Beijing’s Afghanistan dilemma: Can Taliban tame ETIM, checkmate ISIS-K and ensure China’s security?

Till 24 hours before the US troop’s withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 31, Chinese authorities
were making fun of Americans for their mishandling of the situation in the war-torn country and
pushing it into the darkness of uncertainty.
But after Americans exited Afghanistan and a video clip from the country showed a Taliban fighter
flying a US Black Hawk helicopter with a body dangling from it, Chinese authorities shivered out
of fear. The incident displayed the jihadist group’s brutality and its avowed tactic to inflict
retribution on people whom they disliked. It compelled China to think which direction the Taliban
will lead Afghanistan to.
“We noticed that some terrorist groups have gathered and developed in Afghanistan….posing a
serious threat to international and regional peace and security,” China’s Foreign Ministry
Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during his regular media briefing last week, indicating clearly
Chinese authorities’ fear of an evolving dangerous situation in Afghanistan.
They are particularly worried about the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) which has, as
per UN reports, moved 500 fighters along with Tajik, Uzbeks, Hazara and Chechen fighters in
Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province that shares a border with Xinjiang province of China.
The ETIM’s move to align with the ISIS-Khorasan or the ISIS-K, a banned terror outfit which has
accused the Taliban of abandoning jihad in favour of negotiated peace settlement in Afghanistan
is a cause of deep concern among Chinese authorities. They are familiar with the ISIS-K activity
and its animosity with the Taliban, considered by the former as apostates. The group’s supreme
leader Shahab al-Muhajir had last year announced a long war against the Taliban and the Afghan
On August 15, the enmity between them got further rigid and rancid when Taliban fighters took
control of Kabul. They freed hundreds of prisoners languishing in the jail, but killed Abu Omar
Khorasani, the ISIS-K commander and eight other members of his terror outfit who were also
there in the jail in the Afghan capital.
Already, clashes between the Afghan Taliban and the ISIS-K have seen several deaths and
destructions in the past. From 2016 to 2020, Taliban fighters were unsuccessfully engaged in
smashing the ISIS-K strongholds in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Often the ISISK like its parent group the Islamic State which controls a war-chest of $100 billion, is seen
presenting extreme viewpoints on Muslims’ rights.
Then the ISIS-K has not been happy with the Taliban’s hobnobbing with China. It views Beijing’s
“extreme torture and degradation of Muslims in East Turkistan” (the name for Xinjiang province
used by Uighur separatists) as unacceptable. After its initial aggressive stance towards China
(between 2014 to 2017), the Islamic State had kept its anti-China campaign which included
outward support for and recruitment of Uighurs and negative propaganda materials—in video,
audio and print—against China, in suspended animation.
It was the group’s strategic consideration in view of its larger objective to fight the West and the
US. Also, it was waiting for Americans’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since they have gone back
to the US, and China is ready to fill the void left behind by them, the Islamic State through its
branch ISIS-K, wants that Beijing meets the same fate. According to War on the Rocks, a web
magazine, which is published from Washington DC, the Islamic State recognizes China as the
greatest enemy.
This web magazine corroborates the Islamic State’s stance through the February 2019 issue of the
newsletter Al-Naba which lays out negative dynamics of growing Chinese influence. In this
newsletter, the group has warned its followers that China is using “the method of investment” to
“strengthen its ties with tyrannical governments” and predicts that “it will not be long before the
Chinese intervene in the Muslim world directly through war with soldiers, aircraft, missiles and
warships.” Experts say that since 2017, by aligning with the ETIM, the Islamic State rather ripped
apart the veil of secrecy it maintained against China.
Beijing, with its spies spread across Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia, is aware of such
developments. Result is, in every meeting with the Taliban leaders or through its publications,
China routinely maintains one thing: “The ETIM has been listed as a terrorist organization by the
UNSC and has posed a direct threat to China’s national security and the Chinese people’s safety.”
To counter such threats from the ETIM, which has been delisted by the US from the foreign
terrorist organization groups last year, China wants to rely on the Taliban. But in view of the
Taliban’s unpredictability and far-lesser ability to control Afghanistan’s situation in its favour visà-vis ISIS-K threat, a deep sense of apprehension has gripped China about the group, which claims
to have 70,000 fighters. In comparison, BBC says, the ISIS-K presently commands only about 3,000
Yet numerically low in strength in terms of number of fighters, the ISIS-K is said to be a highly
organized and well-networked outfit with no dearth of funding. As per media reports, ISIS-K
members are technologically smart and they keep their eyes open on the movement of the
Taliban. They have started recruiting operational fighters from the South Asian region. Their aim
is to recruit educated and highly radicalized adherents of Salafism from Pakistan, Indonesia,
Bangladesh, Maldives and some Ikhwani militia members of former Afghan militant groups.
Armed with information regarding such developments, China, despite maintaining its embassy in
Afghanistan and keeping communications lines with the Taliban leaders open, doesn’t want to
plunge headlong in Afghanistan. It wants to beef up security in the area along the Wakhan
Corridor, a narrow, but porous strip of land that separates Afghanistan from China. The Wakhan
Corridor is in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, which is considered as the ETIM’s hotbed. China
is nervous that if the international community refuses to recognize the Taliban, which are already
wedded to hardline Islamic ideology and are not one monolith group, may break into different
splinter groups with some backing the ETIM and its policy to encourage secessionism in the
Xinjiang province. Therefore, China’s strategy towards Afghanistan dangles on the emerging
situation. Any slip in the true assessment of the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan may prove to be
disastrous for its unity and integrity. Then it should not be forgotten that a moth flying around a
lamp is bound to meet a death by burning.

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