China Seeks Regional Help in Managing Afghanistan

Beijing, wary of jihadis, looks to Shanghai Cooperation Organization

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

With US and NATO forces having already largely withdrawn from Afghanistan, and with the Taliban extending their control and quickly approaching the Wakhan corridor in Badakhshan province that borders China, it has become imperative for China to devise a concrete Afghanistan policy.

That is because, according to some recent reports, Taliban groups overrunning the province are not Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in the country. Rather they are overwhelmingly Tajik, Uzbek, Uyghur, and Chechen fighters, which indicates a transnational jihadi formation taking place close to China’s most sensitive regions.

Therefore, post-withdrawal Afghanistan, while good news for the Chinese in terms of US disengagement from the Chinese backyard, is more of a challenge at the moment than an opportunity to establish its economic and financial tentacles in a country badly in need of money to rebuild and reconstruct itself. In the wake of US withdrawal, China has been forced to bring its citizens home and scale down its presence amid the deteriorating security situation.

For China, engaging with Afghanistan has become important not only because the US forces have withdrawn in an “irresponsible” manner, allowing Islamist groups to gain control, but also because anti-China groups like East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) continue to have a strong presence. A Taliban resurgence, China believes, could allow the ETIM to re-group and use its presence in Afghanistan to launch militant attacks inside Xinjiang, China’s BRI hub, where China is reportedly carrying mass “re-education” of the region’s Uyghur Muslim majority.

As such, while the Donald Trump administration had removed the ETIM from its terror list in November 2020 saying that the group did not have any credible presence and/or posed a direct threat to China, a recent UNSC report confirmed that not only does the group have a substantial presence in Afghanistan and continues to pose a direct threat to China as well, but it has developed alliances with other jihadi networks as well in pursuance of its broad objectives.

To quote the report: “...the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement is located mainly in Badakhshan, Kunduz and Takhar Provinces. Abdul Haq (QDi.268) remains the group’s leader, aided by his deputy Kausali. According to one Member State, Farooq in Paktika Province is the group’s logistics chief, Shoaib in Uruzgan Province is a senior operative and Hamza and Abdussalam in Paktika Province are religious leaders.

“Approximately 500 fighters of the group operate in the north and north-east of Afghanistan, primarily in Raghistan and Warduj Districts, Badakhshan, with financing based in Raghistan. According to one Member State, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement collaborates with Lashkar-e-Islam and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The Member State reported that the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement has a transnational agenda to target Xinjiang, China, and the China - Pakistan Economic Corridor, as well as Chitral, Pakistan, which poses a threat to China, Pakistan, and other regional States.”

Given the direct threat that large-scale instability poses to China, its Afghanistan policy has already evolved to adopt a “regional approach.” To the extent that the presence of numerous jihadi groups warrants such an approach, China has become a lot more sensitive due precisely to the way the civil war and the resurgence of Islamist groups in Afghanistan can upend the BRI. At least four of six ‘Silk Roads’ of China’s BRI emanate or pass through Xinjiang, connecting China with a number of member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian security pact, including Pakistan and other Central Asia states; hence, China’s invocation of the SCO as the most suitable platform to resolve the Afghan question.

In a recent meeting of the SCO, China proposed a five-point agenda to help Afghanistan transit from the 20 years of war into a politically and militarily stable position without posing a direct threat to regional states.

China’s five points include: 1) a continued US role and responsibility in resolving the crisis, 2) preventing the resurgence of transnational terror networks (read: the ETIM), 3) the SCO members must play a more direct role in facilitating an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” process of reconciliation, 4) the SCO must also utilize multilateral mechanisms of cooperation, 5) and the SCO must actively seek to integrate Afghanistan with “regional economic development.”

The fact that China is seeking to actively include the SCO shows that, unlike the past, Beijing is reluctant to rely solely on Pakistan for managing and protecting its interests in Afghanistan. Whereas the complexity of the Afghan problem itself warrants such a policy, China’s policy also speaks volumes about its growing differences with Pakistan with respect to Pakistan’s handling of the enormously expensive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor over the past three years and its increasing inability to prevent terror attacks on Chinese personnel in Pakistan. Last week, at least nine Chinese engineers working on Dasu Dam were killed in a terror attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province.

By establishing direct ties with the Taliban, and by activating the SCO, China wants to make sure that a political transition does take place in Afghanistan without the Afghan state melting down under the combined weight of war between Kabul and the Taliban on the one hand, and the war between numerous jihadi networks based in Afghanistan looking to expand their reach beyond Afghanistan.

China’s direct investments in Afghanistan notwithstanding, it seems that China, like other regional states, is not averse to extending legitimacy to and cultivating direct relations with the Taliban in exchange for their guarantees for not providing support and sanctuaries to non-Taliban Islamist groups.

This being said, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will actually divorce the transnational jihadi networks. For now, regional states, including China, continue to bank upon the Taliban’s apparent desire to be embraced as a legitimate political force.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a longtime Asia Sentinel correspondent

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