Friday, February 13, 2009

Is the Taliban Trying to Talk to China?

It seems the story of Wei Longxiao and Zhang Guo, two Chinese telecom engineers kidnapped by the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat valley on August 29 of last year, has everything (account courtesy of the Pakistan Tribune).


It was on October 17, 2008 that the two young Chinese engineers made their move to escape from Taliban’s custody. They reportedly sneaked out of the house where they were held during the night and ran for their life.


Long Xiao We, 26-year-old and heavily-built, slipped during the escape and broke his leg. The mountainous terrain and the darkness made it difficult for them to find their way to safety. It is said Zhang Guo lost his colleague on the way after the latter’s fall and after a futile search decided to go it alone. The desperate engineer wanted to seek protection in some house in Chinglalai and the nearby Dagai village as he feared that the militants would soon learn about their escape and track them down. The Taliban managed to find Long Xiao We and made him hostage again ….


[T]he unusual barking of dogs alarmed their security guards and prompted them to come out of the house of one of his cousins. They found the Chinese engineer shivering from cold outside the Hujra, or male guesthouse, and unable to speak a word of Pashto or Urdu, the two languages that the guards understood. Zhang Guo could barely speak English, the language the guards didn’t understand. Finding it difficult during the night to lodge him in the locked house or Hujra, the guards took him instead to a cattleshed and asked him to sleep there. They found an old blanket for him to protect himself from the cold.

In the morning, the guards contacted Liaqat in Dagai village and told him about the stranger, who they believed was deaf and dumb. After seeing Zhang Guo, he knew this was one of the Chinese engineers who had been kidnapped by the Taliban. Liaqat reportedly consulted his cousins in Swat and Peshawar and sought their advice how to handle the situation. He was advised to deliver the engineer to the Army checkpost at Vennai, located about 1.5 kms from Dagai.

According to one of his cousins, Liaqat was aware of the seriousness of the situation and he, therefore, tried to arrange a traditional, all enveloping Burqa for the Chinese engineer to wear while transporting him to the military checkpoint. Efforts to lay hands on the shuttlecock-type Burqa failed and Liaqat had little other choice than to seat Zhang Guo in the back seat of his car and drive him to the Vennai security forces’ post. He was able to return home safely but this was the beginning of his troubles.

A touch of humor, in Cellular News’ earnest attempt to connect the dots between cell phones, jiggy ringtones, Islamic fundamentalism, and terror.

The Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas have often attacked mobile phone retailers for selling ringtones and other unapproved media. Earlier this year, a spokesman for the same Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan group [that kidnapped Wei and Zhang], Maulana Faqir Mohammed said that they would not allow commuters to play music in their cars or use musical ringtones on mobile phones.

And horror:

It wasn’t known until now that one Liaqat Ali Khan, son of Nadir Khan, a landlord from Dagai village in Matta Tehsil in upper Swat valley, was murdered by the local Taliban for helping Chinese telecommunication engineer, Zhang Guo, to reach the Pakistan Army’s roadside security post at Vennai. Members of his family, requesting anonymity due to a risk to their lives, told our sources that Taliban fighters chased Liaqat while he was driving his car near his village on November 20 last year and shot him dead.

Liaqat’s family, his cousins and other close relatives had to abandon their homes and move out of Swat after the incident. They still live in fear of the Swati Taliban and are unable to lead normal lives even in places far away from their native Swat.

One thing the story doesn’t have, apparently, is play in the Chinese press.

Subsequent to an announcement by the engineers’ employer, Chinese communications giant ZTE, a statement by China’s foreign ministry that they were hoping for the prompt release of the two men, and an initial flurry of reports in the press (including a highly informative backgrounder on the security travails of Chinese workers in Pakistan and other hot spots by Li Zhongfa, Deng Yuan, and Hu Xuefa in the International Herald), China’s media has been remarkably silent, even about Zhang’s dramatic escape and the plight of the injured Wei Longxiao.

This is almost certainly a tactical move, relating to China’s strategy in dealing with the kidnappings and reflecting its desire not to complicate negotiations or encourage copycats.

When three Chinese employees of a rickshaw factory were killed in NWFP by knife-wielding fundamentalists in 2007, on the other hand, the bloody deed got extended play in the Chinese media and on the websites of Chinese embassies around the world—because the PRC wanted to publicly pressure the Pakistan government to do something.

The media shutdown may also may have something to do with a new and unwelcome reality in Pakistan: the reliably pro-Chinese central government's faltering control in the NWFP and FATA, the Taliban's efforts to convince China that it needs a new partner in western Pakistan, and China's preliminary efforts to secure more desirable options dealing with the Taliban.

China and Pakistan have quite a history when it comes to the safety of Chinese nationals.

The seminal event in recent Pakistani history was the government assault on the extremist Lal Masjid mosque in the heart of Islamabad in August July 2007, after a protracted siege, by 15,000 troops personally loyal to President Musharraf.

It resulted in 100 confirmed and a rumored 1000 deaths, served notice that the Pakistan government viewed the fundamentalist Islamic groups as a threat that could no longer be accommodated and had to be confronted militarily, and set the stage for the zero-sum struggle that is now going on between the Pakistani Taliban and President Zardari’s government.

It is a little-known fact, except to readers of China Matters, that the siege was in response to the mosque’s kidnapping of 7 Chinese from a massage parlor it deemed guilty of immoral activities…and the assault was ordered because extremists in the NWFP killed three Chinese, apparently in retaliation for the siege, and China’s president Hu Jintao demanded action.

China is especially sensitive to these cases because of the nature of its foreign diplomatic and economic policy. It deals with regions in Africa and South Asia that are unstable, with regimes that are often unpopular and facing a variety of domestic and foreign challenges to their rule, and as a result its diplomats, engineers, and workers are in harm’s way.

There’s a lot of people and money involved. There are almost 5,000,000 Chinese working overseas, and China contracted $33 billion worth of foreign projects in 2007. There are 7000 Chinese working in Pakistan on 170 projects, including 1000 in the insurgency hot spot of NWFP. The two engineers were subcontractors to ZTE, a.k.a. Zhong Xing, a major telecommunications engineering company itself under contract to China Mobile to install 3500 cellphone towers in western Pakistan in an eight month crash program.

The Chinese government lacks the hard power projection capability to defend or rescue its interests by itself, so Beijing relies on the local strong man to take care of business promptly and efficiently, and not give the impression that Chinese can be treated as a convenient ATM machine for bad guys looking for money, leverage, or other concessions.

In an interesting comment on the contrast between U.S.-Pakistan and Sino-Pakistan relations, an exasperated Prime Minister Gilani reportedly chided the militants [translated from the Chinese]:

“You are always going on about the America being your enemy. So why did you kidnap our Chinese friends?”

An answer was provided in an op-ed in The News in February 2009 by its Peshawar editor, Rahimullah Yusufzai:

The kidnappers of the Chinese engineers are known and the place where they are being held isn't a great secret. The Swat chapter of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is holding the two and parts of the valley in its control would be the most likely place where the hapless Chinese engineers are kept. The TTP in Swat appears keen to use them as bargaining chips to secure release of their men presently in government custody and, if possible, obtain other concessions from the authorities. This issue could be resolved in a give-and-take manner and though the government would lose face and look weak in accepting the kidnappers' demands, it would not be the first time that such a deal is clinched. Weak state apparatus and inefficient governments would always land Pakistan in trouble and this is what you get when the armed forces, police and other institutions are unable to enforce the government's writ in parts of the country.

In return for the two engineers, the Taliban was apparently demanding the release of 136 prisoners and ransom.

Perhaps hamstrung by its difficult counterinsurgency campaign, the Pakistan government's response was apparently neither particular prompt or effective.

Shortly after the kidnapping, The News reported:

The government has not launched any serious efforts to secure the release of the foreigners though 20 days have passed. Except one telephonic contact by the deputy inspector general of police, Malakand, with the Taliban spokesman in Swat, Muslim Khan, the authorities have not made any serious effort to recover the engineers. In a talk with The News a few days back, the hostages said they were in good health but were tense being in the captivity of the militants. The government's claim of using backdoor channels for securing the release of the captives was contradicted by the militants and they also refused to accept influence of any personality.

When Zhang Guo escaped, a Taliban spokesman rebutted the rumor, undoubtedly spread by the terminally opportunistic Zardari government, that Zhang’s escape—which occurred coincidentally while President Zardari was on his first visit to Beijing-- was actually a negotiated release. The Taliban talking head also expressed his exasperation at hostages who have the poor taste and judgment to attempt escapes:

There were also rumours that one Chinese engineer was ‘allowed’; to flee under a secret agreement between the government and the Taliban militants but the insurgents strongly denied these reports. “It is untrue that he has been released under any deal,” Muslim Khan insisted.

He claimed the engineer had not been recovered but instead escaped from the Taliban’s captivity. He said that the military had no role in the whole episode and didn’t recover him as it was claimed. “If it could recover them, it could have done it much earlier,” he argued and hastened to add that the two should have avoided risking their lives by making an attempt to flee.

The murder of the brave and good Liaqat Ali Khan, who rescued Zhang, may have been meant in part to put a bloody punctuation point on the assertion that the engineer’s escape was not part of any deal that the Zardari government could take credit for.

The Pakistani government’s efforts to handle the situation may also have been complicated by U.S. abhorrence of a high profile concession to the Taliban.

Hamid Mir of The News reported on February 11:

Some diplomatic sources have revealed that initially Pakistan was ready to release some arrested Taliban fighters in exchange for the abducted Polish and Chinese engineers but the US authorities raised objections and a deal could not be finalised.

There’s more, also via The News on November 24. The Taliban communicated with the media to report that Zhang Guo was doing OK. Kinda.

Long Xiao fell off a mountain during the abortive attempt to escape, which fractured his right leg. …Long Xiao is still with the militants. After more than a month, his leg has not healed fully and the militants’ doctor has been looking after him. However, militants’ sources said that they had no intention to harm the kidnapped Chinese.

The News further reported:

The sources said they had not reached any deal for the Chinese so far, though they had been holding negotiations for the release of the engineer. The talks were, according to the sources, being held between the central leadership of the TTP and the Chinese authorities. The sources denied any contact with the government despite the latter’s claim to be making hectic efforts to secure the release of Long.

Emphasis added. Emphasis added. Emphasis added.

Indeed, from the beginning the Taliban has made it clear they wanted to negotiate with Beijing. A few weeks after the kidnapping, The News reported:

"We are getting angry at the lack of interests of the governments of China and Pakistan and will close doors for negotiation, if they do not hold serious talks for solution to the issue," a top militant commander told The News.

I have a feeling that the Chinese government is not interested in getting involved in direct negotiations with the Taliban and would much prefer to see Pakistan, purportedly the sovereign ruler of NWFP with the troops, tanks, airplanes, and, one would like to think, considerable local leverage and capability, handling this matter.

But it’s clear that the government writ doesn’t run in significant swaths of NWFP and FATA and China has to deal think about dealing with the Taliban—but not encourage it to believe it can use Chinese nationals as bargaining chips.

And, as a result, it’s perhaps not too much a surprise that as of February 10, negotiations are stalled and Mr. Wei is still languishing in Taliban custody.

However, I think the Chinese are not sitting on their hands in their response to the Pakistan Taliban’s efforts to develop an independent foreign policy.

Consider this report from Xinhua on February 10:

Ismail Tiliwaldi, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's top legislature, met Tuesday with Qazi Hussain Ahmed, president of Pakistan's Jamaat-I-Islami, an organization advocating the Islamic religion.

The two sides exchanged views on China-Pakistan relations and other issues of common concern.

The JII is a conservative, Islamicist party and a member of the fundamentalist MMU coalition. It is also a cadre organization, Leninist in inspiration, more focused on the directed seizure of political power than spontaneous social revolution, and, as such, perhaps a good fit for China if it is looking for an Islamic ally to help it deal with the Taliban and navigate Pakistan’s troubled political waters.

The JII, it should be said, is not particularly Taliban-friendly even though it is assiduously riding the anti-American wave in western Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, its closest affiliation is with the unsavory Gulbidin Hekmatyar, who received $600 million in aid from the CIA through JII mediation to fight the Soviets but, according to accounts, expended most of his time, energy, and cruelty in pursuit of his local rivals—including the Taliban (with whom he now appears to have an alliance of convenience, although Hamid Karzai is reportedly laboring assiduously to lure him into the Afghan government, perhaps even as Prime Minister!).

Ironically, I think it is virtually a given that, were the Taliban to return to power, it would face similar problems as NATO—insufficient forces to extend its authority reliably beyond its Pashtun base—and a new one: Hekmatyar’s bloody minded willingness to mix it up with the Taliban on behalf of whatever regional power—Pakistan, Iran, the U.S., or even China—that happens to be paying his bills that day. And, should the Taliban resume the hotseat in Kabul, I think Hekmatyar would find no shortage of paymasters, including Beijing.

And if the JII served as the conduit, it would simply be reprising the role it played during the anti-Soviet insurgency.

So the Chinese reach-out to the JII might be an effort to resolve the plight of its engineers—one which Pakistan’s central government is apparently unable to relieve—as an alternative or complement to negotiating directly with the Taliban.

It also might have a broader purpose—of looking to a possible future in which West-friendly governments in Kabul and Islamabad have lost the power to influence events in most of Afghanistan and Western Pakistan, and China needs a relatively moderate Islamic interlocutor to protect and advance its interests, perhaps provide links to proxies if the Taliban regains Kabul, and help keep the Taliban—and its millenarian ideology—bottled up in the Pashtun regions where it will not easily infect the restive Muslims of China’s West.

As for the unfortunate captive, Mr. Wei Longxiao, his case took on added urgency in the light of the fate of another hostage, a Polish engineer, Piotr Stanczak.

From The Australian, on February 7:

Piotr Stanczak was seized on September 28 by armed men who killed his two drivers and bodyguard in restive northwest Pakistan, where he was working for a Polish energy company.

"We have beheaded the Polish engineer after the government failed to meet our demands and we will not hand over his body,'' a Taliban spokesman said.

The murder claim came just hours after Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said that no ransom would be paid.

Released video apparently showed Mr. Stanczak’s decapitation.

His death was perhaps meant in part as a warning to the Chinese not to treat the Taliban and its demands in an excessively cavalier or roundabout fashion.

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