China's Growing Security Role in Central Asia

chinese troops
China appears to be taking a more proactive role in maintaining security and stability in Central Asia amid rising concerns over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and threats to Chinese assets and interests in the region.

At the end of August, Beijing's worst fears came true when an ethnic Uyghur crashed a car through the gates of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek before detonating an explosive device inside the vehicle, killing himself and injuring three embassy staff.

According to Kyrgyzstan's state security service, the attack "was ordered by Uighur terrorist groups active in Syria and affiliated to the terrorist organization the Nusra Front whose emissaries ... financed the terrorist action." The GKNB security service also said that the attack was coordinated through a native of Kyrgyzstan living in Turkey.

Uyghur jihadists in Syria operate under the banner of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which works closely with Nusra and is currently participating in a major "Syrian rebel" offensive intended to break the siege of "rebel-held" eastern Aleppo.

Due to their "intermingling" with Ahrar al-Sham and other so-called "moderate opposition forces," both the TIP and Nusra have enjoyed the protection of the United States and its allies despite being designated as terrorist organizations. NATO member Turkey has played a key role in funneling Uyghurs into Syria and has been accused of supporting the Turkestan Islamic Party.

Li Wei, an anti-terror expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that China is trying to shut down transit points in Southeast Asia and seeks to establish closer cooperation with other countries, including Turkey, "to crack down on East Turkestan separatists."

The attack on China's embassy in Kyrgyzstan has also sparked calls for closer anti-terror cooperation with the Central Asian republics.

Praising the close cooperation in investigating the incident, Chinese official Ma Peihua recently announced that China wants to send a security group to Kyrgyzstan in order to ensure the safety of its embassy and strengthen the relations between the countries' law enforcement agencies.

As more details begin to emerge about the August 30 attack, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Kyrgyz authorities to turn down any Chinese request.

Fourteen Kyrgyz border service and Interior Ministry officers have reportedly been arrested on suspicion of arms trafficking in connection with the embassy bombing. They are accused of selling arms to criminal gangs which were involved in the Chinese embassy attack and another attack against a Kyrgyz prosectuor earlier this year. 26 other officers have been dismissed.

An op-ed in China's Global Times described the arrests as "the latest achievement in Bishkek's anti-terror operations," noting that "it serves as a reminder that Beijing should also get ready to take vigorous measures to tackle overseas terrorists that have hurt China's interests." The proposed measures include increasing assistance to other countries in counter-terrorism operations as well as "direct attacks abroad, including surgical strikes by the Chinese military."

At the end of last year, Beijing passed a new anti-terrorism law allowing the military to carry out counter-terrorism operations abroad provided that the foreign country in question grants its approval.

The Central Asian states are possible candidates for such an operation.

China recently conducted its first-ever joint bilateral counter-terrorism exercises in Tajikistan, underlining Beijing's willingness to assume a bigger security role in the region. A small contingent from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) joined Tajik troops for drills near the Afghan border in the remote Tajik region of Gorno-Badakhshan, which borders both Afghanistan and China's Xinjiang.

Tajikistan's Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo said at the closing ceremony that "the exercise has shown that servicemen of the two countries are ready to provide support to each other in the fight against international terrorism in case of necessity."

Moreover, China is assisting Tajikistan in protecting the porous Tajik-Afghan border by financing and building eleven border posts as well as a training center for border guards.

At the beginning of August, China teamed up with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to create the "Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counter Terrorism." The chiefs of general staffs of the four armed forces met in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to announce the formation of the new anti-terror alliance. All three countries - Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan - border Xinjiang, illustrating why Beijing decided to establish this mechanism.

Xinjiang plays a vital role in China's economic developments and the One Belt, One Road initiative.

In order to ensure Xinjiang's stability and protect its interests, China is now gradually assuming a bigger security role in the region.

Are the Taliban Breaking Ties with Pakistan?

© Banaras Khan / Agence France-Presse
Ever since the Guardian reported two weeks ago that representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban have restarted talks in Qatar, there has been a lot of speculation surrounding this unexpected development.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid dismissed the report as propaganda but other Taliban officials confirmed it, saying the talks yielded little results. One Taliban official based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was quoted as saying:
"Like our previous meetings, it was a waste of time and resources, as we could not achieve anything from the meeting."
Many experts have cast doubt on whether the Taliban are really interested in peace talks at this point given their current advantage on the battlefield. Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based expert and former Taliban official, said he believed that peace negotiations were not on the agenda during the talks and suggested that the reports should be looked at in the context of the upcoming U.S. elections. "I believe the reports are aimed at creating a successful picture of the US strategy in Afghanistan," Muzdah said.

As previously mentioned, one of the most interesting aspects of the Qatar talks was the absence of Pakistani officials while a senior U.S. diplomat reportedly attended the meetings.

Three senior Taliban member later traveled to Pakistan to brief Pakistani officials about the talks in Qatar but Pakistan's Foreign Ministry stressed that Islamabad views the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States as the "appropriate forum in which Pakistan is ready to play its role."

Recent arrests of senior Taliban officials in Pakistan indicate that the Pakistani authorities are trying to re-establish their control over the "Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process."

Amid rising tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan, the former head of the Taliban's Doha office, Sayyid Muhammad Tayyab Agha, sent a bombshell letter to new Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, urging the Taliban leadership to leave Pakistan and break ties with Islamabad.

Agha put forward several noteworthy demands, such as controlling the activities of foreign fighters and cutting all "direct or indirect contact with the Pakistani, Iranian, or other foreign intelligence services."

Considering that the Taliban have always been dependent on outside support, especially from Pakistan, these demands are somewhat curious.

Interestingly enough, Agha's Pashtu language letter was given to Radio Free Europe's Pashtu-language Mashaal Radio shortly after the Guardian broke the story of the Qatar talks. The letter is just the latest in a series of attempts to drive a wedge between the Taliban and the movement's most important foreign backer, Pakistan.

The United States and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul have long tried to sow divisions within the Taliban movement - with little success.

But if Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is to be believed, the Taliban are now about to fall apart amid disagreements over relations with Pakistan.

Never mind that the Afghan government is also falling apart and that the Taliban have taken more territory in Afghanistan this year than at any time since 2001.

It seems that the U.S. wants to weaken the Taliban and reduce Pakistan's influence over the group by exploiting tensions between the two sides. The question is how Pakistan will react to that.