Late last week, Reuters reported that Afghan authorities had arrested over a dozen Muslim Uyghur militants and turned them over to China. The report noted that Afghanistan wanted to “persuade China to use its influence with Pakistan to help start negotiations with the Taliban.”
The deal is evidence of China’s growing influence in the Afghan peace process as well as China’s involvement in ensuring better relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since Ashraf Ghani came to power in Afghanistan last fall, relations between Afghanistan and China have been growing considerably. Beijing is currently involved in setting a path forward for talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban (more on that process in my take from last week).
The Reuters report, in particular, included a very straight-forward acknowledgment from an Afghan security official of the tit-for-tat nature of the Uyghur militant transfer deal: “We offered our hand in cooperation with China and in return we asked them to pressure Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban or at least bring them to the negotiating table.” That statement should remove any doubt that Afghan officials don’t fully appreciate the role China can play in facilitating a sustainable peace process with the backing of the Pakistani government. Afghan officials made sure to let the Chinese know that the captured Uyghur militants “had trained in militant camps across the border in Pakistan.” Beijing has long been concerned about Uyghur militants using the poorly governed areas in Pakistan’s northwest for training and regrouping.
In a rare trip to Kabul last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made it abundantly clear that Chinese concerns about Afghanistan growing into a haven for Uyghur radicalism were a major point of China’s bilateral approach to Afghanistan. Ever since then, we’ve seen China approach Afghanistan more overtly regarding security cooperation. For Beijing, the ability of the governments in both Islamabad and Kabul to effectively counter terrorism within their own borders directly affects its own ability to control Xinjiang. During Wang’s visit, Afghanistan’s then-foreign minister, Zarar Moqbel Osmani, told Wang that Afghanistan “would never allow the ETIM [East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uyghur militant group] to take advantage of the Afghan territory to engage in activities endangering China, and will continuously deepen security cooperation with the Chinese side.” This recent deal represents a crystallization of that promise, albeit under a new government.
The deal with China also showcases Afghan authorities’ increasing willingness and ability to work across the border on counter-terrorism and security issues. In early January, Afghanistan captured Taliban militants involved with December’s brutal terror attack on a school in Peshawar and helped Pakistani authorities with their investigation of the attack. In early February, the Pakistani government and military formally commended Kabul’s efforts. All of this bodes well for cooperation across the Durand Line, which has historically been stymied by a combination of weak governance in Kabul and a Pakistani military establishment obsessed with countering Indian influence in Afghanistan.