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Central Asia/Russia

The Taliban reaches out to China
Global Intelligence Update
July 28, 2000


The Taliban has promised to extradite criminals back to Pakistan and to protect Chinese territory from attack. This diplomatic offensive is born out of a desire to work with China to end the Afghan civil war, rather than face a Russian solution. A peace deal would do two things - hurt relations between China and Russia, and dislocate Afghanistan's terrorist community.


Afghanistan's ruling Taliban government has become uncharacteristically conciliatory over the last week. It promised on July 26 to hand over Pakistani nationals wanted by Islamabad. The same day, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan guaranteed a Chinese delegation that no groups would be allowed to operate against China from Afghanistan. The Taliban's diplomatic offensive is the clearest signal to date that at least some elements of the Taliban's leadership are willing to work out a Chinese-sponsored peace deal in Afghanistan. Such an arrangement would have two immediate effects -a diplomatic squall between China and Russia and a number of homeless terrorists.

Taliban diplomatic officials sought out a Chinese delegation in Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 25. The fact that the Taliban went to the Chinese, instead of the Russians, indicates how badly some factions of the Taliban want China to take the lead in ending the Afghan civil war. Russia has an interest in keeping Central Asia unstable, ensuring that its former republics continue in their dependence upon Russian military support.

China and Russia both agree on the need to end, or at least contain, the Afghan war, but they have decidedly different ideas about how to do so. Russia currently has more at stake than China - it alleges that Chechen rebels are being trained in Afghanistan. Moscow therefore has threatened airstrikes on Afghanistan and has asked Uzbekistan to allow anti-Taliban General Rashid Dostam to set up a base near the border, according to the weekly news magazine the Far Eastern Economic Review.

China is concerned about Afghan support for Islamic militants in the western province of Xinjiang, but that is a much less pressing problem than Chechnya. Instead, the Chinese government is working with Pakistan and Iran to bring a negotiated settlement. Besides ending the war, China wants to cement its relationship with Iran.

Beyond the dispute over methodology, Moscow and Beijing disagree about regional primacy - who will call the shots in Central Asia. If Russia controls the Afghan situation, it sets the agenda for the region - fighting Islamic militants. Steady fighting will hamstring economic development for the region, but Russia would remain in the driver's seat. China's plans are based on economic links between Central Asia and Iran, Pakistan and China.

Much of the Taliban leadership would rather make a deal with the Chinese than get bombed by the Russians, which explains this week's entreaties. A final agreement would likely leave a portion of Afghanistan under the control of the opposition Northern Alliance.

Much of the Taliban would likely accept a negotiated deal, provided it maintained control over the majority of the country. Pakistan, the Taliban's major sponsor, wants a stable border and economic transit routes. The same goes for Iran, which supports some factions of the Northern Alliance. The only question is whether the Northern Alliance and its Russian sponsor will accept the deal.

And not all of the Taliban thinks alike. Dissent is increasing between factions who want the war to continue and those who would compromise. A major Taliban commander, Bashir Baghlani, was arrested this week for allegedly making contact with the Northern Alliance. Regional media also reported a minor uprising against the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan over the weekend.

Let's assume, for a moment, that the pro-settlement faction of the Taliban is strong enough to subdue its radical brethren and make a deal with China. Since Pakistan, the Taliban's major sponsor, seems to consider China an ally, it is far easier to cut a deal than to continue fighting without Pakistani supplies and support. A deal would bring about two short-term effects.

First, relations between China and Russia would drop to even lower levels. China would have a terrible time convincing Russia to go along with a peace agreement. If Moscow accepts, it will do so grudgingly, and probably under sufficient duress or inducements - either way the relationship suffers. If Russia rejects a peace deal, China's hard-fought plan will be ruined.

Second, China, Russia and even the United States will demand that the radical Taliban, which runs terrorist centers inside Afghanistan, be suppressed or expelled - including such luminaries as Osama bin Laden. This is a basic precursor for any sort of commercial life in the country. Deprived of a sanctuary, the fighters will be insecure and homeless until they find a new base of operations.

Peace in Afghanistan boils down to a contest of wills between Asia's two great powers, and the ball is in Russia's court. One bombing run can undo any hope of an agreement and will sink relations between Beijing and Moscow. Ultimately, Russia can't afford to let China gain an economic hold on Central Asia, and it will take the necessary steps to stop that from happening.

(c) 2000, WNI, Inc.


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