Taliban’s growing proximity with China is an opportunity ISKP trying to leverage

 If the Taliban thought their coming to power was going to be as smooth as it was during the first time, they have a host of challenges staring at them. The world has changed a lot since 1996. For starters, there was not much technology back then. Now, the Taliban must deal with the permeation of technology along with a generation of youngsters that has not seen much of the Taliban since 2001. Back in 1996, the Taliban was welcomed on the streets of Kabul. It is not quite the same now.

Apart from the geopolitical changes since 2001, the role of China, too, is different today. China will look to be the closest ally of the Taliban after Pakistan. China will also prove to be the biggest spender and investor in Afghanistan, but at a price.

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We are already seeing Taliban members regularly meeting Chinese officials. Their meetings are aimed at expediting the resumption of direct air-trade links between the nations and the first of it saw a large cargo plane, carrying 45 tons of pine nuts from Kabul to China on October 31, marking the restoration of the commercial corridor.

Reports also indicated that China is already in the process of investing a lot in mining activities in Afghanistan, adding parts of it to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) project. With China having already announced more than $35 million worth of humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, and the US continuing to block Afghanistan’s access to close to $10 billion in Afghan assets parked largely with the US Federal Reserve, it is natural for Afghanistan to sway towards its northeastern neighbours.

In return for all the support China is offering to Afghanistan, it expects the Taliban to return the favour by clamping down on the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs have a short, but crucial history with respect to their presence in Afghanistan and the bordering areas. There are also outfits in this region that propagate views like separating the region of Xinjiang from China and freeing the oppressed Uyghurs from China’s grasp.

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This has proven to be a key opportunity for Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which has come out of its shell ever since the Taliban took over. The ISKP is now, by far, the key opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan. They are maximizing their reach to attract more Uyghurs to join their forces.

India Today spoke exclusively with ex-Director of Afghanistan’s state-run Bakhtar News Agency and Secretary-General of the Afghan National Commission for UNESCO Khalil Minawi and Deputy Director of ITCT and key observer of terror-related events in the region Faran Jeffrey.


The Islamic State was founded in 2014 and since then, it has seldom been soft on China. The ISKP, more interestingly, has constantly targeted China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region in its publications. This has made it a tricky path ahead for the Taliban after coming to power.

China has hosted the Taliban since 2014 and the Taliban is hoping for continued support from the country. More importantly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had hosted the Taliban in July 2021, weeks before they came to power. During the meeting, he had commented that China expected the Taliban to “deal resolutely with Uyghur militants in Afghanistan and the border areas”. There have been multiple reports from Afghanistan that talk about the systematic targeting of Uyghurs by the Taliban. A recent report by the NPR (National Public Radio) mentioned that Afghan Uyghurs were being systematically harassed by the Taliban government, apparently at Beijing’s behest.

This has reinvigorated ISKP’s recruitment as they now look to add more members, including Uyghur Muslims, into their fold by exploiting China’s ties with the Taliban. They intend to discredit the Taliban for negotiating with the US first and then currently dealing with China and not defending the Xinjiang Muslims.

The ISKP Uyghur bomber involved in the Kunduz blast. (Photo: AMAQ news agency)

Faran Jeffrey added: “When we mention Uyghurs in Afghanistan, we are mainly talking about two kinds of people: civilians and militants. The Taliban has given assurances to China that it won't allow Uyghur militants to operate from Afghanistan and China also seems somewhat content with those assurances for now. But Beijing still wants the Taliban to either evict these Uyghurs or hand them over to Beijing. There's a chance that down the road, the Taliban may expel some Uyghur militants as part of a deal with Beijing. There's a pragmatic group within the Taliban that would support such an initiative. But there are also those hardcore ideological Talibs who will oppose such a thing.”

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“At the same time, there's little to no chance that the Taliban will expel Uyghur civilians or families of Uyghur militants. If the Taliban does decide to expel some of these Uyghur militants, there are groups like ISKP that would offer them space and an opportunity to take revenge on the Taliban.”


ISKP has been escalating things for quite some time now. On October 8, they were involved in a high-profile attack involving an ethnic Uyghur, who ended up blowing up himself outside a Shiite mosque in Kunduz. The incident killed close to 50 people. It is expected that the ISKP will carry out more such attacks in the near future and will continue to pose a threat to China by influencing Uyghur fighters in its ranks.

The Amaq News Agency, Islamic State's official outlet, acknowledged the suicide bomber “Muhammad al-Uyghuri” and claimed that the Taliban had pledged to expel and oust Uyghurs at the request of China. Subsequently, The Voice of Hind, an English magazine published by an IS group, called Muhammad al-Uyghuri “a knight of Allah from China” and accused the Taliban of prioritising the protection of Buddhist statues over protecting Uyghurs at China’s behest.

The Voice of Hind praising the Uyghur bomber.

Other publications close to the IS have also vowed to take revenge on China for oppressing Uyghurs in Xinjiang and “licking the boots of the crusaders (US) first and now Russia and China as well”. In the past, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had released propaganda videos of Uyghur fighters threatening Beijing. Now, China may have to face the music closer to home.


Uyghur Muslims started fleeing China’s Xinjiang region in the late 1950s. They mostly fled their homes by loading their bags onto their yaks and horses and crossing the Pamir mountains on foot. This was basically to escape religious and political persecution under the then Chinese government. Hence, they reached the borders of Afghanistan to settle and start afresh. During the Soviet invasion, some Uyghurs fled to Pakistan. During the Taliban’s first tenure between 1996 and 2001, some Uyghurs, because of having remained a minority even for so long, started facing threats from the local militants and took refuge along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. After 2001, they returned to Afghanistan to set up businesses and settle down.

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Now, they face an existential threat yet again with the Taliban cosying up to China — one, they may have to flee the country again if they face threats; two, they may not be able to flee the country that easily, after all.

Khalil Minawi commented: “The Taliban, at the behest of Pakistan's ISI, claims to be supporting Muslim minorities across the world, including Kashmiris. But when the issue of Uyghur Muslims being massacred by China is raised, the Taliban ignore this and term it as a domestic issue of China. The Taliban has reportedly agreed to China’s request to prevent Uyghur Muslims from attacking Chinese territory. It is also expected that captured Uyghur militants will be handed over to China, and in return, the Chinese will recognize the Taliban government and provide financial and material assistance to the Taliban.“

Khalil reminds us of the statement from Ahmed Yusuf, a leader of the Uyghurs currently near the Badakhshan border, which reads: "One of China's conditions for recognizing the Taliban is to cut their relationship with us the Uyghurs and get them out of Afghanistan".

Uyghur leader Ahmed Yusuf.


Reports indicated that Uyghurs are facing the threat of deportation to China. The NPR recently reported unidentified Uyghurs complaining that the new Taliban government officials have started harassing the Uyghurs in Afghanistan. One man commented that "The Taliban is coming to my relative's house and asking about her daughters. That's why they are very afraid to live there." The report also quotes one of the Uyghur respondents as saying that close to 500 Uyghurs want to leave Afghanistan for destinations like Turkey, Pakistan or anywhere that would take them, but it has become increasingly difficult for them to leave the country.

Ever since the return of the Taliban, the Uyghurs in Afghanistan have become very anxious. They have been following the series of meetings China has convened with the Taliban and it is a fact that China will want to control the narrative on Uyghurs. Even Uyghur militants from an area near Afghanistan's border with China have been removed by the Taliban at China’s request. These militants are alleged to be predominantly from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). It is a Uyghur extremist group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western province of Xinjiang and refers to by its former name, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).


The Taliban has always allowed space for the ETIM and Uyghur militants since the late nineties. But their decision to now remove Uyghur militants from border areas is a positive move for their relations with China. This will encourage deeper cooperation between the two. The TIP militants were in Badakhshan, a province in northeast Afghanistan along the country's 76-kilometre border with China, and have since been moved to other areas, including in the eastern province of Nangarhar, as reported by Radio Free Europe. It is, however, unclear if the Taliban will hand over these fighters to Chinese authorities.

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This is what the ISKP is looking to leverage. The ETIM is a longstanding ally of the Taliban. Their relationship spans nearly three decades. The TIP has a monopoly over recruiting and controlling the Uyghur jihadist network in Afghanistan. If the Taliban indeed dumps the ETIM and the TIP for China, this hegemony could be broken by ISKP.

It is important to remember that the IS in Syria had a considerable number of Uyghurs in it. So, a breakdown of relations between the Taliban and the ETIM would mean that the TIP will no longer have any sort of future left in Afghanistan, and this may see a movement of Uyghurs from the TIP to the ISKP.

China has been constantly following the Taliban’s resurgence. It was known that a resurgent Taliban would lead to a resurgent TIP. The recent events have now turned the tables. If there is a strain in the relationship between the TIP and the Taliban crops up and if the former retaliates against the latter for moving the Uyghur militants from the border regions, it will provide an ideal opportunity for ISKP to become the de-facto voice for Uyghurs in the region.

On the other hand, some experts opined that the Haqqanis have very close relations with ETIM and the TIP, and this will continue to remain a worry for China as recent signals seem to indicate that the Taliban may be playing for both sides. This was pretty evident when China's Intelligence chief Chen Wenqing recently met Interior Minister of Afghanistan Sirajuddin Haqqani and conveyed China's frustration about the Taliban not having broken its ties with ETIM as promised. Chen Wenqing also asked Sirajuddin Haqqani for the extradition of prominent members of militant outfit ETIM to China.

Some experts said that with China already having put so much at stake, the Taliban may believe that the danger of further instability in Afghanistan may pull China further into Afghanistan in order to protect its interests.

(The writer is a Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst)

Source: https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/taliban-china-relation-afghanistan-india-pakistan-threat-to-uyghur-muslims-1875479-2021-11-11


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