China Seeks to Keep Afghan Jihadis in Afghanistan

An unleashed Taliban and its Islamic allies could spell trouble

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Although the US withdrawal from Afghanistan can’t be anything but good news for China, the withdrawal comes with caveats that put Beijing in a real quandary, one that it is struggling to manage through a host of initiatives targeting both Kabul and the Taliban.

China, one of the few countries in the region able to develop close relations with both Kabul and the Taliban, remains focused on helping to establish a post-war Afghanistan that doesn’t become a melting stew of regional and international jihadi networks targeting China’s Muslim-rich Xinjiang region, jeopardizing its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Ever since the previous Trump administration’s decision to remove the anti-China East Turkestan Movement [ETIM] from the list of global terrorist organizations, China’s fears with regards to the movement’s growth in Afghanistan in the postwar scenario have multiplied. As Global Times, an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, recently noted in one of its reports, the Movement continues to operate against China from within Afghanistan, and that instability in Afghanistan could leave a deep impact on China.

As such, with the US bent upon effecting what China calls an “irresponsible” withdrawal from Afghanistan, it fears that subsequent infighting between the Taliban and Kabul could create a scenario in which jihadi networks like the ETIM and IS-K can not only flourish, with infighting very much spilling over into China itself.

Speaking at the Heart of Asia virtual conference last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the “foreign military forces should withdraw from Afghanistan in an orderly manner and resolutely prevent various terrorist forces from creating chaos.”

China’s fears have considerably increased in the wake of its continuously worsening ties with the US and the growing perception in China with regards to the way the US might try to use the post-war Afghan scenario with the help of Turkey’s residual forces in Afghanistan to relocate jihadi networks to Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province and Wakhan corridor, neighboring China’s Xinjiang province. Beijing, according to investigators for NGOs and other state actors, is accused of having as many as a million people in camps in its efforts to control so-called Islamist ‘extremist ideas’ through a mass re-education program.

China’s fears are, however, not merely imagination. In 2017, the Iraq-Syria based ISIS released a video of Chinese Uighur Muslims threatening to return home and "shed blood like rivers." The 30-minute video shows Uighur fighters in training, interspersed with images from inside the ethnic minority's homeland of Xinjiang, including Chinese police on the streets.

It is for this reason that the Chinese have not only been a willing partner in the so-called “extended troika,” a group consisting of the US, China, Russia, Pakistan, Taliban and Kabul striving for a political settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, but has been particularly keen to establish ties with all major Afghan actors at the same time.

Last year in September, China, sensing the danger of a US withdrawal and the Taliban’s rise to political dominance in post-war Afghanistan, offered the militant group “development in exchange for peace.” According to a Financial Times report, diplomats from Beijing offered “sizeable investments in energy and infrastructure projects” in the country during talks that have been taking place over the past three months in Beijing.

While China’s offer at that time looked like a Chinese attempt to prepare the groundwork for Afghanistan’s eventual integration with the BRI, it is already evident that China’s primary interest remains an agreement with the Taliban to keep ETIM, al-Qaeda, and the IS-K to entrench themselves in Afghanistan under the shadow of Taliban rule and turn their attention to Xinjiang.

The troubled province is not only a Muslim-majority region, but is also a crucial base for the BRI. At least four of the six silk road networks, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), emanate from or go through Xinjiang – connecting China with Russia, Central, Southern and Western Asia, leading all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The other silk road networks running through Xinjiang include China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor, New Eurasia Land Bridge Economic Corridor and China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor.

In Chinese calculation, a civil-war-like scenario in Afghanistan could jeopardize its entire ‘revival of ancient silk roads’ project. Chinese strategy, accordingly, is not simply aimed at pleasing the Afghan Taliban, but mainly aimed at preventing a potential civil war.

Accordingly, whereas Chinese officials have consistently been urging the US to do a “responsible” withdrawal, it is also taking steps to place itself as the main interlocutor between the Taliban and Kabul post-US withdrawal.

In a call with his Afghan counterpart Mohammad Haneef Atmar on May 17, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China would continue to support Afghanistan and South Asian countries in fighting the pandemic, and is willing to deepen ‘anti-terrorism cooperation’ with Afghanistan. In a separate call on the same day, Wang told Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib that “China is willing to facilitate intra-Afghan negotiations, including creating necessary conditions for holding the talks in China.”

This is apart from a growing realization in China that it may have to send its ‘peace-keeping forces’ to Afghanistan to not only help hold the peace, but also prevent the civil war to spill over into China. That has been a recipe for disaster for foreign powers for centuries.

The message to the political elites in Kabul is the same one China has been giving to the Taliban: a moderate “Muslim policy” is one that leaves minimum to no room for Islamist tendencies to flourish in Afghanistan that would impel Uighur Muslims in China to mobilize for a similar implementation of ‘Shariah law’ in Xinjiang.

Chinese involvement in Afghanistan is, therefore, likely to continue to increase in the months to come, and will continue to do so in the post-withdrawal period.

While many US officials see Chinese involvement as a threat for the US interests and that China may—as David Helvey (acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs) said—“exercise malign influence in Afghanistan” for China, the primary concern remains tackling a post-withdrawal scenario that would prevent scarring Afghanistan and China alike.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel