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Implications of ISIS-Taliban Rivalry for Central Asian Jihad

The ISK founding emir Hafiz Saeed Khan

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The Taliban’s pragmatic diplomacy and gradual departure from the Jihadi ideology alienate Central Asian jihadists from the Taliban and strengthen its ardent enemy, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). Taliban-backed Uyghur jihadists, who exploited shahids (martyr) exclusively against the Chinese authorities in the past, recently carried out a suicide attack against the Shia Hazara minority under Taliban rule.

Factionalization of IMU

The establishment “warm relations” by the Taliban’s interim government with China, Russia and Uzbekistan have sparked a negative reaction from the Uzbek and Tajik jihadi media, as they consider this trio as Taghut (idol or tyrant) regimes. During meetings with Central Asian and China’s government officials, except Tajikistan, the Taliban generously pledged that Afghan soil would not be used as a terrorist base, which is unlikely to please Central Asian veteran jihadists.

The Afghan Taliban’s ideological compromises retreating from hardline jihadi principles in pursuit of international recognition and legitimacy has cooled their relationship with al Qaeda-linked foreign jihadi groups, which have jointly resisted the US invasion over the past 20 years. Due to pragmatic concessions to ‘Taghud’ states, the Taliban are gradually losing their jihadi attractiveness in the eyes of foreign fighter groups. It is known that the Taliban and al Qaeda have always been the ideological masterminds and role models for Central Asian radical Islamists and Uyghur militants from China’s Xinjiang region, victimized to legal persecution and bloody repression by authoritarian regimes.

In the late ’90s, neighboring Afghanistan became a safe haven for Uzbek, Tajik militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Uyghurs of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) swearing oath of allegiance (bay’at) to al Qaeda and the Taliban leaders. Under the leadership of the parent organizations, they acquired the global jihadi ideology and shaped the foundation of Central Asian jihadism. In exchange for the IMU’s bay`at, the Afghan Taliban provided Central Asian militants with a space for training.

Over the quarter-century jihadi relationship they have experienced ups and downs associated with the violation of the bay’at and the joining of some IMU militants led by Usmon Ghazi to the Islamic State (ISIS). After Usmon Ghazi’s faction changed its jihadi banner and openly made bay’at to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in August, 2015, the Taliban brutally punished the Uzbek jihadists. As punishment for this betrayal, in November 2015 the Taliban killed Usmon Ghazi and about a hundred Central Asian defector at a base in Zabul Province.

The second time Central Asian jihadists were hit hard by the Afghan Taliban in the Darzab district of Jawzjan province in 2018, when the Taliban defeated the Qari Hikmatullah’s network, which was the main pillar of ISK in the northern Afghan province of Jawzjan. Qari Hekmatullah, a former Uzbek Taliban commander, joined his forces with ISK and came to lead the group’s northern territorial project for an extended period of time. He also served as the ISK’s senior foreign fighter facilitator in northern Afghanistan, poaching Central Asia fighters and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) militants.

A Uyghur suicide bomber of ISK who attacked a Hazara Shia mosque in Kunduz on October 8, 2021

The ideological vision of the late IMU leader Tahir Yuldash and the TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud regarding Takfiri Salafism, global jihad and worldwide Caliphate has always been close to the current views of ISK. Notably, the TTP and IMU leaders have a long history of jihadi collaboration, lived together in South Waziristan and jointly carried out transnational attacks in Lahore, Peshawar and on Karachi’s international airport in 2014. They ideologically inspired each other and, in contrast to the nationalist ideology of the Afghan Taliban, dreamed of creating a worldwide Islamic Caliphate. Even after the Taliban eliminated defectors in the IMU’s ranks, remnants of Uzbek Muhajireen [foreigner or migrant] retained their global jihadi aspirations. But they learned a bitter lesson from the past and no longer intervened in a bloody dispute between the Taliban and ISK over the future of a single Caliphate and were forced to survive in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas.

Global Jihad and Taliban Nationalism

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, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), the Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and Jamaat Ansarullah (JA).

Now that the Taliban have achieved their long-awaited victory and are in power, ISK is trying to take over the vacant jihadi seat to poach Central Asian Muhajireen remaining without a hostile target in post-American Afghanistan. Taliban-backed Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik jihadi groups are overwhelmed by the ISK’s sophisticated operational abilities and its high potential to conduct targeted strikes on Taliban’s vulnerable spots to undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans and the world. Since the Taliban came to power on August 15, ISK has claimed more than fifty separate attacks, including a suicide bombing at the Kabul International Airport, Shia Hazara mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar.

Along with devastating suicide attacks, the group’s strategists have successfully positioned ISK as a tough ideological adversary to the Taliban, portraying global Salafi jihadism as an irreplaceable alternative to the Taliban’s Pashtun nationalist jihadism. In its propaganda and media, ISIS continuously derides the Taliban as “apostates” and mocks their leaders as puppets of the Americans. Following the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of Kabul, ISIS’s al-Naba’ newsletter condemned the victory of its ideological rival as false, since it was not a conquest but a takeover of the country coordinated with the Americans as per the peace process in Doha. According to the Islamic State, “it was merely a process of peaceful transfer of power form one Taghut to another.” The al-Naba’ highlighted a “sore point” of foreign fighters, including Central Asian jihadists, noting that “American restored Taliban’s rule and granted them Kabul without firing a shot” because “Taliban left the Muhajireen (foreign fighters) and pledged that it would not allow the repeat of the ‘Manhattan mistake.’

Analysis of the jihadi media shows that the recent brutal and mysterious killing of the leading Afghan Salafi scholar, Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil in Kabul by the Taliban has sparked lively discussion and sympathy among Central Asian Muhajireen adhering to Salafi ideology. The Taliban are suspicious of Afghan Salafists for supporting their arch-enemy of ISK. Following this event, ISK ideologues have focused on three main issues directly related to the future fate of foreign fighters and their Quranic beliefs regarding sacred jihad.

Firstly, the Islamic State emphasizes a deviation of the Afghan Taliban from the jihadi principles in alliance with the Crusaders and their diplomatic collaborations with the Taghut regimes of Central Asian states, Pakistan, Russia, and China, where the religion of Allah is persecuted. Secondly, the Taliban’s nationalist jihad distorts the goals and timing of the sacred global jihad and the scale of the creation of a single Caliphate. Thirdly, according to the ideologues of the Caliphate, the Taliban’s warm relations with the ‘Rafidha’ (rejectionist, used in a derogatory manner for the Shia) Iran is a betrayal of the Sunni Ummah. ISK views Shias as polytheists and heretics, who reject (rafiḍh) the caliphates of the first two successors of the Prophet Muḥammad: Abu Bakr and Umar.

The issues raised in the ISK propaganda networks really deeply disturb the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. Since the Taliban came to power, the Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik militant groups are undergoing ideological shifts and rethinking the goals of Central Asian jihadism. The Pashtu nationalist jihad treads on the toes of Central Asian jihadist veterans who have long fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. Moreover, the Taliban’s frequent public promises about non-interference in the neighbors’ affairs and expulsions of foreign fighters cause deep concern among the Central Asian Muhajireen. Today they are worried that the Taliban, after consolidating power and international recognition, may abandon them or use them as expendable for a lucrative economic deal with China, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Our previous report noted that al Qaeda-linked Central Asian jihadi groups warmly congratulated the Taliban on the “great historical victory”, in honor of it issued special congratulatory statements and echoed jihadi Nasheeds (chants of jihadi glory). In particular, Uzbek militants of IJU, KTJ, Uyghurs of TIP and Guraba Jamaat (GJ) and Tajik jihadists of JA heroized “the Taliban’s victory as an epic triumph”, and “the advance of Nusrat (victory) in Khorasan, promised by Allah in the Qur’an.”

Following a victorious euphoria, Central Asian militants seek their own jihadi identity between al Qaeda, ISK, TTP and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Unlike the rest, only ISK attempts to lure them to break away from Taliban’s circle and join the Islamic State’s ranks. Moreover, ISK’s strategic objectives and ideological views are currently more in line with their long-term goals and interests. In addition, the Taliban’s nationalist jihad, limited only to Afghanistan, plays into the hands of ISK. For many Central Asian jihadists, their distant future probably looks more promising with an ally that promises to create a worldwide Caliphate, than one who banned the use of Afghan soil to conduct global jihad.

Perhaps, struggles may soon erupt between the Taliban and Central Asian jihadi groups. Recently, Farrukh Shami (Farrukh Furkatovitch Fayzimatov), one of the KTJ’s fundraisers, whom the US Department of the Treasury added to sanction list, urged post-Soviet Islamists not to make hijrat (migrate) to Afghanistan, but to come to the Middle East.

Foggy Future of Central Asian Jihadism

Another indicator of the defections of Central Asian jihadists to the ISK side was a suicide bomb attack on worshippers at Hazara Shia mosque in the Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 55, over 140 injured on October 8, 2021. In its claim of responsibility, ISK identified the suicide-bomber as “Muhammad al-Uyguri,” indicating that he belonged to China’s mainly Muslim Uyghur minority. The ISIS-linked Amaq news agency said, the attack targeted both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to deport Uyghurs from Afghanistan in response to requests from China.

This indicates that the ISK ranks swelled with new Uyghur deserters of TIP, disillusioned by the Taliban’s policy towards China, which is carrying out genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. In addition, given the proximity of Kunduz to the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, ISK signals radical Salafists from Central Asia to make hijrat to Khorasan and join them, while the Taliban have pledged to expel foreign jihadists. Thus, ISK demonstrated once again that Shia Hazaras remain a desirable target of its attack, and the Taliban are unable to protect the people of Afghanistan. Now, when Uyghur militants of TIP faced with the stark reality of the Taliban’s rapprochement with China, they have only two options: martyrdom in hijrat or raising a flag of worldwide Caliphate with ISIS. The Uyghur suicide attack was a symbolic warning to China that its enormous Belt and Road Initiative would be a desirable target for ISK attacks.

It is conceivable that in the near future ISK can exploit suicide bombers from Central Asia to demonstrate its multinational face. It projects the existence of foreign fighters as proof of it being unbound by modern borders and nationalities highlighting a transnational face of Ummah. Such sophisticated attacks could target Hazara Shia minorities, Taliban’s combat units and markets in security-vulnerable provinces. To encourage desertion Central Asian Muhajireen and local Salafi community, ISK also will increase its propaganda campaign against the Taliban.

Although al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups loudly praised the Taliban’s victory, it did not bring them the long-awaited and promised jihadi future. Instead, they faced the threat of fragmentation into small jamaats and the loss of the global goal of the Central Asian jihad after the Taliban’s power seizure.

The Taliban might offer Central Asian jihadists standing in Afghan territory to blend in with Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen tribes in the northern Badakhshan, Kunduz, Jowzjan and Takhar provinces, appoint some especially trusted commanders as their overseers, as they did so recently. When the Taliban captured a strategically important security checkpoint near Afghan border with Tajikistan in July, they assigned a Tajik jihadi group Jamaat Ansarullah to raise the Taliban flag on the site. They also put JA’s leader Mahdi Arsalon in charge of security in five districts of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province – Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay – near the Tajik border. The Taliban exploited Tajik jihadists during the conquest of the northern provinces as their “hard power” and political leverage against Tajikistan, which supported Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan.

However, some Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik jihadists, dissatisfied with the Taliban’s concessions to Russia, China and the Central Asian ‘Tahud’ countries, but unwilling to side with ISK or participate in ‘Talibanization’ process, may try to leave Afghanistan and migrate to Syria’s Idlib province and join their ethnic groups.

It is expected that the jihadi activities of foreign fighters remaining on Afghan soil will be strictly controlled by the Taliban’s Badri Battalion. Turns out that the Taliban have long tightly controlled the media activities of Central Asian jihadi groups forbidding them to publish about joint military operations on social networks. Analysis of the jihadi media showed that in parallel with the launch of the US-Taliban peace negotiations in Doha, Uzbek and Tajik militants sharply reduced publishing video reports on the Taliban’s al-Fath jihadi operation.

ISK Threatens the US

Recently, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the US military’s Central Command, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested that the U.S. may not be able to prevent al Qaeda and ISIS from rebuilding in Afghanistan. His colleague, Colin Kahl, under secretary of defense policy, warned that ISK could be able to attack the United States in six months. The US military leadership’s concerns are shared by expert scholars on Afghan jihadism, warning that the Taliban cannot defeat the ISK alone.

ISIS strategists always considered the main principle of the group that the global jihad should be brought under the auspices of the Caliphate and managed by it in a more disciplined and coordinated manner. Following its strategy, if the central leadership of ISIS decides to financially strengthen its Khorasan branch of ISK, then the cross-border movement of militants and the recruitment of new fighters from Central Asia will get a new breath.

The revival of the ISK is dangerous, as the modern weapons left by the US in Afghanistan can easily fall into the hands of global jihadists. The high-profile suicide terror attacks of the ISK against the background of the country’s economic collapse and the Taliban’s failure to maintain control of their borders could turn Afghanistan into another hot spot for the ISIS’s followers from the Middle East, South and Central Asia. If the situation develops according to a scenario similar to the creation of the Caliphate in Mosul in 2014, then the intervention of the international armed forces will be required to tackle the problem posed by the ISK.

However, Moscow did not allow Central Asian countries to host U.S. or NATO military forces for “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations that would allow the U.S. military to more easily surveil and strike targets in the Taliban-controlled nation. Moscow sees the post-Soviet Central Asian region as its southern defensive flank. Russia exploits the threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan to expand its military-political influence and cement its military CSTO bloc in the region. Thus, the resistance of authoritarian Russia and China to the US counterterrorism initiative can reduce the pressure on ISIS and revive a resurgence of transnational jihadi terrorism in the very heart of Central Asia.

In this situation, the US should signal Central Asian countries and regional powers that Washington’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan does not mean its complete abandonment of Central Asia. The White House might play the card of economic partnership, financial support, and protection of human rights as a tool to counter the rise of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and the affirmation of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union.

Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam. Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Member. SpecialEurasia, Team Member.

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Central Asia

Post-Protest Kazakhstan Faces Three Major Crises

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Image source: ndtv.com

Kazakhstan suffered greatly from the biggest protest since its independence.  As I recently returned to Almaty, I saw that everyday life is heading back to normal, and the reconstruction seems lightning speed.  Yet, the scar is still apparent. The bank and convenience store from which I live upstairs were burned and under full reconstruction, and the city hall has been entirely covered to go through repairs and rebuild.

On the midnight of 19th of January, the curfew in Almaty is officially over.  The end of the curfew also marks the end of the state of emergency triggered by the protest starting January 2.  It was a genuinely reassuring sound to hear cars running on the street at midnight again. 

Yes, the government has taken swift measures to address political and economic dissatisfaction.  However, the political situation in Kazakhstan is very much similar to the reconstruction of Almaty.  While it seems normal on the surface and the reconstruction is at a flying speed, the scar, and the uncertainty remain. 


To me, the Nur-Sultan government still has to immediately address the three crises exposed during the protest, including power distribution, policy for the future, and inequality and corruption.  The country is far from quiet down, and the future is still vague for the people on the steppe. 


First, the Kazakh political system is still in shock from the protest.  The Kazakh elites are going through a significant political shuffling as President Tokayev targets Nazarbayev and his political influence.  As President Nazarbayev called to support the measures taken by President Tokayev, it seems like some political agreement has been made.  Nazarbayev has stated that President Tokayev assumes the total power as the president, and Tokayev will assume the presidency of Nur Otan, the ruling party.  However, the speech was not live on national TV, as it was a pre-recorded video on Nazarbayev’s Telegram channel.  There is no clear indication to prove that Nazarbayev is still in the capital as he claimed to be, and the whereabouts of Nazarbayev remains a question.

As President Tokayev also subtly criticized Nazarbayev and his group in a speech on January 11, the internal political struggle also targets the group surrounding Nazarbayev.  Some of Nazarbayev’s political alliances and family members have left their positions or even been arrested.  Massimov, the security chief and a known political ally of Nazarbayev, is currently under arrest for treason.  Nazarbayev’s nephew, the deputy security chief, left the position on January 17.  Nazarbayev’s children and sons-in-law have either left their jobs or sold their shares in key Kazakh companies.  Nazarbayev and his family’s political and economic power seems to be vanishing quickly. 

The struggle goes outside of Nur-Sultan.  As the protester chanted slogans against Nazarbayev, the removal of Nazarbayev’s influence in Kazakh society has also begun.  There is a petition to change Nur-Sultan back to Astana, gaining momentum in support.  Meanwhile, some other societal leaders in Kazakhstan suggest changing the street names from Nazarbayev to “Republic” or other names that promote national unity.  These all point towards the cult of personality surrounding the first president, removing Nazarbayev’s influence in Kazakh society and politics. 


The second crisis comes from the uncertainty of Kazakhstan’s policy.  The ongoing struggle among the elites also brings instability to the whole nation, especially from a policy perspective.  Even though the new Smaiylov cabinet kept 11 out of 12 ministers, the potential shock and the change for Kazkahs politics may still be drastic.  The position of these ministers is not secured either.  On January 19, President Tokayev introduced the new defense minister while he fired the previous defense minister due to the lack of leadership.  This change indicates that the president may take further actions towards the cabinet ministers, further impacting the Kazakh policies.  

Meanwhile, the foreign policy also becomes uncertain after the protest.  The Kazakh government met with the foreign ambassadors on January 13 to brief them on the situation in Kazakhstan and assure them that the Kazakh government will remain “committed to its fundamental principles.”  However, the intricate term “fundamental principles” could also suggest shifts in these policies’ implications and execution.  Also, as outside powers, especially Russians, are deeply involved in Kazakhstan’s turmoil, it is uncertain how Kazakhstan will maintain its current foreign policy.

Third, the long-lasting wealth inequality still needs immediate attention and quick action.  Kazakhstan suffers greatly from income and wealth inequality, with the wealthiest 10% controlling more than half the wealth while Kazakhstan’s average salary is less than $600.  People are already on their limits as the value of tenge dropping, pandemic, stalemate wage growth, and nonstop rising prices.  Also, corruption still plagues the system, further widening the wealth inequality, as the top Kazakh elites still manage critical economic sectors and gain significant benefits from them. 

To address the massive inequality issues, the government has introduced a new national wealth fund and reformed the existing ones to provide better support to the Kazakh people.  Meanwhile, the government introduced a new tax law to raise the tax rate for the mining company and the wealthiest citizens.  However, how effective are these new methods and policies still needs observation.  It seems like these methods are only remaining on the surface.  The increasing tax and new wealth fund do not fundamentally change the wealth distribution system and do not address the core issues.

To further complicate the issue, Kazakhstan is still facing the threat of the ongoing pandemic.  While Kazakhstan manages to control the coronavirus in the latter half of 2021, the new wave of the pandemic is hitting the country hard.  There are more than 15,000 cases reported in a day, and it is harder to contain the virus than ever before with a relatively low vaccination rate.  The pandemic may further hinder the ability of Kazakhstan to deliver the necessary methods to address the three crises exposed by the protest. 

On the Kazakh flag, there is a soaring steppe eagle.  While the Kazakh economy has flown high like the soaring eagle since its independence, the protest exposed all the challenges and issues the development has brought.  While the country rebuilds itself quickly, the Kazakh government still needs to face the political and economic difficulties ignited by the protest.

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Unrest in Kazakhstan Only Solidifies China-Russia Ties

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Image: CSTO collective peacekeeping forces at Almaty power station, Kazakhstan/Russian government photo

The Russian-led military operation in Kazakhstan has presented an important test for Moscow’s ties with Beijing. 

In early January, Kazakhstan was shaken by nationwide protests that sparked uncertainty in the central Asian nation that had hitherto remained largely stable. Though much remains to be seen as to how the events exactly transpired, Russia’s reaction to the unrest was quite direct and clear. In short order, Moscow activated the long-dormant Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to aid its allies in the Tokayev government. 

The dispatch of some 2500 Russian, Armenian, Tajik, Belarussian, and Kyrgyz troops into Kazakhstan produced a lively debate. The discussion was led by questions on how China might react to upheaval in its neighboring country and, crucially, Russia’s leadership role in the response. 

Many onlookers have long argued that such a development in Central Asia could easily spark tensions and wider divisions between the two powers. Yet, thus far, the potential for disruption in bilateral relations appears to have been greatly overstated.

China’s Reaction

Firstly, it is important to stress that Kazakhstan is a critically important country for China. 

Beijing’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative actively operates in Kazakhstan and the country serves as one of the key routes for China to reach Europe, either through Russia or the Caspian Sea and the South Caucasus. Beijing has also heavily invested into the country ($19.2 billion in 2005-2020) and developed relatively stable bilateral ties with Nur-Sultan. The stability is no small feat in light of occasional difficulties surrounding such sensitive issues as the detention of ethnic Kazakhs in China’s westernmost Xinjiang region.

Both countries are also bound together by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral grouping founded in 2001 to facilitate security and economic cooperation in the heart of Eurasia. Moreover, both also are part of emerging closely linked groups of fellow authoritarian states bent on supporting each other lest liberal ideals undermine their one-party governance model.

Beijing’s reaction to the unrest in Kazakhstan was neither opposing nor endorsing Russia’s military move. However, in an unusually strong statement of support for Kazakhstan’s leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Xi Jinping supported the framing that the upheaval in Kazakhstan was an attempt to carry out a color revolution and needed to be quashed.  

China also made an official statement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that the entity is “willing to play a positive role in stabilizing the situation” in Kazakhstan. Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry also added that “safeguarding member states’ and regional stability has always been the principle and mission of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.”

Sino-Russian Condominium

Though relatively muted, China’s reaction to Kazakhstan reveals much about China-Russia relations in Central Asia. It has long been suggested that both players have had an unofficial division of labor in the region. Russia has been primarily preoccupied with security issues – military bases, drills, exchange of sensitive intelligence information. China, in contrast, has been active in the economic sphere through growing investment, increasing control of Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s debt shares and generally blossoming trade ties across the region. 

Lately, however, the unofficial arrangement seemed to be coming under pressure as China continues to make significant inroads into the security area. It opened a military base in Tajikistan and in late 2021 even announced funding a new semi-military complex to be manned by the Tajik personnel. The number and depth of military drills held by China and Central Asian states also increased. 

The CSTO activation by Moscow and its allies, however, could signal the reversal of this emerging process with Russia firmly re-establishing its position as a sole security provider in Central Asia.

This does not however mean that China is eager to get embroiled in the Kazakhstan events. On the contrary, a careful reading of official Chinese statements shows Beijing is happy with Russia undertaking a security operation there.

The CSTO activation by Moscow and the successful completion of the operation also shows that the argument of China and Russia imminently heading toward a collision is inherently wrong. Both have grievances and perhaps deep concerns that in the longer run might resurface more concretely, but the two also learned to de-conflict. 

Russia is confident that what China does is not undermining Moscow’s basic interests. Surely, Chinese economic presence hurts its Russian competitors, but the alternative to allowing Chinese presence would be to antagonize Beijing. That is not an attractive scenario for Moscow which seeks Beijing’s support in the age of increased competition with the West. 

A similar approach prevails in China. It increases its security presence in Central Asia, but is also careful to explain to Russia that its moves are not intended against Moscow’s position. Beijing has also spent a great deal of time to assure Russia that the Chinese military base in Tajikistan is solely to confront potential threats to Xinjiang whether from Central Asia or from Afghanistan.

The subtlety of the China-Russia partnership lies in the fact that each acknowledges the other’s sphere of influence. Their cooperation as great powers, therefore, rests upon mutual respect.

Still, there are much deeper incentives propping up mutual understanding and serving as a major motivator to tone down differences. Opposition or even an outright enmity (at least in Moscow) to the US-led world system serves as a powerful glue for two Eurasian powers.

Central Asia as a Testing Ground

Ultimately, China and Russia also look at Central Asia as a testing ground for the construction of a post-liberal world order.

Both seek orders of exclusion in their immediate neighborhood, wherein Central Asia is obviously included. Ideally for Russia, a dominant position in the region could be exploited as it indeed was in under Romanov and Soviet rule. 

However, cognizant of its diminished power, Moscow understands that exclusively managing the region would be impossible. Countering every move by other large powers would also be impractical and likely unfeasible in the context of today’s highly interconnected world. Hence, Russia has come to the realization that instead of trying to keep China at bay, it would be more efficient to actually build a condominium-style leadership over Central Asia.

A critical element to this new order is the exclusion of the collective West as best exemplified by Washington’s failure to attain Central Asian states’ agreement to renew its military presence in the region following the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.

The emerging Central Asian order is similar to what Russia is trying to build elsewhere. In the Caspian Sea, Moscow now increasingly relies on Iran; in the South Caucasus Moscow on both Iran and Turkey, introducing a system where the presence of non-regional powers is limited if not altogether removed. Similarly, China pursues a closed order in the South China sea.

Thus, China has remained content in general with how the turmoil in Kazakhstan was contained. Discontent between Moscow and Beijing exists, but since the motivation for cooperation is even greater, China and Russia seem poised to successfully manage their great power ties.

Author’s note: first published in chinaobservers

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Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, spotlights the swapping of the rule of law for the law of the jungle

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When a Russian-led military force intervened earlier this month, it did more than help Kazakh President Qasym-Johart Toqayev restore and strengthen his grip on power following days of protest and violent clashes with security forces.

The intervention brought to the fore a brewing competition for spheres of influence in Eurasia between perceived Russian and Turkish worlds whose boundaries are defined by civilization and /or language rather than a nation state’s internationally recognized borders.

It is a competition that also impacts China, whose troubled Turkic north-western province of Xinjiang borders Kazakhstan.

Although not incorporated in the Turkey-led Organisation of Turkic States (OTS), the group, which also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Azerbaijan, recently signalled its affinity to China’s Turkic Muslims.

China’s brutal crackdown on religious and ethnic expressions of Uighur identity has sparked public dissent in Kazakhstan and Turkey and forced the two governments to perform a delicate balancing act to not always successfully avoid the People’s Republic’s wrath.

Countering perceptions that the Russian-led intervention in Kazakhstan boosted Moscow’s security primacy in Central Asia and weakened Turkish aspirations, widely respected Russia scholar Dmitri Trenin suggested that salvaging Mr. Toqayev was the best of President Vladimir Putin’s bad options.

“In order to preserve stable relations with an important ally, partner, and neighbour, official Russia has often turned a blind eye to the rise of ethnic Kazakh nationalism and reports of de facto discrimination against ethnic Russians in the country. Toqayev is by no means Moscow’s client, yet allowing him…to be toppled would, in Moscow’s thinking, allow the forces of ultra-nationalism to come to the fore,” Mr. Trenin said.

Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations, seeking to balance their relationships with Moscow and Beijing in the wake of the United States’ abandonment of the region with the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, see Ankara as a potential hedge.

Led by authoritarians who fear anti-government protests at home, Russia and Turkey had a common interest in beating back a popular revolt in Kazakhstan. As a result, standing aside as Russia stepped in may have best served Turkey’s interests.

Despite its close military ties with Kazakhstan, a Turkish intervention may have upset the delicate management of the Turkey-Russian relationship. The relationship is fraught with disputes in which the two countries are often on opposite sides of the divide.

While Turkish support for Mr. Toqayev may not have gone down well with Kazakh protesters, it is not likely to have put much of a dent in Turkish soft power in Central Asia that is built on linguistic and ethnic affinity, the popularity of Turkish music and cinematic productions, and investment in glitzy shopping malls.

Turkey also benefits from being a player that has successfully challenged Russia in regional conflicts such as the Caucasus, where it backed Azerbaijan in its 2020 war with Armenia, and further afar in Libya and Syria.

In a rivalry for dominance of the Black Sea, Turkey has also backed Ukraine and forged close defense ties with the embattled country. Home to a large Crimean Tatar diaspora, Turkey has vocally supported the Turkic community on the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.

Finally, Turkey has at times, albeit intermittently, taken China to task for its brutal crackdown on ethnic and religious expression of Turkic Muslim identity in Xinjiang. China sees the projection of a Uyghur ethnic, cultural, and religious identity as a mortal threat.

Turkish assertiveness seemingly emboldened Central Asian members of the Organisation of Turkic States, the formal Turkic equivalent of Mr. Putin’s notion of a Russian World that defines its frontiers defined by the geography of Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law.

Central Asian members of the organisation, a brainchild of the now embattled former president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, joined Turkey at its recent summit in November in Istanbul in sending subtle and less subtle signals to both Russia and China as well as Iran, countries with Turkic-speaking minorities.

By deciding to restrict association with the organisation to Turkic-speaking countries, the group hopes to keep Russia, China, and Iran at bay despite their being home to Turkic-speaking minorities.

Moreover, the Central Asians took no exception when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s far-right nationalist ally, Devlet Bahlevi, released a picture on Facebook at the time of the summit of him gifting the Turkish leader a map of the Turkic world that included chunks of Russia. The picture capped a year of the trumpeting of irridentist claims to Russian territory by nationalist Turkish media close to Mr. Erdogan.

Similarly, the Central Asians participated in the summit even though it opened on November 12, a politically sensitive date for China. Uighurs in Xinjiang twice declared their short-lived independence on November 12, first in 1993 and again in 1944.

Three weeks before the summit, Turkey joined 42 other, mostly Western countries in a United Nations statement that condemned the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang.

Raising the stakes further, 19 Uighur exiles have filed a criminal complaint with a Turkish prosecutor against Chinese officials, accusing them of committing genocide, torture, rape, and crimes against humanity.

Turkey is home to some 50,000 Uighurs, the largest community outside of China. Long a supporter of Uighur religious and cultural aspirations, Turkey has been careful not to allow the groups’ plight to rupture its relations with Beijing.

At the same time, it has not followed the example of the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain, as well as the secretary-general of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC), who on a visit to China this week reportedly expressed support for Chinese policy in Xinjiang.

Responding in October to assertions by China’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Geng Shuang, that Turkey had illegally invaded north-eastern Syria and was depriving Kurds of water, Turkish representative Feridun Sinirlioglu thundered that his country would not be lectured by “those who violate international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”

It was a war of words in which the kettle was calling the pot black. It’s not human rights, violated with abandon by all the region’s players, that are at stake. What is at stake is an international order based on legally defined nation-states that civilisational leaders like Messrs. Putin and Erdogan seek to rejigger with the law of the jungle that allows them to shift state boundaries at will in geopolitical jockeying.

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