by Gordon M. Hahn
Decades agosome of us warned that NATO expansion without including Russia as a member would drive Russia into China’s arms, destroy Russian democracy in its cradle, and complicate numerous foreign policy tasks the U.S. would set for itself. At the beginning of the Obama administration, I warned that any full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would lead inevitably to return of the Taliban to power and America’s ‘stirring the nest’ would bring accusations in Moscow that Washington had created an enormous security challenge in their laps: “NATO withdrawal…would be more costly for Moscow, and many there would blame the regional crisis on American hubris or even conspiracies, further damaging U.S.-Russian relations. A SCO role would involve China even more deeply in the region, something that is probably neither in Russia’s nor America’s interests“ (https://gordonhahn.com/2015/11/17/report-2009-u-s-russian-relations-and-the-war-against-jihadism/). All of this and more is coming or soon will come about.
Circa 2008-2009 U.S.-Russian cooperation in the war against jihadism could be deepened most easily and beneficially in the Afghanistan-Pakistan war against jihadism, and then expanded to broader cooperation in South and Central Asia, partnering with India and perhaps China. The South/Central Asian theatre was the only front in the war against jihadism where Russian and American threat perceptions largely coincided. The Taliban and Al Qaeda (AQ) in Afghanistan have long constituted a common threat to the U.S. and Russia. The Taliban and AQ provided refuge, training, and other forms of support for Central Asia’s various Islamist and jihadist groups before they had done the same for the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing, the USS Cole attack, the embassy attacks in Africa, and the September 11 attacks.
Russia was first to recognize the seriousness of the jihadist threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, informed by the Soviet experience in the region in the 1980s and subsequent development of radical Islam in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Even before the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated Northern Alliance government in Kabul fell in 1996, Moscow was warning Washington of the Taliban and al Qaeda threats to Central Asia and Russia, if not more broadly. This same concern was repeated earlier this year by Russia’s representative to NATO. Indeed, on the very of 9/11, Putin warned the Bush administration of Russian intelligence regarding an imminent attack by AQ. With Putin’s quick expression of support to President Bush after the attacks, Russian and American interests in the region were brought into almost complete accord.
Unfortunately, with deteriorating U.S.-Western relations in recent years, U.S.-Russian counter-jihadism has been reduced to nil. There was a time before the West’s gambit in Ukraine and Russia’s overreaction that Moscow and Washington were able to cooperate against their common jihadi threat. Recall Putin’s granting passage through Russia (and Central Asia) of U.S. military equipment and materiel` to Afghanistan to assist in the anti-AQ, anti-Taliban operation there. No longer. That cooperation and almost all counter-jihadi cooperation has ceased in the wake of Maidan and the onset of the ‘new cold war’. Now Moscow (and Beijing) has refused even to discuss the situation in Afghanistan with the West in the G-7 format. We can expect accusations from certain corners in Moscow (and Beijing) that the U.S. has intentionally ‘equipped’ the Taliban’s Afghanistan Emirate with a modern army and state of the art technology intentionally in order to create a more robust jihadi threat in Russia (and China) and neighboring Central Asia and complicate China’s ‘One Belt – One Road’ project in which Russia participates. This can be said whether it is believed or not as a propaganda stick with which to bash the U.S. and the rest of the West. Of course, as an objective matter one could argue that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US weapons support for the mujahedin against the Soviets, and the Soviet withdrawal led to the real growth of jihadi terrorism in Russia, Eurasia, and globally and ultimately to our 9/11.
For Russia today, in terms of concrete policy, it is faced with yet another dilemma. Its strategic partner, China, has moved quickly to begin a cooperative relationship with Talibani Kabul. Russia, however, is playing things much more cautiously. This is understandable. Although both Russia and Beijing have experienced internal jihadis threats with some connection to jihadi groups in Afghanistan, in recent years, the foreign connection of Russian jihadis has been located primarily in Syria and Iraq – problems also created by bad U.S. policies. Earlier, however, on the eve of 9/11, the then jihadizing Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ChRI) had developed ties with Al Qa`ida when it and Osama bin Laden were based in Afghanistan. The ChRI-turned fully jihadist in the form of the Caucasus Emirate (Imarat Kavkaz) or IK, by the mid-2000s remained allied with AQ. The IK’s North Caucasus jihadists retained its ties with AQ, until the IK split in 2014; one branch developed ties with and then officially became an affiliate of ISIS, ISIS Vilaiyat Kavkaz or IVK, with ISIS today being more firmly ensconced in Afghanistan. In other words, it is back to the future for Russia’s counter-jihadi geostrategic calculus, with the Levany Syria-Iraqi vector still extant. Any uptick in terrorist attacks in Russia will inevitably be blamed on the American failure, even ‘American sabotage’ in Afghanistan, reminiscent of the claims that Washington willfully ‘created’ AQ and ISIS.
China’s seeming willingness to work with and likely recognize the newest Islamist state on the bloc is perhaps an attempt to find a modus vivendi with a regime that could continue to harbor the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, which has been involved in jihadi terrorism in China’s Muslim-Uighur-dominated Xingjiang Province. Beijing might also seek to broker on its strategic partner Russia’s behalf guarantees that Talibani Kabul will combat any efforts by ISIS in Khorosan (ISIS-K), as the Afghan affiliate of ISIS is called, to invigorate what remains of the IK and IVK threats. However, with the formation of a Taliban government that includes the head of the UN-, US-, and Russian-designated terrorist Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Khaqqani as the Taliban emirate’s Minister of Internal Affairs, the potential for such a modus vivendi actually being carried forward by Kabul is limited.
This brings us to Central Asia now under greater threat than ever before from a trifecta of threats: AQ, ISIS-K, and the Taliban. In a world without NATO expansion, one could expect or at least hope that the West, Russia, and China would go ‘all in’ together to defend the ethnic Tajik-Uzbek Northern Alliance, which is now in battle with Kabul. In our real world of the new East-West cold war nothing of the sort is possible, as the Moscow-Beijing rejection to even discuss the Afghan crisis with the G-7 demonstrates. With the West apparently out for good, this leaves Moscow and Beijing with the ball. Beijing would logically seek to use this crisis on its doorstep to demonstrate its new superpower status and impending hegemony in Eurasia writ large. But what if Beijing cannot transform Afghanistan into a client state or partner and the latter instead is forced or is simply inclined to join with the jihadists to expand into Central Asia? At that point Beijing is unlikely to want to take upon itself solely the burden of protecting Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and potentially the rest of Central Asia from the new jihadi threat. Russia may be asked to make a military and intelligence contribution of some sort. Russia has a special interest in preventing the invigoration of jihadism in Central Asia. Most of the recent attacks and attempted attacks in Russia have had Central Asians as plotters and perpetrators, many with histories of training in Afghanistan. Russian law designates the Taliban a terrorist organization, so Russia would have to make a rather abrupt about-face in its foreign policy if it moved to stabilize the Taliban emirate. It would also be abandoning its support for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban as a northern Afghanistan buffer for its Central Asian allies, especially Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, [members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization along with Russia], and, at least in a pinch like this one, Uzbekistan. They like Russia will also be inclined to back the Northern Alliance as in the past. Tajikistan’s demand that the new Taliban government be inclusive of national minorities like the Tajiks (the second largest ethnic group in the country, comprising 40 percent of its population), Uzbeks and Khazaris was summarily rejected with the establishment of an entirely Pashtun and Talib government, with one exception.
Two-front dilemmas now confront both Moscow and Beijing. Putin, with potential re-start of war in Donbass and a somewhat less embattled ally in Belarus in the west, now faces a potential second front in the south. Xi faces challenge to its hegemonic One Belt – One Road in Eurasia in the southwest and potential instability in Xingjiang in the west complicating its efforts to take control of the South China Sea and perhaps Taiwan in the bargain. In this context, the U.S. failure to withdraw a healthy army’s worth of military equipment to a Taliban force that already equals in terms of personnel the militaries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan combined will look more like a calculated gift to many Russians and Chinese. What better way to misdirect Eurasia’s strategic partners than creating a new military threat that forces them to divert resources away from hot spots of geostrategic interests of Washington and Brussels? This will be the mantra, evidence or not.
In order to demonstrate its superpower credentials in the event the Taliban decide to support jihad abroad, Beijing will be almost forced to increase its presence and influence in Central Asia, including its military presence, whether unilaterally and/or in partnership with Russia and/or upgrading the SCO. But with Russia hesitant and SCO divided between pro-Taliban (Pakistan, Iran and tentatively China) and anti-Taliban members and associates (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, India and tentatively Russia), the unilateral route with some limited assistance from Moscow is the likely outcome. Whatever the specifics, this means more intensification of the new East-West cold war. An intensification that would heighten if the West was to step up its efforts against Russia and/or China in the western or eastern theaters. Finally, China’s more active advance into Central Asia faces Russia with the prospect of being squeezed out of the region even earlier than it have been otherwise, making Moscow even more sensitive about any potential loss of honor and security along its western borders with Ukraine and Belarus. Perhaps, this opens up leverage for wedging a Sino-Russian split, but before Moscow risks its good ties with Beijing it will need an alternative Eurasian partner. India is the logical card to play, but initially any Moscow turn to New Delhi will likely be one on behalf of its joint efforts with China to contain and tame the Taliban. India will be at its wits end, should China recognize the Taliban regime but do nothing to restrain its jihadi elements or worse yet redirect them to the subcontinent. Who among, or would all three of Eurasia’s big three move at some point to back the Northern Alliance against the Taliban?
Meanwhile, NATO has suffered a terrible blow not just in its failure in Afghanistan but in the grossly incompetent implementation of the withdrawal carried out with criminal negligence in relation to NATO’s Afghani allies and Nuland-style ‘f… Europe’ disdain for Washington’s European allies. This will create pressure in Brussels for a victory, perhaps against one or both of Eurasia’s strategic partners. In sum, the Afghan debacle is making the new cold war hotter.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.