Features | Security | South Asia

Did China Build a Spy Network in Kabul?

Amid murky allegations of contact with the Haqqani Network, the life of one Chinese national in Kabul comes under scrutiny.

Ezzatullah Mehrdad
Did China Build a Spy Network in Kabul?

China Premier Li Keqiang, right, talks with Afghanistan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah at a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, May 16, 2016.

Credit: Kim Kyung-Hoon, Pool Photo via AP

Shoaib* knew Xu* as a Chinese language teacher at a local private school. Xu taught Chinese language at his rented apartment in Kart-e-Char, a middle-class neighborhood of Kabul. Shoaib, an Afghan who wanted to learn Chinese language, met Xu on Facebook. Xu had built a network of local friends, including Chinese language teachers and Chinese language students.

Salim*, then a first-year student at a university in China in early 2019, met Xu on a WeChat group, a messaging app similar to WhatsApp. Salim and Xu developed a friendship. Xu took Salim on vacations in China, and Salim invited Xu to his house in Kabul.

Shoaib and Salim were stunned when Xu and nine other Chinese nationals in Kabul were arrested in December of last year.

Xu stood in the center of accusations of ties with the Haqqani Network. The Trump administration accused the Chinese nationals of offering pay to non-state actors for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Afghan intelligence agency, which had received tips from the Indian intelligence agency about the Chinese nationals, speculated that the Xu and the others built ties with the Haqqani Network in order to track down Uyghur extremists.

The accusation of Chinese nationals building ties with the Haqqani Network brought to light the unclear fate of the network amid the ongoing peace negotiations. The network, which has been responsible for conducting the most violent attacks in Kabul and other urban areas, has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government. In the U.S.-Taliban agreement document, there is no mention of the Haqqani Network. The unclear fate of the Haqqani Network shows the complexity of the unending war in Afghanistan.

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Xu, in his 30s, made his first visit to Afghanistan for a road project in Bamyan. China Road and Bridge Corporation signed a contract to construct roads between Bamyan and Baghlan in January 2017. Xu told Salim that he had worked on the project. After that, Xu sought to work in the country, but the Afghan embassy in China denied him a visa multiple times, said Salim, the Afghan student.

“It was lots of trouble for Xu to obtain a visa,” said Salim, who studied in China for two years and transferred to a Western country. “He eventually found a company that sent him an invitation letter. He obtained a visa.”

“Xu was in touch with another Afghan who told me that he and Xu export goods from Afghanistan, in particular exporting jalghoza to China.”

It was hard to independently verify the accounts, but it was not impossible for Xu to have such a business. The export of jalghoza, a type of pine nut, from Afghanistan to China has boomed in recent years. In November 2018, Afghanistan opened an air corridor with China, with the first aircraft sending 20 tons of pine nuts to Shanghai. The trade has continued strongly ever since.

Shoaib, the student who met Xu on Facebook, said that Xu taught Chinese language at a private school as well as teaching Chinese language at his rented apartment floor in Kart-e-Char, a western neighborhood of Kabul. Shoaib did not meet Xu in person but texted with him on Facebook messenger for months, discussing their interests – including jokes that Shoaib wanted Xu to find him a Chinese girlfriend.

Xu “said that he was fluent in Farsi/Dari, Pashto [two national languages of Afghanistan], Japanese, and English,” Shoaib remembered.

The Charges

A tip from India led the Afghan intelligence agency to arrest Xu. The Indian foreign spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), told the Afghan intelligence agency about the presence of Chinese nationals in Kabul, according to one Afghan official who spoke to Foreign Policy. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence agency, arrested Xu at his apartment on December 10. The NDS reportedly also seized weapons and drugs during the raid. The intelligence agency also arrested nine other Chinese nationals in Kabul, including one woman who ran a restaurant in Sheer Por neighborhood of Kabul.

The detention of Chinese nationals exposed the growing intelligence sharing between Kabul and New Delhi in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. While the Biden administration has yet to make any clear decision about fate of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the U.S. is expected to withdraw from the country sooner or later. Kabul and New Delhi are getting closer to defy their common foes in the region.

“With few exceptions, Afghanistan has historically been a geopolitical hot-spot for rivalry and tension between global and regional powers,” said Omar Samad, former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada. “These rivalries have taken on new forms in recent times, intensifying the Afghan conflict and further complicating a search for a peaceful outcome.”

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According to Shoaib, meanwhile, “Xu hated India and considered India as enemy of China.”

The Afghan intelligence agency, whose director confirmed the detention during a parliamentary session, alleged that its operatives seized arms, ammunition, and Ketamine powder from the Chinese nationals. Indian newspapers reported that Xu began working with the Chinese intelligence agency from July or August of 2020. Xu was accused of being in contact with a man in Pakistan as well as the Haqqani Network.

“Xu traveled to Pakistan,” said Salim, the university student. “When I was in Kabul recently, he was in Pakistan.”

The timing of Xu’s alleged link with the Chinese intelligence agency happened just when Xu was on the receiving end of sexual harassment.  Shoiab, the student who met Xu on Facebook, said that Xu complained about getting repeated phone calls from Afghan men. The men wanted to have sex with Xu, according to Shoaib. During the summer, Xu had grown long hair and looked more feminine as a result. Xu blocked the harassers’ phone numbers. Xu also complained that other Chinese nationals were being harassed in Kabul.

It remains an open question whether this harassment is related to the accusations the Chinese nationals now face.

There are two narratives regarding the allegations faced by Xu and other Chinese nationals. One claims that they offered bounties for the killing of American soldiers. According to Axios, a report about bounties being offered for U.S. soldiers was included in then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s intelligence briefing on December 17, 2020. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien also verbally briefed Trump about the intelligence report. The Chinese nationals supposedly offered to pay non-state actors to kill U.S. troops after the U.S.-Taliban deal in February 2020, according to the Trump administration. The report was labeled as “yet uncorroborated intelligence” and was declassified.

The other narrative about the Chinese nationals is different. The Hindustan Times, the Indian newspaper that first reported on the detention of the Chinese nationals, said in a report that they were creating a fake cell of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Afghanistan in order to entrap Uyghur fighters. ETIM is an extremist group that China alleges operates in Xinjiang, home to the Uyghur Muslims. Beijing has used the supposed terrorist threat to justify a severe crackdown on the Uyghurs and other Muslims. In recent years, China has pursued large-scale persecution of the minority group, from mass detentions to the alleged systemic sexual assault of women.

Both narratives, however, have one thing in common: illicit contact between the Chinese and a non-state actor. The Trump administration did not name any group involved in the bounty scheme, partly because of efforts to save its deal with the Taliban, but the Haqqani Network is one of the non-state actors most capable of attacking U.S. troops. The Haqqani Network played a deadly role in the conflict over the past decades and remains an active group that influences the war.

The Haqqani Network

The Haqqani Network was founded during the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s, during which resistance forces received support from allied countries. The network turned its deadly sights against the coalition forces of the U.S. and NATO in the 2000s and 2010s, and against Afghan civilians in urban areas. The U.S. government pursued a clear policy: fight the Haqqani Network, talk to the Taliban. It signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, but the agreement does not mention the Haqqani Network.

“There is a clear tension between the U.S.-Taliban agreement’s silence on the Haqqani network and the U.S. designation of the network as a terrorist group,” said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst of Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group. “But this designation was a highly political one – part of a broader effort to divide the Taliban into groups of ‘reconcilable’ insurgents and ‘irreconcilable’ allies of al-Qaida and other transnational jihadists.”

Watkins said that the group’s going unnamed in the U.S.-Taliban deal implied that the U.S. recognized the Haqqani Network as a part of the Taliban. But that does not solve the problems surrounding the insurgent and extremist group, which has driven the conflict in Afghanistan for over 40 years. In a climate of long-running insurgency and extremism, the Haqqani’s network of fighters, financial resources, and experiences could be exploited or developed into a new form of war.

“The ultimate fate of this network is unclear,” said Watkins. “Study of the Haqqanis has always been clouded by politicization, agendas, and lenses through which the group has been viewed: jihadism, counterterrorism, the historical influence of Pakistan. This makes it very hard to speak in concrete terms about the group’s status, even today. While some Afghan officials warn of the growing threat of a ‘Haqqani-Daesh [Islamic State] nexus,’ those with greatest first-hand knowledge of the region’s insurgent landscape suggest the network has weakened and truly integrated into the Taliban, a decade’s worth of being targeted by counterinsurgency efforts having taken its toll.”

Even though the allegations of Xu’s ties with the Haqqani Network remain mysterious at this point, they signal the possible exploitation of the network by external powers for their different purposes. While the Afghan government maintains friendly ties with China, the latest accusations imply that the country’s long war is becoming more complicated.

Over the course of his stay in Kabul, Xu was in close contact with a young Afghan named Ahmad*, who owned and ran a private school. Ahmad advertised his high school as an international school with foreign teachers; the foreign teacher was Xu. Ahmad would often visit Xu at his apartment, posting photos on social media page.

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“Ahmad and Xu were close to each other,” said a friend of Ahmad. “Ahmad and Xu would often go for so-called picnics.”

Following the arrest of Xu and other Chinese nationals, Ahmad was also detained by the Afghan intelligence agency. President Ashraf Ghani tasked Vice President Armullah Saleh, a former spy, to handle the detention of Chinese nationals. Saleh demanded a formal apology from the Chinese government.

The Chinese nationals boarded a charter flight from Kabul in January 2021 and returned to China, but Ahmad remained in the custody of the intelligence agency. The Chinese nationals were never charged.

“I texted Xu,” said Shoaib, the student who met Xu on Facebook. “He has not received the text.”

*Names have been changed to protect their identities.