Thursday, March 23, 2023

Is China distancing itself from Afghan Taliban?

By Hamid Pakteen 

In 2021 August, after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, even before the US completed its troops’ withdrawal from the war-torn country, China expressed its readiness to provide friendly cooperation to the landlocked nation. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also expressed its intention to play a constructive role in Afghanistan. 

One year after such assurances to Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, China treats the land locked country with tact and caution—no big investment or assistance, except for a few trades in cheap goods. In the name of assistance to Afghanistan, $31 million worth of aid was provided by Beijing last year, which included food supplies and coronavirus vaccines and this year in June $7.5 million worth of humanitarian aid was offered to the landlocked country after an earthquake of 6.1 magnitude struck it. Open hearted help by China to Afghanistan is missing. 

In fact, widening trust gap between China and the Afghan Taliban is the reason behind Beijing’s lukewarm response to Afghanistan, which shares a 76 km border with the East Asian country. China is unhappy with the Afghan Taliban as the latter has not stamped out the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from Afghanistan. “Judging from China’s communication with the Afghan Taliban, the Afghan Taliban has said repeatedly that it will not allow Afghanistan’s territory to be used by any terrorist organisations to attack China or any other country. We hope the Afghan side can earnestly fulfil this commitment,” China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a recent press briefing.

A votary of Uyghurs’ cause, the ETIM, branded as terrorist outfit by China, has links with al Qaeda, the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement, and several other terror outfits, including the Pakistan-based Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the ETIM has strengthened in number and capacity. A UN report published this year on July 15 said the ETIM has rebuilt several strongholds in Badakhshan in northeast Afghanistan and expanded its area of operations and covertly purchased weapons with the aim of improving its capabilities for terrorist activities. 

The UN report also said that the ETIM is continuing to strengthen its relations with the TTP and JamaatAnsarullah and “augmenting its military training on the manufacture and use of improvised explosive devices, focussing on morale and planning to carry out terrorist attacks against Chinese interests in the region when the time is right.”

According to the UK’s Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, the ETIM had about 1,000 fighters in Afghanistan. Their numbers are expected to grow as Syria-based Uyghur militants will soon return to Afghanistan. The Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism further said the Taliban made no effort to expel the ETIM militants from Afghanistan despite China’s pressure.

“However, Taliban did relocate some ETIM/TIP militants in Badakhshan away from the Chinese border in an attempt to exert some control over the group, as well as to show Beijing that it has no need for any concerns,” Faran Jeffery, Deputy Director and Chief of the South Asia terrorism desk at the Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying.

China is upset with the Afghan Taliban for its failure to rein in the TTP whose top leaders, it is said, are operating from safe havens of Afghanistan. Both China and Pakistan have accused the TTP of offering training to Balochi separatists and other terror outfits, engaged in targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan.

Despite being guarded by Pakistani military forces, the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been targeted by Baloch separatists as well as terrorists belonging to the TTP as they consider it an exploitative project. This year in April, a female suicide bomber attacked a minibus in Pakistan’s Karachi city, killing three Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver. The bombing was claimed by a separatist group, the Baloch Liberation Army. 

On July 14, 2021, nine Chinese workers were killed in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province when their bus they were travelling in suffered a blast. These Chinese nationals were working for the Dasu hydropower project, a part of CPEC project in Upper Kohistan area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which is considered as the stronghold of the TTP. This terrorist outfit was behind the suicide attack on a luxury hotel hosting Pakistan-based Chinese ambassador NongRong in Quetta in Pakistan in April 2021.

Although the Chinese ambassador remained unhurt, five people were killed while 12 others were injured in this attack. In November, 2018, the Baloch Liberation Army attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, but failed to enter the compound.  In August 2018, a suicide attack was carried out on a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Dalbandin, a city that lies in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Three Chinese engineers had suffered grievous injuries in this attack.  

In 2017, an outfit called ‘Majeed Brigade’ attacked a five-star hotel in Gwadar when the Chinese delegation was busy planning for a port project. Eight people were killed in that attack. In the same year, a video on Twitter and other social media surfaced in which a purported member of the ‘Majeed Brigade’ is heard warning Chinese President Xi Jinping to “get out of Balochistan.” A man wearing military fatigues and his face covered by a black cloth is heard saying, “President Jinping, you still have time to get out of Balochistan or you will witness retaliation from Baloch sons and daughters you will never forget.”

These incidents have cast doubt on the successful completion of CPEC projects in Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban, once considered as a protégé of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, has aggravated worries of the Chinese authorities on the safety of CPEC projects. Some media reports suggest that a large section of Afghan Taliban resist any move to control TTP or Baloch separatists’ action on Chinese interests. They are, in fact, sceptical of Beijing’s closeness to Islamabad whom they see as a purveyor of Afghanistan’s problem. But China cannot junk its relations with Pakistan as Beijing has more investments there in comparison to any other country of South Asia. 

Strategically too, Pakistan is of high significance to Beijing in the Indo-Pacific region. In substance, China’s understanding that the Afghan Taliban will work favourably to Beijing’s interest has started fading away. In one year, as per media reports, the two sides have lost charm in each other. Security interests had primarily encouraged China to come close to the Afghan Taliban, but the outfit’s indirect support to the ETIM, the TTP, al Qaeda and other terrorists has shaken Beijing’s faith in it. Result is that China has given a pause to its plan for bringing big ticket projects to Afghanistan.

Note: The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the articles.

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