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Taleban resurgence raises terrorism fears

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At least 1,000 Afghan troops this week retreated into Tajikistan, prompting the country mobilise an extra 20,000 soldiers to guard its frontier. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sought out assurances from the Taleban that it will respect the borders of Central Asian states that once were part of the Soviet Union, while neighbouring Pakistan has said it won’t open its borders to refugees.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who warned last week that the most pressing task in Afghanistan was “to maintain stability and prevent war and chaos,” plans to travel to Central Asia next week for talks on the country. Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the ministry, on Friday (July 9) called the US withdrawal “hasty” and said Washington must honour its commitments to “prevent Afghanistan becoming once again a haven for terrorism.”

“The US has rushed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and left the Afghan people in a mess, which further exposes the hypocrisy behind the pretext of defending democracy and human rights,” Mr Wang said at a briefing in Beijing.

The Taleban will not allow “anyone or any group to use Afghan soil against China or any other countries,” Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, a senior official at the group’s political office in Doha, Qatar, said in a WhatsApp message Friday. “This is our commitment.”

Biden on Thursday had insisted the US military had achieved its goals in Afghanistan and would leave by Aug 31, just shy of its 20-year anniversary after the deaths of 2,448 US service members and about US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion) in spending.

Yet the battle will go on for the people in Afghanistan and surrounding countries, threatening in particular the US$60 billion in projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) right next door.

“The chaos in Afghanistan could spill over into other countries and lead to regional turbulence,” said Professor Fan Hongda from the Middle East Studies Institute of the Shanghai International Studies University. “China does not want to take over the US role, but hopes to facilitate regional peace and stability because it has interests in the region.”

The Taleban have dramatically expanded their hold on Afghan territory in recent months, leaving the US-backed government in control of little more than 20 per cent of the country, according to data compiled by the Long War Journal.

The insurgent group now holds 204 of 407 districts, up from 73 at the beginning of May, while the Afghan government only controls 74 currently. The rest are contested.

On Friday, senior Taleban official Shahabuddin Delawar said that the country’s borders are now “under the control” of the group and would remain open and functional.

“We assure all, we are not going to target diplomats, embassies, and consulates, NGOs, and their staff.”

While the militants have taken some areas along Afghanistan’s borders, “their takeover won’t last,” Mr Fawad Aman, a deputy spokesman of the Defense Ministry, said by phone Saturday. “We’ve stepped up our offensive assaults and those areas will be liberated and retaken soon.”

At the moment, authorities in Kabul still control all of the 34 provincial capitals, although two of them near the borders of China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are now being contested. The Afghan Defence Ministry has stepped up airstrikes against Taleban fighters in recent weeks.

The Taleban’s swift rise after fighting the US for 20 years risks leading to a collapse of the Afghan government and military, a scenario that last took place in the 1990s after the Soviet Union withdrew.

While the US seeks to prevent Al Qaeda from regaining a foothold in Afghanistan, the implications are dire for the six countries bordering the country – as well as nearby nations like India that have frequently been the target of jihadist attacks. The risks of regional contagion were made clear in April when a car bomb exploded at a luxury hotel hosting the Chinese ambassador in the Pakistani city of Quetta, not far from Taleban strongholds in southern Afghanistan. The attack, claimed by the loosely affiliated Tehrik-i-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), showed that governments in the region might struggle to protect high-profile diplomats and business people.

“The Taleban has close links with as many as 20 terror groups who operate across the region from Russia to India,” said Mr Farid Mamundzay, Afghanistan’s ambassador to India. “Their activities are already visible on the ground and they pose a significant threat to the region.”

Pakistan, which helped the Taleban rise to power in the 1990s, is now worried about a resurgence of the TTP, a group that has been blamed for 70,000 deaths of civilians in the country since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Only recently crushed by a combination of Pakistan military operations and US drone strikes, the TTP may see an opportunity to attack Chinese projects to influence policy in Islamabad.

“These groups want to hurt Pakistan, and these attacks hurt the most,” said Mr Asfandyar Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. “The situation in Afghanistan is an important factor for the security of CPEC.” (Bloomberg)

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