Afghanistan’s Taliban and China are drawing closer together as the militant group drives to seize power through force in the wake of America’s troop withdrawal. Whether the two sides can build a mutually beneficial alliance, however, will come down to the Taliban’s ability and willingness to rein in extremist groups that so far have been instrumental to its battlefield successes.
When Taliban co-founder Mullah Baradar recently led a delegation to Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi specifically asked the group to “make a clear break” with terror outfits. These include chiefly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a militant group of ethnic Uighurs with a history of launching attacks in China’s western Xinjiang region.
Designated by the United Nations as a terror outfit, ETIM aims ultimately to make Xinjiang into an independent state of “East Turkestan.” Xinjiang’s stability is particularly sensitive for Beijing as the geographic hub of its Belt and Road Initiative’s link connecting to Pakistan and beyond.
Xinjiang is also where China holds as many as one million ethnic Uighurs in “vocational camps” critics have likened to concentration camps, allegations that have provided fuel to ETIM’s anti-Beijing fires. A UN Security Council report published in May said the ETIM has a “transnational agenda” to target Xinjiang as well as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan.
The report said approximately 500 of the group’s fighters operate in north and northeast Afghanistan, primarily in northern Badakhshan province’s Raghistan and Warduj districts, and that ETIM collaborates closely with other Islamic militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Islam, both of which are known for launching attacks in Pakistan.
ETIM also has a strong presence in Kunduz and Takhar provinces while its logistics chief and religious leaders are based in Paktika province.
In return for “cutting ties” with ETIM, China is dangling to the Taliban not only recognition as a “genuine political force”, legitimacy the militant group with a history of terrorism clearly craves, but also pledged to invest heavily in the war-torn country’s devastated infrastructure and inclusion in the BRI via Pakistan.
President Ashraf Ghani, whose government is backed by the US, has mostly spurned Beijing’s BRI advances.
The Taliban’s leadership is no doubt interested in Beijing’s offers of largesse but is clearly now more concentrated on its war effort, where battlefield successes are improving its negotiating leverage vis-à-vis Ghani by the day. It’s not clear to most analysts the Taliban are currently willing to tackle the militant and terror outfits, including the ETIM, that are now aligned with its fight against Kabul.
But Beijing is clearly concerned by the ETIM’s known presence in northern Badakhshan province, which borders on China and is now under nominal Taliban control. It will be lost on few in Beijing that the Taliban similarly promised to cut ties with al-Qaeda as part of its February 2020 deal with the US, but by all accounts failed to actually sever connections with the global terrorist outfit.
The UN report indicates that the Taliban continued to fight alongside al-Qaeda militants after the Doha agreement, including in a late 2020 attack on Bagram Air Base. The Taliban also agreed to a broad reduction in violence in the lead-up to the US troop withdrawal, which likewise hasn’t been honored. That is a reflection in part of internal Taliban divisions on political-military, tribal and regional lines.
Whether the ETIM could seek to exploit those divisions to maintain its transnational agenda against China from Afghan territory is yet to be seen.
Yet it is an open secret that the Taliban’s Political Office, led by Abdul Ghani Baradar Abdul Ahmad Turk and tasked with foreign negotiations and relations, is often at odds with a more hard-line group of rank-and-file fighters close to Sher Mohammad Abbas Staekzai that is less keen to interact with the international community and show moderation.
The UN report says the Taliban leadership had not initially fully disclosed the details of the US Doha agreement, namely regarding the commitment to cut ties with al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters like ETIM, for fear of a backlash.
The report said the cutting ties commitment is a “matter that had surfaced repeatedly as a topic of acrimonious debate.” Al-Qaeda, like ETIM, is also active in northern Badakhshan province bordering China, as well as 11 other provinces, according to the UN.
To be sure, Beijing has realpolitik motivations to engage the Taliban. As a recent commentary published in Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, said: Chinese policymakers tend to believe that making an enemy of the Taliban will only worsen the situation for Beijing. While the Taliban sympathizes with the ETIM, it would not allow the group to mount attacks inside China, the op-ed said.
While the ETIM is believed to have a large enough presence in Afghanistan to stage cross-border attacks in Xinjiang, with the UN report counting their numbers as high as 500 in border regions, it has notably not attacked mainland China since Beijing started its preliminary engagements with the Taliban in 2018.
How much the Taliban have been a restraining influence on the ETIM is unclear. What is clear is that the Taliban feels it can do business with China, firstly because it does not share the West’s democratizing agenda, and secondly because it appears willing to tolerate the formation of a Taliban-led Islamic Emirate on its border without interfering in its internal political matters as long as its core interests are met.
To be sure, the Taliban is unlikely to break with the ETIM until it has secured a clear military and political victory in Afghanistan. As recent Taliban battlefield victories show, the militant group continues to use transnational groups like the ETIM to extend control beyond its traditional heartland in southern Afghanistan.
Ghani recently described the Taliban as markedly different from its 1990s incarnation. “These are not the Taliban of the 20th century… but the manifestation of the nexus between transnational terrorist networks and transnational criminal organizations,” he said.
Given the Taliban’s transnational composition, disbanding non-Taliban, foreign terrorist outfits, including the ETIM, would run the risk of breaking the cohesion among foreign fighters it is now leveraging to devastating effect against the Afghan National Security Forces.
Once in power in Kabul, the Taliban’s calculus could quickly and dramatically change as it will no longer need foreign fighters to defeat the Afghan army and will instead need foreign allies like China to rebuild the economy and secure foreign aid. The Taliban leadership have recently declared that China is a “friendly” country and that it will not allow the ETIM to use Afghan territory against China. It’s not clear if rank-and-file commanders in the field agree, though.
While the Taliban did provide territorial sanctuary to al-Qaeda after coming into power in the mid-1990s, it did not itself pursue a transnational terror agenda. While known for its extremely orthodox and hard-core extremist ideas, the Taliban has never pledged or sought to extend its previous and now envisioned new emirate beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
As their various pronouncements show, the Taliban is primarily interested in re-establishing and consolidating its own rule in Afghanistan and to date has shown no interest in pursuing a regional agenda that could turn neighboring powers, namely China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, against them.
Given the fact that major Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have wilfully chosen to stay mute on China’s persecution of ethnic Uighurs, the Taliban know that the ETIM is unlikely to receive the kind of logistical, financial and military support from abroad it did back in the 1990s.
While China is concerned about the Taliban’s true intent regarding the ETIM, the Taliban has so far taken a pragmatic, rational and reciprocal policy vis-à-vis China, which unlike the US has never fought against the militant group.
While the Taliban may not terminally uproot the ETIM, as Beijing wishes, it can be expected to try to restrain the group from attacking Chinese territory, though much will come down to the Taliban’s internal cohesion in the months ahead.