Afghan Uyghurs Caught Between Taliban and China’s Transnational Repression

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August was never an ideal scenario for the Chinese government, and it was even worse for Afghanistan’s Uyghur minority. In the security vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal, China is now forced to rely on an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization to maintain stability in a failing state rife with numerous other Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups, while attempting to prevent any spillover of violence into Xinjiang. For the several thousand ethnic Uyghurs living in Afghanistan, the Taliban victory poses an existential threat. Not only do the two groups have opposing political beliefs, but the Taliban is also under increasing Chinese pressure to deport Uyghurs—militants and civilians alike—to China.

The stakes were raised on October 8 when ISIS-K, a Sunni fundamentalist terrorist group, detonated a suicide bomb in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, killing scores and wounding over a hundred worshippers at a mosque during Friday prayer hours, marking Afghanistan’s deadliest terrorist attack in months. For the first time ever, the terrorist group publicly stated that the attack was conducted by a Uyghur militant in retribution for the Taliban’s promises to Beijing to expel Uyghurs from Afghanistan. Laura Zhou at the South China Morning Post described how the attack’s connection to a Uyghur militant signals a serious threat to Beijing

Although the Isis-K claim has not been verified, it is the first time the group has linked a bomber to an ethnic group in China.

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow with S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said that if the claim were true, it could deepen Beijing’s concerns about Afghanistan becoming a base for Uygur fighters seeking independence for Xinjiang.

“If [Isis-K] have individuals who are Uygurs, who are fighting alongside them and willing to be suicide bombers, then the Chinese have got a problem here because this means you now have an organisation there that has a link to China that is angry enough to send people who are suicide bombers to attack them,” Pantucci said. [Source]

The specter of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan is a policy nightmare for the Chinese government. A June 2021 United Nations report stated that, in the months leading up to the U.S. withdrawal, eight to ten thousand jihadist fighters poured into Afghanistan from central Asian regions, including Xinjiang; most of the fighters were associated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, and some with ISIS. A July 2021 United Nations Security Council report stated that several hundred Uyghur militants reside in Afghanistan. Many are part of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party. The U.S. removed ETIM from its list of terrorist organizations in 2020, believing it to be no longer active, but ETIM remains on the U.N. list of terrorist organizations. Sean Roberts, associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, explained that China “portrays ETIM as part of the supposed Uighur terrorist threat that justifies its brutal crackdown in Xinjiang.” 

To assuage Beijing’s fears, the Taliban had reportedly begun removing Uyghur militants from the Chinese border, even before the recent ISIS-K terrorist attack. When the Taliban was previously in power from 1996 to 2001, it moved and monitored Uyghurs at China’s request. This latest development signals continued cooperation between the Taliban and the Chinese government in dealing with Afghanistan’s Uyghur population. 

However, it may be difficult for the Taliban to fully neutralize the threat of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan. Some analysts point out that even fighters within or aligned with the Taliban, whether they are ethnically Uyghur or not, may be sympathetic to the Uyghurs’ oppression in Xinjiang and inclined to pressure the Taliban to at least not facilitate the CCP’s alleged genocide against the Uyghurs. Uyghur militants that do become dismayed by the Taliban’s complicity might defect from the Taliban in order to join other terrorist groups, ETIM or others, that more faithfully uphold their militant politics against China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and more openly challenge the Taliban regime, as last week’s ISIS-K attack demonstrated. As for the Uyghur militants active in what remains of ETIM in Afghanistan, Seth G. Jones and Jude Blanchette explain in Foreign Affairs that geography, allied jihadist groups, and the distraction of humanitarian crises may shelter Uyghur militants from the Taliban’s efforts to neutralize them for China:

Of particular concern to Beijing is the presence in Afghanistan of several hundred fighters from the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, which seeks to establish a Uyghur state in Xinjiang. Led by Abdul Haq, ETIM operates in such areas as Badakhshan, a remote province whose mountainous terrain will make it difficult for China or the Taliban to conduct military operations. According to a UN Security Council assessment, ETIM operatives have worked with a broad range of jihadi organizations, including al Qaeda, Jamaat Ansarullah, and Jamaat al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad. All three of these groups will likely remain active in Afghanistan, providing ETIM with multiple local allies.

Beijing has already sought assurances from the Taliban that ETIM will not be allowed to operate in or from Afghanistan. But the Taliban may not be able to guarantee this in the midst of a war and a humanitarian crisis—and their close relationships with other jihadi groups could reduce their willingness and ability to try. […] This hodgepodge of groups worries Beijing because ETIM and other extremist organizations that threaten China may be able to thrive in a failed Afghan state. [Source]

Militants aside, Uyghur civilians in Afghanistan are also vulnerable in the current geopolitical atmosphere. Much of the Chinese government’s fear of Uyghur terrorism in Xinjiang stems from overinflated perceptions of minor terrorist threats that were used to justify a crackdown on the entire Uyghur population. Having often conflated terrorists and civilians in Xinjiang under the guise of national security, China is prone to do the same across the border in Afghanistan. As Sui-Lee Wee and Muyi Xiao from the New York Times noted, it would be easy for the Taliban to identify and deport Afghan Uyghurs at China’s request

The Uyghur population in Afghanistan is estimated to be around 2,000 to 3,000. They arrived in waves, some as early as the 18th century. Many are second-generation immigrants with few links to China. Their parents joined an outflow of refugees from Xinjiang in the late 1970s, ending up in neighboring Afghanistan, where they settled and had families.

Those families are once again seeking to uproot their lives. Even though they are Afghan citizens, their identity cards show that they are either Chinese refugees or members of the ethnic group, making them easy to track should the Taliban decide to round them up. [Source]

Asim Kashgarian at Voice of America explains that there is precedent for Taliban deportations of Afghan Uyghurs

“Deportations of Uyghurs have taken place historically under the Taliban, with 13 Uyghurs handed over to China following a [2000] meeting between Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin and Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar,” [Bradley Jardine, an analyst at the Washington-based Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs] told VOA.

He added that Afghanistan has historically been viewed as safer for Uyghurs than neighboring Central Asian countries because it lacks a formal extradition treaty with China.

Jardine also referenced the reported deportation by the Afghan government of Israel Ahmat, a Uyghur businessman, in 2015. [Source]

Several months before the Afghan Uyghur businessman was deported to China in 2015, the Chinese government pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Afghan government, in return for the Afghan government’s support of China’s fight against ETIM. This September, the Chinese government donated $30 million and three million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to the Taliban, while simultaneously urging it to crack down on all “extreme forces” in the country. It is likely that China’s increasing economic support to the Taliban will lead to more Uyghur deportations, especially as the Taliban becomes more desperate for foreign funding to support the collapsing Afghan economy. 

The deportation of Uyghurs to China is a strategy the Chinese government executes on a global scale. Economic carrots are an effective tool: Cambodia deported 20 ethnic Uyghurs to China in 2009, two days before the Chinese government gave the Cambodian government over $1 billion worth of loans and grants. In 2015, China requested that Thailand deport 170 Uyghurs; the Thai government agreed to deport 100 Uyghurs, touching off protests in Turkey and condemnations by human rights organizations. In a report by the Oxus Society and Uyghur Human Rights Project, the authors described how China’s economic and security ties with neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, facilitate the transnational repression of Uyghurs

The PRC is able to target Uyghurs outside its borders with the help of the neighboring host governments. For example, in Pakistan China entices the government with large development projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in order to secure its support against Uyghurs. This report demonstrates several instances in which China rewarded Pakistan for aiding its campaign against Uyghurs. In exchange for development assistance, Pakistan signed extradition treaties, arrested individuals at China’s request, and rebuked critics of China’s harsh policies, all of which made it easier for China to continue repressing Uyghurs.

[…] Through its strategy of offering extravagant development projects while deepening security ties, China has successfully gained influence over Pakistan’s government and thus its Uyghur community. China is now attempting to implement this strategy in other countries with sizable Uyghur populations. As the Taliban gains territory in Afghanistan, Pakistan is portraying itself and China as facilitators of peace and development. China will use the chaos in Afghanistan to further justify its crackdown on Uyghurs, who express fear about their future in the country. [Source]

Oxus Society’s new China’s Transnational Repression of Uyghurs Database documents 40 incidents of transnational repression against Uyghurs in Afghanistan alone, and a global total of 1,546 reported cases (300 verified) across 28 countries since 1997; the database reveals that at least 395 Uyghurs have been deported to China. The number of actual cases of repression and deportation, not just reported cases, is likely much higher due to fear of reprisals for speaking out. Many Uyghurs extradited back to China were students with legal residency cards or visitors on religious pilgrimages, whose families were never informed of their alleged “crimes.”

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