Afghanistan is home to more than 100 Uyghur families. Many of them have lived in the country peacefully for decades and yet continue to live in fear of the Chinese government, which regularly uses techniques of transnational repression to target Uyghurs living abroad.
I should know. My family fled to Kabul from Ghulja in the 1970s across the short border between China and Afghanistan. Other families made their way to Afghanistan, the only country that would accept paperless Uyghurs, from Pakistan in the 1990s as Beijing and Islamabad established a partnership of “iron brothers.” My family moved again, eventually settling in the United States; however, many Uyghurs remain in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s capture of power in Afghanistan raises serious concerns about its support for like-minded groups that could threaten global security. But this concern should not translate into misguided acceptance of China’s claim that it needs the Taliban to crack down on security threats to China. China has lied before about the existence of an organized Uyghur terror threat in Afghanistan. There is no reason to believe it is any different this time.
The U.S. should stay focused on pressuring China to end genocidal policies targeting Uyghurs. Further, the U.S. needs to assist Afghan Uyghurs who are at risk of rendition to China, where they face almost-certain torture and imprisonment.
The threat of rendition to China is real. In a report released August 11, the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs identified 21 cases of detention and deportation of Uyghurs in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1997, and compiled an additional 90 reported incidents lacking full biographical records. This likely represents just the tip of the iceberg.
Uyghurs in Afghanistan have cause to fear a Taliban administration. Some have spoken on the record to journalists and researchers about sensitive topics, including the Chinese repression of Uyghurs and the China-Taliban relationship. Others express grave fears, given the August 2021 China-Taliban talks, that the Taliban will now make secret agreements with China to extradite Uyghurs in exchange for an economic lifeline. Many Uyghurs in Afghanistan are easily recognized as their identification documents label them as “Chinese migrants.”
Let us not forget that in its pursuit of Uyghurs across the globe, the Chinese Communist Party has long been friends with the religious extremists leading the Taliban. During the Taliban’s first period of rule from 1996 to 2001, a period marked with horrific acts of violence, China sent officials to Afghanistan in 1999 and its ambassador to Pakistan met with Mullah Omar in 2000. Using Afghan Uyghurs as leverage, the Taliban assured China these families would not engage in violence against China in a quid pro quo for an end to UN sanctions and diplomatic recognition. For its part, China offered economic ties.
After 9/11, in another cynical move, Beijing claimed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) posed a significant threat to China’s security. Chinese officials asked the United States to designate ETIM as a terrorist organization, which it did in 2002. The problem was no one had heard of the group. This September, former assistant secretary of state for Central Asia, Richard Boucher, said, “China had been asking us to do that for years and we’d say, ‘Who are these guys? We don’t really see it, we don’t see an organization, don’t see the activity.’” In other words, China’s claims about ETIM had no backing. China is recycling the same discredited line about ETIM again in 2021.
Hyping an unsubstantiated “extremism” threat is a key tactic in the Chinese government’s propaganda war to deflect condemnation of its atrocities in the Uyghur region. The United States, and multiple parliaments around the world, have formally recognized these crimes as genocide and crimes against humanity.
Beijing will continue to up the rhetoric on a Uyghur extremist threat. The United States should not bite. It must stay focused on the genocide and assist vulnerable Uyghurs in Afghanistan.
What can be done? The Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act (S.1080/H.R.1630) addresses the extreme vulnerability of Uyghurs at risk of extradition to China from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. It provides urgently needed “P-2” priority status for Uyghur refugees, providing a pathway to access resettlement programs. It is time for Congress to pass, and for U.S. President Biden to sign, this humanitarian lifesaver.