Last week, Russian diplomats and state media continued to provide extensive coverage of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the associated fallout. Russian Twitter accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0 mentioned Afghanistan more than any other country besides Russia, and the three most frequently used phrases by Moscow-linked accounts related to Afghanistan. Russian state media outlets paid particularly close attention to the suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport attributed to IS-Khorasan, giving regular updates on the damage, explainers on the jihadist group, witness accounts, and running an interview with the Taliban’s spokesperson after the bombing. Russian state messengers also highlighted reports of U.S. military equipment falling into Taliban hands. Interestingly, they also took a swing at the Taliban’s competence, suggesting the group needs an “Idiot’s Guide to Flying a Blackhawk.” This was paired with coverage of the Taliban’s brutality and the harsh conditions imposed on Afghans by the group. State media continued to amplify U.S. domestic criticism of President Joe Biden’s management of the Afghanistan withdrawal from Democrats and Republicans. Multiple state media outlets also published articles with quotes from a mother of a U.S. marine killed in last week’s Kabul airport bombing that questioned President Biden’s mental fitness. State media critiqued U.S. media coverage of Afghanistan and U.S. foreign policy in general.
In coronavirus coverage, Russian state media highlighted protests against pandemic-related policies in countries like Germany, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They also ran stories on potential terrorist threats to Switzerland’s vaccination centers, Singapore’s strict enforcement of mask mandates, and the “media’s addiction” to allegedly spreading fear about the pandemic. Russian media also covered health issues arising from foreign substances found in the Moderna vaccine in Japan and circulated details on alternative coronavirus treatments, like eating tomatoes injected with the virus. Meanwhile, Russian diplomats and state media celebrated Indonesia becoming the 70th country to approve Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that over four billion people are now approved to receive the Russian vaccine. Moscow-linked accounts also shared a study that claimed Sputnik V becomes more effective overtime at combating coronavirus. Somewhat unusually, tweets by the Russian Mission to the United Nations about the conflict between Ethiopia’s government and forces in the country’s northern Tigray region made up four of the six most retweeted posts by Russian accounts monitored on Hamilton 2.0. last week. The tweets generally called for a de-escalation of the conflict and expressed humanitarian concerns. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calls with other heads of state last week also received considerable engagement, with a post about a discussion with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan gaining a significant number of likes and retweets.
As U.S. intelligence releasing its assessment on the origins of Covid-19 last Friday, Chinese diplomats and state media devoted much effort to dampening the report’s impact (pre-emptively as well as after the report’s release). Last Monday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin connected coronavirus origin conspiracies to the work of Professor Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina. With UNC hosting one of the two labs studying coronaviruses in the United States, this new spin is a seeming attempt to plug one of the gaping holes in China’s year-long effort to cast suspicion on the Fort Detrick lab (which does not study coronaviruses). Chinese state media and Wenbin’s colleagues in Beijing and in Uganda were among those who further propagated Baric-related disinformation during the last week. Wenbin also cast doubt on the ability and willingness of U.S. intelligence to provide an accurate assessment of Covid-19’s origins. The arguments he used to dismiss the U.S. intelligence report were parroted by Chinese diplomats who repeated assertions that an investigation into Covid-19’s origins can only be conducted by scientists, not by spies, and that U.S. intelligence is unreliable and overly politicized, as evidenced by the Iraq WMD episode. Those claims were buttressed with a continuing effort to promote conspiracy theories, with MFA spokesperson Zhao Lijian running through the entire gamut of Covid-19 conspiracy theories during last Friday’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing, from Fort Detrick’s “dark history” to U.S. local authorities’ alleged tampering of records in early 2020. Even after the U.S. report was released, the Chinese side did not significantly alter its position, with the Chinese ambassador to the United States denouncing an “anti-science” effort. The Chinese embassy in the United States as well as several state media outlets also warned that investigating Covid-19’s origins might further increase anti-Asian hate crimes in the country.
Although there was a notable drop in focus on Afghanistan last week from Chinese diplomats (Beijing’s diplomats devoted almost as many tweets to El Salvador (71) as they did to Afghanistan (85) last week), state media continued to cover Afghanistan-related developments in comparable proportions to their global counterparts. As is customary, Global Times ran the most sensationalized content, implicitly accusing the United States of enabling terrorism in Afghanistan and portraying the U.S. withdrawal from the country as the harbinger of the end of “Western civilization.” Beyond criticizing the United States, Chinese commentary on Afghanistan last week remained split on the Taliban. On the one hand, Chinese leaders, diplomats, and state media continued to promote the idea that the Taliban are building an “inclusive” government. Spokesperson Wenbin also described communication between his government and the Taliban as “smooth and effective.” On Friday, after a deadly attack near Kabul airport, spokesperson Zhao insisted that “the Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts that hurt China.” On the other hand, the airport attack also prompted strong condemnation from several diplomats as well as calls on the Taliban “to live up to its anti-terrorism promise.” And in an interview with a Taliban spokesperson on CGTN, the presenter, somewhat uncharacteristically, pushed the spokesperson on the issue of women’s rights.
Japan also drew the ire of Chinese diplomats and state media last week over security talks it held with Taiwan. On Wednesday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned that “the Japanese side bears historical responsibilities to the Chinese people for its past crimes” (which Zhao repeated on Twitter two days later). The following day, Japan was attacked by the Chinese MFA as well as state media over its release of contaminated waters from the Fukushima disaster. By the end of last week, the rhetoric escalated another notch as the Japanese Ministry of Defense released a new white paper criticizing China’s military build-up. While Chinese state media urged Japan “not to mislead the next generation,” Zhao and the Global Times dialed up the tension further by bringing up the Yasukuni Shrine, erected in memory of Japanese soldiers, many of whom fought in China during WWII.
Tehran-linked Twitter celebrated the appointment of Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who previously served as an advisor to hardline Speaker of Parliament Ghalibaf. Amir-Abdollahian was a strong supporter of Major General Qassem Soleimani and is considered more of a hardliner than his predecessor Javad Zarif, who favored engagement with the United States. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs used the moment of the appointment to emphasize strong relations with various neighbors, including Russia, China, Turkey, Algeria, Oman, Greece, and Tajikistan. Like the rest of the world’s media, Iranian media reported heavily on events in Kabul last week. Some stories were presented neutrally, but many were framed to blame the United States for the chaos, with the supreme leader tweeting, “What happened on Thursday at the airport in Kabul is the work of the United States.” In some cases state media also alleged U.S. coordination with the Taliban or the Islamic State–Khorasan (IS-K). A notable accusation was that CNN’s Clarissa Ward had failed to alert U.S. security forces after conducting an interview with a senior IS-K commander who spoke of an upcoming attack. This narrative in turn served as fodder for conspiracy theories suggesting that the United States was complicit in the attack, with one tweet quoted in a PressTV story reading “CIA tweets CIA interview with CIA,” referring to Ward’s interview. Other accusations included suggestions that U.S. forces shot civilians at the Kabul airport while trying to control crowds; U.S. soldiers and Marines extorted money or valuables from Afghan civilians trying to flee; the U.S. doomed Afghan allies to detention or murder by giving their names to the Taliban to expedite evacuations; Erik Prince charged people $6,500 for charter flights out of Kabul; the U.S. military has undisclosed links to IS-K; and the United States and United Kingdom had reached a stalemate with the Taliban and came to an agreement to hand over the country in exchange for guarantees of U.K. and U.S. interests going forward. PressTV also reported heavily on the reports that a drone strike targeting IS-K suicide bombers killed nine members of an Afghan family, including six children. Iranian media, however, continue to maintain a wary attitude towards the Taliban themselves, with PressTV tweeting, “As the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan like never before, Iran adapts its stance by accepting them but with a mindful eye. Iran’s approach towards Afghanistan’s turmoil will be our study of the day.”
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.