 V.P Menon, a seminar representative of Government of India, invited the king to a meeting on the pretext of discussing the deteriorating law and order situation in the state in Shillong. Upon his arrival, the king was forced to sign under duress. The agreement was never ratified in the Manipur legislative Assembly. Rather, the Assembly was dissolved and Manipur was kept under the charge of a Chief Commissioner. There were strong protests but using violent and brutal repression the Government of India suppressed the democratic movement in Manipur and has continued applying the same methods ever since.
Colonisation of Nagaland
The inhabitants of the Naga Hills, sprawling across Indo-Burmese border, formed Naga National Council (NNC) aspiring for a common homeland and self governance. During 1929, the NNC petitioned the Simon Commission for independence. The Commission was examining the feasibility of future of self governance of India.
The Naga leaders forcefully articulated the demand of self governance once the British pulled out of India. Gandhi publicly announced that Nagas had every right to be independent. Under the Hydari Agreement signed between NNC and British administration, Nagaland was granted protected status for ten years, after which the Nagas would decide whether they should stay in the Indian union or not. However, shortly after the British withdrew, the new Indian rulers colonized Nagaland and claimed it to be Indian Territory.
The Naga National Council proclaimed Nagaland’s independence in retaliation, and the Indian authorities arrested the Naga leaders. The AFSPA was used to violently suppress the democratic aspirations of the people of North East. In 1975, some Naga leaders held talks with the Government of India which resulted in the Shillong Agreement. Democratic forces of Nagaland smelt a rat in this deceptive agreement and rallied the people for national liberation of Nagas. One of the organizations which articulated the democratic demand of Naga people is National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN).
Mizo National front was a phenomenal product of a famine. In the Lushai Hills of Assam in the early sixties a famine broke out. A relief team requested for help from the Government of India. But there was little help. The relief team organised themselves into the Mizo National front (MNF) to liberate themselves from the neo-colonial occupation of India. Against the democratic aspirations of the people Indian army moved in. The rebellion was so strong, that the Indian air force had to bomb the villagers. The armed forces compelled people to leave their homes. This devastated the structure of Mizo society. In 1986, the Mizo Accord was signed between MNF and Government of India. This accord was as deceptive as the Shillong Accord made with the Nagas earlier. To promote dominance by high caste Hindus, India clubbed poor non-feudal ethnic groups with Adivasis, cheating them in the name of scheduled tribes and in the process forcing them to be marginalized and stigmatized by the upper caste ruling elites of India.
Gradually it became the neocolonial hinterland for exploitation by the Indian state, where local industries were made worthless and now the people are entirely dependent on goods and businesses owned predominantly by those from the Indo-Gangetic plains. The new Indian unscrupulous businesses pull the economic strings of this region.
In Tripura the indigenous population has been reduced to a mere 25% of the total population of the state because of large scale immigration from the North east and Bangladesh.
A series of repressive laws were passed by the Government of India in order to deal with this rising National liberation aspiration of the people of North east. In 1953 the Assam maintenance of Public Order (Autonomous District) Regulation Act was passed. It was applicable to the then Naga Hills and Tuensang districts. It empowered the Governor to impose collective fines, prohibit public meetings, and detain anybody without a warrant. Indian atrocities from 1980 onwards include: the massacres of civilians at Heirangoi thong (Manipur) in 1984, at RIMS Manipur in 1995, at Malom (Manipur) in 2000; the horror of army torture and violence on civilians during operation Blue bird (Manipur) in 1987 and operation Rhino (Assam) in 1991. Indiscriminate firing on civilians by armed forces personnel when their own vehicle burst in the town of Kohina (Nagaland) in March 1995, the shelling and destruction of the town of Makokchung (Nagaland) in 1994, the enforced disappearances of Loken and Lokendro (Manipur) in 1996, and the rape of Miss N Sanjita (who subsequently committed suicide) (Manipur) in 2003.
After the Partition, India emerged as the new-colonial power. The North East still yeans for freedom.
The myth of “shared values”
The Indian prime minister’s visit to the USA underlines a paradigm shift in the United States’ policy: a shift from Europe to Asia. The shift is dictated by India’s constant pressure on the US to do its part of the quid pro quo for India’s joining the Quad, a conglomerate to corner China. Like the USA, India also is embarrassed at the fall of Kabul. India wants that the Taliban would shut their eyes to the reign of terror in the occupied Kashmir. In its disappointment, the USA, like a rueful baby, is doing everything on India’s bidding to further isolate Pakistan.
Still the portents are that not everything is hunky-dory with Indo-US relations. The US wants India to cancel its deal to purchase the S-400 air defence system from Russia. The US has given India a muffled message that unless the deal is cancelled India may face sanctions. India is hopeful of getting a waiver.After all, India became a member of the nuclear club without signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India has been a recipient of the US favours in the past also. In July 2003 India turned down the US request to provide 17,000 troops to shore up America’s war in Iraq. Then, India under prime minister Manmohan Singh also refused to support any US attempts to isolate or topple the Iran government. Manmohan wished Russian diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme would succeed.The US companies have invested $ 200 billion in China. Yet, she is perceived as the number one competitor to the US. The reason is that China may surpass the US in terms of Gross Domestic Product growth in the near future.
To Modi’s chagrin, the US president Joe Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris underscored the importance of democratic values in their meetings. Biden quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s message of tolerance to allude to prevailing intolerance of BJP’s government, an avatar of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Harris stressed the need for democratic countries to “defend democratic principles and institutions. Her remarks amounted to a diplomatic nudge to the Indian leadership amid concerns about “democratic backsliding” in India (Freedom house and the Economist downgraded India).
Before Biden and Modi joined their delegations for bilateral talks, the US President had made opening remarks: “Our partnership is more than just what we do. It’s about who we are…. It’s rooted in our shared responsibility to uphold democratic values, our joint commitment to diversity, and it’s about family ties, including four million Indian Americans who make the United States stronger every single day.”
Harris said at a joint media appearance with Modi before their first in-person meeting at the White House: “As democracies around the world are under threat, it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries and around the world, and that we maintain what we must do to strengthen democracies at home.
She had earlier openly differed on Twitter with Jaishanker when he refused to attend a meeting with the House foreign affairs committee because the US legislators had rejected his request to exclude Indian-American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who had been critical of the Modi government’s Kashmir policy.
“It’s wrong for any foreign government to tell Congress what members are allowed in meetings on Capitol Hill,” Harris had tweeted in December 2019.
As for “tolerance”, the US invasions of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan leave no doubt about how much the US believes in what it professes.
India’s democratic “tolerance”
Since British raj days, India’s north east had been a simmering cauldron of freedom movements. British colonists held sway over the North East at gun point. In footsteps of the British colonists India suppressed freedom movements in the volatile North East through a slew of draconian laws. The most atrocious law applied to the region was the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958. It was later extended to the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state also.
The AFSPA violates the fundamental constitutional rights of right to life, liberty, freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly, free movement, practice of any profession, and protection against arbitrary arrest and freedom of religion, as enshrined in Articles 21, 14, 19, 22 and 25 of the Indian Constitution. AFSPA has been used in these regions to inflict thousands of deaths, custodial deaths and rape, torture, encirclement of the civilian population, combing operations, looting of private citizen’s property etc. Thousands of youth have simply disappeared.
Onus of proof on the accused
The AFSPA holds an accused guilty until proven innocent. This law violates legal maxim Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (“innocent until proven guilty”).
A governor of an Indian state could through a notification declare a state to be “disturbed” without consulting the state legislature. The law gives armed forces immunity from any accountability. The law is not “in aid of civil authority” but “in place of civil authority”.
Powers of officers
Section 4 gives the following special powers to any commissioned officer, warrant officer or non commissioned officer of the armed forces in a disturbed area: (a) If in his opinion, it is necessary for maintenance for public order to fire even to the extent of causing death or otherwise use force against a person who is acting in contravention of an order prohibiting the assembly of five or more persons or the carrying of weapons or of things capable of being used as weapon. (b) If in his opinion, it is necessary to destroy any arms dump or fortified position, any shelter from which armed attacks are made or are likely to be made, and any structure used as training camp for armed volunteers or as a hideout for armed volunteers or as a hideout for armed gangs or absconders. (c) Arrest without warrant any person who has committed a cognizable offence and to use whatever force is necessary to affect the arrest. (d) To enter and search without warrant any premises to make an arrest or to recover any person wrongfully confined or to recover any arms, ammunition, explosive substance or suspected stolen property.
Section 2 (c) of the Act also clearly shows the close affinity between AFSPA and those laws governing the military such as the Army Act (1950). It reads, ‘All other words and expressions used herein but not defined in the Air Force Act 1950, or the Army Act 1950, shall have the meaning respectively assigned to them in those Acts’.
A war against own people
The act applies toacts that are ‘likely to be made’ or ‘about to be committed’. This presumption is characteristic of war zones. In a war situation, any officer whether he is a commissioned, junior commissioned or non-commissioned officer-leading his men in the field is the judge as well as part of the body that executes his judgments.
The AFSPA grants armed forces personnel the power to shoot to arrest, search, seize and even shoot to kill. Thus it violates the Right to Life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India which guarantees the right to life to all people. The AFSPA also violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). India signed the ICCPR in 1978, taking on the responsibility of securing the rights guaranteed by the Covenant to all its citizens. In particular, the Act is in contravention of Article 6 of the ICCPR guaranteeing the right to life.
India is often called “the world’s largest democracy” by the West. Western notion of democracy (Westminster model) is that it is government of the people (masses, not classes), for the people and by the people. In truth, Indian democracy is in name only, not in substance. The “shared values” are a ruse.
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