Ethnic Uighur fighters with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) fly their flag in a file photo. Image: Facebook

PESHAWAR – America’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s possible resumption of at least partial power in Kabul will have far-reaching implications for China and Pakistan, both of which aim to play key roles in the country’s post-war future.

China has publicly endorsed America’s plan, which will see 2,500 of 4,500 troops withdrawn by mid-January and all soldiers by mid-year, but has cautioned that an unorganized US departure could open the way for militants to re-establish Afghanistan as a regional hotbed of Islamic terror.

Last November, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian urged the US to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in an “orderly and responsible” manner.

That official comment spoke to Chinese concerns that Afghanistan, which shares a land border with China’s restive Xinjiang province, could in particular become a breeding ground for Uighur Muslim militants.

China often points to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also known as the Turkistan Islamic Movement, to justify its harsh crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang. ETIM is an Islamic extremist group founded by Uighur jihadists in Western China that seeks to create an independent East Turkestan state to replace China’s Xinjiang.

In December, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security wound up a Chinese spy ring and detained at least 10 Chinese nationals on espionage charges, according to news reports citing the directorate’ chief Ahmad Zia Saraj.

Reports said the Afghan government believed the Chinese spies were attempting to create a fake (ETIM) module in Afghanistan to entrap real ETIM operatives. The Chinese nationals were allowed to fly back to China reportedly under pressure from Beijing.

China has at least historic cause to be concerned. Soon after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, China, the European Union, US, UK, UN and other states designated the ETIM as a terrorist organization due to its association with al Qaeda.

China has claimed that the ETIM committed over 200 acts of terrorism between 1990-2001, resulting in 162 deaths and 440 injuries. Those included a spate of attacks ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, including an assault on paramilitary troops in Kashgar that killed 17 officers.

People protest at a Uighur rally on February 5 in front of the US Mission to the United Nations to encourage the US State Department to stand for the freedom of the majority-Muslim Uighur population in China’s Xinjiang province. Photo: AFP

The US captured 22 Uighur ETIM-linked insurgents in Afghanistan in 2006 on information they had links with al Qaeda. They were sent to detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but later released after being deemed as never having been enemy combatants of the US.

Rather than sending them back to China, they were allowed to stay in the US because of China’s poor human rights record.

But in November, the Donald Trump administration removed the ETIM from America’s terrorist list, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying there was “no credible evidence” that the group still exists.

That elicited a sharp rebuke from Beijing, which voiced its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the US decision.”  

Mushahid Hussain Syed, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz senator, told Asia Times that there is no longer an “Uighur insurgency” per se, and that the remnants of the ETIM are now based mostly in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan region bordering China.

“Since China has been engaging the Afghan Taliban diplomatically since 2014, the threat of the Taliban supporting ETIM is remote,” he claimed. “The US-brokered peace accord forbids the use of Afghan territory against any other country.

“[But] with the official removal of ETIM’s terror label by the US…there is a danger of some hawkish elements in Washington and their regional allies like India using ETIM to destabilize China,” Mushahid said.

He said that any threat of playing the “Xinjiang card” would not likely come from the Afghan Taliban, but rather could be played by the US and India as part of their “New Cold War” strategy to “contain China.”

China has never come to grips with the non-state actors that for years have fomented Xinjiang’s ethnic unrest. Beijing’s punitive response, including the creation of what China terms “vocational camps” that now hold over one million Uighurs, has no doubt added fuel to Uighur insurgent fires.

Police patrol as Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayer on Eid al-Fitr in the old town of Kashgar in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP / Johannes Eisele

In recent months, the US has ramped up criticism of China’s reputed mistreatment of Xinjiang’s Uighurs. The UN and EU have also protested against the camps, which reputedly nearly scuppered a newly signed EU-China investment pact on rights grounds. The Uighur camp issue is expected to feature in EU states’ ratification debates on the pact.

Pakistan, which has taken up the plight of other persecuted Muslim minorities, including not least the Palestinians, has remained notably mute on China’s rising mistreatment of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs. The Uighurs’ strongest external supporter is Turkey, with which Pakistan has increasingly close ties.  

The Uighurs would also likely benefit from a change of the political status quo in Afghanistan, particularly if the Taliban were returned to a position of political power in a negotiated settlement with President Ashraf Ghani’s US-aligned government.

The Afghan Taliban were the main source of weapons and other equipment to Uighur militants from 1996 to 2001, a period when the Islamic fundamentalist group was last in power in Afghanistan.

The Taliban equipped and trained the ETIM as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which then played a major role in the escalation of tensions in the region.

Then, Kabul established training camps where the Uighur separatists trained to fight the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in China, where on occasions the Taliban even sent their own forces to fight alongside the Uighur insurgents.

Fast forward to the present, media reports have revealed that Taliban forces accompanied by Uighur militants have recently taken over a large area of rural Badakhshan, a northeastern Afghan province that shares a 90-kilometer border with China’s Xinjiang.

An estimated 200 foreign fighters were active in the 2019 Badakhshan battle, which reportedly included Uighurs from China as well and Uzbeki and Tajiki nationals. They defeated Afghan government forces and captured a large territory which borders China, Pakistan and Tajikistan.

Reports suggest that Beijing and Islamabad have already forged an “intelligence-sharing arrangement” to keep tabs on the war-torn country as it enters a transitional phase that could restore the Taliban power. President Ghani’s government is currently in slow-moving peace negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.

Taliban fighters on the march in Afghanistan. Photo: AFP/Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto

A Taliban leader who was a member of a delegation that met with Chinese officials in Beijing in 2019 told Asia Times that what irritates Beijing most is the realization that if the peace process ends on a positive note and the Taliban resume political power, the Uighur insurgency could gain a new lease on life.

“Beijing wants reassurance from the Taliban leadership that if they take the reins in Kabul, they would not do what they had been doing in the past,” he said.        

He said Beijing approached the Taliban’s leadership, with the support of Pakistan, twice in 2019 to lay the groundwork for future collaboration in anticipation of political change in Kabul after US troops pull out after 19 years in the country.

Pakistan has facilitated a couple of meetings of key Taliban leaders with officials from China’s Foreign Ministry, he said. At those meetings, China apparently underlined the need for firm counterterrorism measures as a precondition for Chinese support for the Taliban resuming a political role.

Days after President Trump called off an earlier peace process with the insurgent group on September 7, 2019, a nine-member Taliban delegation traveled to Beijing to meet China’s special representative for Afghanistan, Deng Xijun.

Another Taliban delegation visited China in June 2019 and reportedly had detailed discussions with Chinese senior leaders on an intra-Afghan dialogue. At the time, Beijing reportedly favored the US-led peace process. The US entered an initial pact with the Taliban in February last year, which paved the way for the US troop withdrawal.

But the fog of war is being clouded by geopolitics, including still unconfirmed reports that Russia paid Taliban fighters bounties to kill US soldiers. A December 31 CNN report, reputedly citing US intelligence, claimed that China also sought to pay Afghan militants bounties to kill US forces.

Asia Times could not independently confirm the report. Indeed, there are contrary indicators that China is working more closely with Ghani’s state forces than the Taliban.

The US Department of Defense, in a report presented to the Senate in January last year, revealed that China has transformed its economic and trade relationship with Afghanistan to “political and military” engagements.

A Uighur man in front of military police during a counter-terrorism drill in Xinjiang. Photo: Reuters

Media reports suggested in 2018 that China was seeking to build a military base in Badakhshan. Reports at the time revealed that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense was expecting a Chinese expert delegation to discuss the location and technical issues for establishing such a base. The current status of the proposed base is unclear.

The US Defense Department report revealed that China has integrated Afghanistan into a new multilateral security apparatus, known as the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism, which promotes joint counterterrorism and trade activities between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China.

“China is primarily concerned about Uighur militants’ transit through the Afghanistan Wakhan Corridor, which borders China’s Xinjiang Province, believing that regional stability will improve its access to trade markets, weaken western regional influence, and counterbalance India’s role and strategic expansion in the region. China is seeking to become more involved in intra-Afghan talks,” the report said.

Nishank Motwani, deputy director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit think tank, said in an interview that America’s troop withdrawal will inevitably open a power and security vacuum which will likely be filled by militant groups and pro-Taliban zealots.

He said that the Taliban does not see eye-to-eye with Beijing on its repressive policies towards Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. He noted that while the ETIM’s cross-border attack capability was at present weak, that could quickly change if the Taliban resumes even partial power in Kabul.