China’s political, military and economic engagements in Afghanistan are driven by its own domestic security reasons.
By Ayjaz Wani
The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan will open a Pandora’s Box for South Asian and Asian countries that are concerned about peace and stability in the war-ravaged region. For India, it also provides an opportunity, as China would now be encouraged work with greater cohesion with the international community by widening its narrow approach, which has so far been to indulge a section of terrorist groups in the region for its own vested interests.
China’s political, military and economic engagements in Afghanistan are driven by its own domestic security reasons in the restive Xinjiang province, dominated by the suppressed Uygur ethnic minority. Strategically located in northwest China, Xianjiang is the starting point of China’s much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, especially the controversial China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the initiative’s flagship entity which spans across the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, in direct violation of India’s sovereignty over the region. Xinjiang, which abuts Afghanistan is home to the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), listed as a terrorist organisation by US treasury department in 2002.
China has aired its concern about the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. In an interview with Pakistan’s GTV News channel, Lijain Zhao, Chinese deputy ambassador in Islamabad, was quite categorical about China’s stand. He said: “They (the US) have been in Afghanistan for 17 years. If they are leaving the country, they should try to leave in a gradual and responsible way.” He further warned, “If a civil war broke out after the US withdrawal, the first countries affected will be Pakistan, will be China, and it will be the immediate neighbours.” Such Chinese sentiments are quite contrary to the assertions made by the Chinese leadership after the US-led NATO started the war in Afghanistan post the 9/11 attacks on America. Commenting on the ‘war on terror,’ a Chinese diplomat had said: “The penetration of the United States into Central Asia not only prevents China from expanding its influence, but also sandwiches China from East to West, thus effectively containing a rising China.” If the invasion of Afghanistan by the US troops in 2001 was construed as containment, Beijing should have welcomed the withdrawal. But 17 years on, China finds itself caught in a quandary of its own making.
Since 2000, China had been using its narrow approach towards terrorism and has had a romantic relationship with terror groups to secure its own economic investments under BRI and also barter security of unstable Xinjiang. Whether it was to stop Taliban’s support for Uyghur militants in 2000, or a trade-off with Baloch militant groups in February 2018 for securing CPEC, China has been unabashed in its policy of double standards on terrorism. The policy of using terrorism and terror groups selectively for its self-gains is also evident in China’s diplomacy. With an aim to appease terror groups in the Af-Pak region, China has maintained its “technical hold” over Masood Azhar, one of the most-wanted terrorists in India, and repeatedly blocked India’s bid to label the chief of Jaish-e-Mohammad as a designated terrorist by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). With the US withdrawal now imminent, China will have to change such selective strategy when it comes to terrorism in the region — ironically for the same reasons that it had resorted to its ‘narrow approach’ so far, i.e. to ensure security and stability in its Xinjiang province.
ETIM or TIP is a Muslim separatist group founded by militant Uyghurs, members of the Turkic-speaking ethnic majority in Xinjiang. Before founding this terror outfit, Uyghurs actively worked in terror organisations such as the Hizb-u-Tahir and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Central Asia. Founded by Hasan Mahsum, an Uyghur from Xinjiang’s Kashgar region, ETIM came to the fore after Osama bin Laden pledged to finance it to wage war against China and seek independence in 2000. Hasan Mahsum was reportedly killed by Pakistani forces in South Waziristan as he had emerged as a threat to the interests of its all-weather friend in the region. Following Mahsum’s elimination, Abdul Haq Turkistani, an influential orator of “offensive-defensive jihad” terminologies of radical Islam in both Taliban and Al Qaeda, became the head of ETIM in 2003. Impressed by his oratory skills, Al Qaeda appointed him to Shura Majlis, its executive leadership council in 2005. He meditated between the rival groups of Taliban and also met Baitullah Mehsud, then Pakistani Taliban’s commander, in 2009. Under Turkistani, ETIM has received funds and training from al-Qaeda and has fought in the group’s ranks against the NATO forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. After recovering from serious injuries following a drone attack in Pakistan in 2010, Turkistani remerged to lead the group in 2014. In a video message released in June 2014, he praised the attack in the Khotan prefecture of Xinjiang province.
According to Afghan sources, ETIM is based in Badakshan and is working closely with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. With the return of more than 10,000 Uyghurs from Syria, where they had gained reputation of being ISIL’s ‘good warriors,’ the ETIM is believe to be regaining its fighting prowess. Beijing fears that they are set to sneak into Xinjiang through Wakhan Corridor with Al Qaeda’s help.
On 30 May 2016, in an audio message, Turkistani announced that ETIM will wage war against the “enemies of Islam.” He asked the outfit’s members in Syria to be ready to return to China and fight in western Turkistan. According to reports, Uyghur terrorists have started to migrate towards Central Asia and Afghanistan to join ETIM ranks and renew their operations against China and its strategic projects. Thus, any US-Taliban treaty will make ETIM more powerful than ever. It can use the US-Taliban ceasefire and the US withdrawal to channelise war-hardened terrorists who are regrouping in Central Asia, in the Af-Pak region and in the border areas between Turkey and Syria against China, especially in Xinjiang.
China fears that US’ departure would result in opening up of Af-Pak to such resurgent terror outfits. Even the United States is cognisant of such an eventuality. Gen. John F. Cambell, a former American commander in Afghanistan said, “it is a good start … but our primary strategic interest is that Afghanistan does not become another safe haven for terrorists, we need to put some measurements in place to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Though the Taliban has committed to not provide sanctuary to Al Qaeda and Daesh and that it will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against the US and its missions, question remains how far China will go to play the game behind the curtains by giving undue leverage to Pakistan. Pakistan plays an important role in the negotiations and peace process between the US and Taliban, but Chinese concerns run high as to how far will Pakistan fight anti-China terrorists in the Af-Pak region.
India is also concerned about its own geo-strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan, as the unfolding scenario is likely to have its impact on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. DGP of Jammu and Kashmir K. Rajendra Kumar expressed India’s concerns while delivering the Lalitaditya Memorial Lecture in Pune. He said: “Now the US is exiting Afghanistan. It has its implications in Kashmir. It is a matter of time that we will be feeling implications in the valley. After the US withdrawal, the terrorist organisations would feel pumped up, emboldened.” Furthermore, the terror groups of Af-Pak region can be used in Kashmir by Pakistan to propel unrest just as it did after the end of Soviet war.
China’s romance with terrorists is bound to lose strategic sense for the Communist Party soon after the US’ withdrawal from region. Beijing will be better served if it shuns its decades-old “narrow approach” of targeting a section of terrorist organisations in Afghanistan, besides propping up Pakistan as a proxy war actor. For its own economic and security concerns, it will make sense for China to work with the international community in general and with India particular to safeguard South Asia from the menace of terrorism.