The Xinjiangistan Connection

With terror attacks on the rise, officials in Beijing are increasingly worried that Pakistan is an incubator of Islamic radicalism across China.

When the Pakistani army launched its campaign in the militant-riddled tribal region North Waziristan in June, it was tempting to attribute the operation to U.S. pressure. For many years, Washington has been urging Pakistan to move against this terrorist haven, situated in the northwest corner of the country on the Afghan border. Indeed, only weeks earlier, the U.S. Congress made the initiation of operations there -- which involved tens of thousands of Pakistani troops and the evacuation of nearly half a million people -- a precondition for future military assistance. But the security needs of China, Pakistan's "all-weather friend," probably proved even more important than Congress in Islamabad's calculations.

China is struggling with its worst series of terrorist attacks in decades. Xinjiang, a Muslim region in China's northwest bordering Pakistan, has long been wracked with tension between the Chinese government, the swelling ranks of Han Chinese migrants, and the native population of Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim people. Especially over the last year, disgruntled Uighurs -- often acting in armed groups demanding greater autonomy or a fully independent state of East Turkistan -- have been a thorn in Beijing's side. Chinese state media reported that on July 29, dozens of people were killed or injured after a knife-wielding gang attacked a police station in Xinjiang -- only the latest in a long series of deadly incidents in that region.

Worryingly, the violence has started to spread to China's urban centers. In October, a suicide attack in Beijing's Tiananmen Square killed six and injured 39; in March 2014, black-clad, knife-wielding assailants killed 29 and left scores more injured at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming. An April visit to Xinjiang by President Xi Jinping, intended to show China's resolve in the battle against terrorism, was punctuated by a bomb attack on Urumqi's railway station.

While the Uighurs' closest ethnic and political links are with Central Asia and Turkey, Pakistan is their connection to militant Islam. And ground zero for Uighur militants is the anarchic Pakistani tribal areas. For years, Beijing has been pressing Pakistan to take action against Uighur militants and their Central Asian supporters, the militant group the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), for whom North Waziristan has been an operational hub. The recent campaign notwithstanding, Pakistan's failure to deal with Uighur militants operating from its territory has become the single greatest sore point in the relationship.

It's a potentially expensive problem for Pakistan: since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to power in June 2013, China has vastly increased its level of economic commitment to the country, from 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plants to major infrastructure projects connecting Xinjiang to the Chinese-run port at Gwadar. The scale of the ambitions, which run to tens of billions of dollars, is potentially transformative. Yet realizing these projects -- and maintaining the deep trust that has been built over decades -- hinges on Islamabad handling its militancy issue in a way that successfully accommodates Chinese concerns. The Chinese political and military leadership has decided to expand investments in Pakistan, but security is still a big problem, explained one Chinese official who works on counterterrorism issues. Earlier this year, Islamabad reportedly decided to provide "army-backed security" for Chinese companies working in Pakistan. It is the Pakistan-linked threats to the Chinese mainland, however, that are Beijing's greatest concern.

The rise of the Pakistani tribal areas as an incubator of Uighur militancy is a relatively new problem. Until roughly 2008, Islamabad generally responded with alacrity to Beijing's requests, whether deporting Uighur students, closing down Uighur community centers, or killing purported terrorists. Despite the presence of a well-established Uighur population of roughly 3,000 in Pakistan, the East Turkistan cause there has at best been a peripheral one -- even sympathetic religious parties have relegated it to the margins for the sake of the country's relationship with China. And unlike the United States, which wanted to see action against a long list of extremist groups -- some of which Pakistan's intelligence services viewed as strategic assets -- China's limited objectives were relatively comfortable for Islamabad to accommodate.

The threat to China, in any case, was minimal. Although Beijing continued to invoke the "East Turkestan Islamic Movement" (ETIM), which the United Nations listed as a terrorist organization in 2002, it was unclear that such an organization even existed after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Dozens of Uighur militants had arrived in Pakistan's tribal areas among the wave of foreign fighters who fled the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but it was a sorry band, entirely dependent for survival on larger, more capable Central Asian outfits such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In 2003, the Pakistani army killed ETIM's long-time leader, Hasan Mahsum, and in 2007 one of the Waziri tribal leaders expelled the Uighurs and their Uzbek hosts, after growing tensions over their tactics. China had by then gone nearly a decade without any notable militant attacks.

But since 2008, a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), largely based in North Waziristan, has claimed the ETIM mantle. After announcing itself with a series of video messages threatening attacks on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it has maintained media visibility ever since. According to sources present at the conversations, Chinese officials have told their Pakistani counterparts that they estimate TIP's numbers to be as little as a few dozen, though some Pakistani sources put it at a few hundred. While TIP has eagerly claimed responsibility for several bombings in China, even officials in Beijing -- normally eager to pin the blame on nefarious overseas forces -- have refused to give the group credit for probably unrelated incidents. 

With the scale of the terrorist violence escalating, however, Chinese officials have started to point to the pernicious influence of jihadi ideology and tactics, even in the absence of operational support. Since 2008, TIP's training camps have released a worrying amount of jihadi propaganda, including videos and statements. Beijing has also grown concerned about the degree to which TIP has become networked within the array of organizations operating in North Waziristan and beyond. The propaganda material from TIP is notable for being coordinated by Al Fajr, the jihadist media forum run by al Qaeda, giving them a reach -- including Arabic translations -- they had previously lacked. Beijing's fear is not just for the impact in Xinjiang, but that the Uighur cause will attract support from a wider array of jihadi sympathizers. TIP leaders are already believed to have taken leadership positions in al Qaeda, and Uighur fighters have reportedly shown up as far afield as Syria, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.  

As the Uighur militant movement has assumed greater prominence over the last few years, Pakistan has grown less successful in addressing their operations. While Islamabad continues to hand over low-level operatives to the Chinese, TIP's top leadership has gone virtually untouched since the killing of Mahsum more than a decade ago. In fact, the deadliest threat to Uighur militants has not been the Pakistani army but U.S. drones, which thinned out TIP's top ranks during a series of missile strikes in North Waziristan between 2010 and 2012.

China understood Pakistan's hesitation to launch a full-scale assault in North Waziristan -- the presence of militant groups backed by its intelligence services, the risk of blowback, and the sheer numbers of troops required weighed heavily in Islamabad's calculations. But Beijing has started to question whether the resilience of the Uighur militant groups might also be tied to religious sympathies among Pakistan's armed forces.

Beijing appears to trust the top ranks of the Pakistani army -- including the new Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif -- but worries about the younger generations that have come through the system since the "Islamization" of Pakistani society and the army over the last 35 years. "We're not worried about the generals, we're worried about the brigadiers," one Chinese analyst put it. In other words, top officers are sufficiently secular for Chinese tastes; the lower ranks are not.

Privately, Chinese officials and experts complain that the Pakistanis have given Uighur militants a heads-up. "When we provide them with intelligence on ETIM locations they give warnings before launching their attacks," groused a Chinese analyst familiar with intelligence issues. Foreign intelligence services have even provided material to Chinese officials that purports to show Pakistani intelligence agents at TIP training camps. "We certainly think there's a strong chance [Pakistani intelligence] has contacts and relationships with ETIM and the Uzbeks," said a Chinese official familiar with intelligence issues.

In public, Beijing has been careful not to blame Pakistan for recent developments in Xinjiang. Only officials in the Xinjiang cities of Urumqi and Kashgar -- many of whom are seeking to deflect responsibility from their own political failings -- have directly criticized Pakistan. But behind closed doors, there have been serious tensions.

During Sino-Pakistani military exchanges, while the public announcements focused on new defense deals, Chinese demands for further moves against ETIM took up a large part of the bilateral agenda, according to several current and former Chinese officials familiar with the talks. And Chinese analysts note a visible lack of willingness among some Pakistani officers to respond to Beijing's requests. "We see it in their eyes when we're sitting in the meetings," said a Chinese analyst with ties to China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). "They're not comfortable with what we're asking."

The campaign in North Waziristan will help remedy China's concerns. The Pakistani press has been full of stories about IMU and ETIM fighters killed in the first wave of attacks, and Pakistani lawmakers and officials have directly linked the operation to Chinese security interests. The plans for a longer-term army presence in the tribal agency mean that the prospects of militants re-establishing their training camps there in the next couple of years are slim. But China may be realizing -- as the United States has over the last decade -- that partnering with Islamabad in a war against terror is a frustrating process.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images


Russia Has 15,000 Crack Troops on the Ukrainian Border

And Putin’s itching for a fight.

As Malaysia Airlines' 298 passengers died over the skies of eastern Ukraine, so did the last trace of hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin would back down from his support of eastern Ukraine's separatist rebels or agree to a negotiated settlement to the seven-month-long conflict. Since the deadly incident, it is no longer in doubt whether or not the future of eastern Ukraine -- or Novorossiya (New Russia), as pan-Slavic nationalists call it -- will be decided by force. The only question remaining is how deadly the fight will be.

At the moment, the government in Kiev is ramping up its fight to reclaim Ukraine's restive eastern regions. At the same time, thousands of Russian troops are amassed along Ukraine's eastern border, and not just the elite Airborne or Spetsnaz troops that took over Crimea in February, but also units designed to fight conventional wars and armies, like Ukraine's. The result could be explosive.

There was little Ukraine could do to stop the "little green men" who invaded Crimea. By the time Kiev had realized what was going on, Russia's most elite and best-trained Naval Infantry, Airborne, and Spetsnaz troops (including the new Senezh unit, which seized the Crimean parliament) had prevented Ukrainian reinforcements from entering Crimea. But the separatist militiamen in eastern Ukraine, despite being equipped, trained, and funded by Moscow, are a different story. There, Kiev retains a vast advantage in firepower, materiel, and troops, along with the implicit backing of the international community against an increasingly fragmented and uncoordinated separatist movement.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has shown he is willing to use every available resource to retake the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk from the separatists. But does he have the force and commitment necessary to do so?

The best estimates place Ukraine's military strength at around 35,000 ground personnel, although only about 10,000 to 12,000 are able and ready to conduct offensive combat operations at any given time. So far, Kiev has committed six mechanized brigades, a tank brigade, and various special-forces units (such as the Interior Ministry's "Snow Leopard" brigade) to retaking the east. That's in addition to the one airborne and three airmobile brigades that have carried out much of the fighting and borne many of the casualties, such as on June 14, when separatists shot down an Ilyushin-76 transport plane, killing 40 paratroopers of the 25th Airborne Brigade and nine crew members. Additional forces along the lines of National Guard units have been hastily created, financed, and trained from the various groups and protestors who took part in the protests and clashes with police last winter that led to the current crisis. These units were put together to fill the manpower shortages created by years of corruption and inattention to Ukraine's military.

Ukrainian forces' recent gains against the separatists are a testament to Kiev's commitment and the strengthening of its army: The situation began to turn in Kiev's favor when the Ukrainian army repelled the Vostok Battalion's attack on Donetsk International Airport in May and caused significant casualties among the rebels. Since then, the Ukrainian army has continued its advance, gradually dislodging separatists from their bases, such as when the infamous rebel commander Igor Strelkov was forced to retreat from his stronghold in Slovyansk on July 5. These successes speak to Ukraine's distinct advantage in heavy firepower and airpower over the rebels, even despite Russia's supplying of tanks, rockets, and air defense systems to the separatists.

But these victories took place among the relatively open landscape of Donetsk and Lugansk. Because the rebels have retreated from their control of the countryside into the cities, the upcoming fight will take place not in the fields of Ukraine's eastern farmland but in its cities and urban areas -- where no modern army was designed to fight. An urban battle reduces the advantage of Ukraine's superior firepower and increases the potential for civilian casualties, making further gains for Ukraine a bloody and horrifyingly slow endeavor.

As Simon Saradzhyan, a Russia expert at Harvard's Belfer Center, notes, if Ukraine continues to suffer troop casualties at its current rate, it would "surpass 1,560 per year. That would be more than what the Russian army acknowledged losing in the deadliest year of the second Chechen war." In view of the increasing casualties on the horizon, Ukraine's parliament has just approved a call-up of a further 50,000 reservists and men under the age of 50, just 45 days after its last mobilization. But just how long Ukraine's cobbled-together military will be able to sustain increasing casualties is questionable at best -- especially if they suddenly find themselves up against more qualified Russian soldiers.

Throughout the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have watched from just over the border, implicitly threatening intervention. Since the beginning of the rebellion, Russian troops have been conducting maneuvers and setting up the logistics network that would be needed for an incursion. Things have ramped up in recent days, with Russia conducting large-scale exercises with some of its most advanced helicopters. The threat hasn't been lost on Kiev.

During the July 22 debate in the Ukrainian parliament on calling up reserves, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, Andriy Parubiy, said that Moscow was once again building up its reserves on the border with Ukraine. Parubiy claimed that the Russian force consisted of up to 41,000 troops, 150 tanks, and 400 armored vehicles. Washington and NATO have also backed up that assertion, although estimates on numbers differ: The Pentagon and NATO military commander U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove put the estimates of Russian troops at the border at 12,000 to 15,000. This may be the best estimate, as the United States has no incentive to downplay the level of troops at the border and American satellite imagery is likely to get the most accurate picture.

Even if the number of Russian troops at the border is far lower than the 41,000 discussed by Ukrainian security officials, there is still good reason to worry. "These battalion groups consist of infantry, armor and artillery, and also have organic air defense capabilities," the Pentagon notes. These are the units that comprise Russia's "New Look" army and exemplify the Kremlin's effort to modernize its armed forces over the past six years. The units on Ukraine's borders are far more advanced than the Soviet divisions that were pointed at NATO. While skeleton crews manned the old Soviet forces, the New Look army is supposedly manned at 90 to 100 percent. And these troops can also be mobilized more quickly.

Since 2008, the Russian military has reformed its army from old, unwieldy divisions and regiments into a brigade structure that would allow for full manning and quicker mobilization. At full strength, these brigades consist of 4,200 to 4,300 servicemen each, with 2,200 in tank brigades. But the biggest difference between the New Look brigades and their predecessors is that each was created with the intent that they would be able to operate independently, with their own artillery, armor (tank), and anti-air capabilities. This makes them much more dangerous and maneuverable: Instead of individual infantry or tank units, these are nimble, deadly, all-in-one brigades.

The rationale behind this move was to more effectively engage in the threats that Russia envisioned in its future. Rather than facing off against NATO tanks in lowlands, the Russian General Staff envisioned focusing on regional conflicts that require mobility and flexibility -- exactly like Ukraine right now. The special-forces troops that invaded Crimea are not designed to fight a heavily armed and armored force. They are meant to strike fast and hard, and then be quickly supported by regular brigades with heavier firepower. The troops currently on Ukraine's borders are the support that typically follows behind the "little green men."

Russia does not have the force ready at the border for a full-scale invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine. But it doesn't need to. Putin does not want to annex the large and economically depressed region, despite the increasingly vocal calls from Russia's nationalist right and the Russian commanders in charge of the insurgency. Even if he did, from a strategic point of view, he has missed his best opportunity. In May and June, Russia had its best units poised and positioned on Ukraine's borders. Since then, however, the rotation of conscripted soldiers has put fresh, less-than-battle-ready soldiers into the field.

But what the Kremlin really wants in Ukraine is to foster anarchy and instability, putting pressure on the new regime in Kiev and the West to acquiesce to Russia's dominance in the east and to stop what Putin and many in his circle believe are EU and NATO incursions into Russia's backyard.

That means that the forces currently amassed on the border are capable of launching a quick incursion into Ukraine to halt the progress of Kiev's forces and allow the rebels to reassert some control, along with effectively signaling Moscow's dominance over events in the region. Whether this is a quick strike or a longer-term incursion, these new brigades have the firepower and logistics support to effectively deal a blow to Ukrainian forces.

Political analysts and intelligence agencies alike were surprised when the Kremlin annexed Crimea. The economically depressed region, already under Moscow's influence, seemed like an unnecessary addition to the Russian Federation. And then Putin surprised the world. Another surprise may be possible soon. The Russian president is stuck in a dangerous position between the vocal proponents of Russian revanchism and the international community that condemns interference in Ukraine. He can ill afford to allow eastern Ukraine to return to Kiev's hands and he may be willing to use the troops he has built up along the border to stop that. An incursion by Russian troops to stunt the Ukrainian advance would be well within Russia's capabilities, and very likely would not meet much resistance by the international community, other than further sanctions.

And while it may seem farcical to some, not too long ago so was the notion of Russia training the separatists and giving them rocket launchers. In Ukraine, the farcical becomes reality.