By Shankar Kumar
Killing of more than 100 people, including 13 US service members in the bomb attacks outside Kabul airport on August 26, took place within 10 days of the Taliban’s capture of the Afghanistan capital. The UNSC declared terrorist outfit, Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the bomb blasts. While shocked and stunned international community members have condemned the ghastly terror attacks, China is busy in setting its own narrative.
It has cited the US’ hasty, disorganized and irresponsible withdrawal from Afghanistan as the reason for the deadly bomb blasts, while fawningly urged the Taliban for crackdown on terrorists in the war-torn country. On its social and mainstream media platforms, including tabloid Global Times, China is running a video clip showing how the Taliban fighters are carrying out strict inspections of vehicles and people in Kabul after the blasts outside the airport.
This appears to be China’s attempt to portray the Taliban in good light, despite deepening distrust of the international community on the Islamic group’s capability to hold on to its promise of not letting Afghanistan become a place for terrorism. But the question is: Why is China ostensibly so soft on the Taliban?
There are three immediate reasons for this: One, to make the Belt and Road Initiative of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a part, a successful venture; Second, to weed out chances of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a UN designated terrorist group, in fuelling unrest and separatism in Xinjiang region; Third, to lay hands on Afghanistan’s $3 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources.
Since the 1990s, China-Taliban bonhomie has been known to the world. Beijing has been wallowing in happiness following the arrival of the Taliban in Afghanistan and it is quite palpable in the way China has been gloating about its contact with the Islamic group.
“China has always played a constructive role in promoting a political solution to the Afghan issue and maintained contacts and communications with the Afghan Taliban,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said during a regular press conference last week.
Two-day after this statement, the Global Times in its editorial said, “China and Pakistan are enhancing communication and coordination on Afghan issues as two important neighbours of Afghanistan, and expect to play constructive roles in maintaining regional peace and stability.”
These developments give an impression that China is willing to cast its influence on the Taliban in making them understand the voice of sanity. But then it has forgotten what the Islamic group has been stating about its objectives for Afghanistan. The group, which has become synonymous with extremism and salafism, has made it clear that it will run Afghanistan as per ‘Sharia Law.’
During their rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban under Sharia Law had disallowed girls from attending schools, women were barred from working and they had to wear all-encompassing burqas and be accompanied by a male relative if they wanted to venture out. If women broke certain rules, they were publicly whipped or executed. The insurgent group had banned paintings, photography, and movies. They had also prohibited music. They were engaged in cultural genocide, destroying numerous monuments, including the 1500-year –old Buddha of Bamiyan.
Twenty years after then, the Taliban have not changed both in character and activities. They have stopped women from working in government offices; have barred Afghan women journalists from taking any media-related assignments; have asked all banks to stop hiring females as their staff; have questioned management of schools and colleges for opening their doors for girls.
They are now going door to door looking for people who have worked for the government or the US agencies. Last month, they killed 27 people and injured 10 others in Malistan district of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province after capturing it. A document prepared for the United Nations has also maintained that the Taliban have increased their search for people who worked for NATO or the previous Afghan government.
That they damn care about individual life and human rights of fellow Afghan nationals was on the display when they gunned down several people in Asadabad in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar as they thronged streets with the Afghanistan flag to celebrate the country’s Independence Day on August 19.
Invariably, this shows that the Taliban are ferociously independent, hard-nosed, conceited and feudal in their actions. They abhor modernism and have deep antipathy for democracy. They have not changed in the past two decades as Beijing and Pakistan claim. Instead, their claim that they will seek an open, inclusive Islamic rule in Afghanistan is merely an eyewash. This is what their current activities across the war-torn country suggest.
Rather, there is certainty that the Taliban in power in Kabul could be a factor of influence and motivation for several terrorist outfits, including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Despite being a UN declared terrorist group, the ETIM, prominently an ethnic Uighur Muslim outfit, has massively grown and widely networked with terrorist and Islamist groups across the world since 2010. It is affiliated with al-Qaeda, IS, Haqqani Network, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Afghan Taliban and Uzbekistan’s terrorist outfits
The ETIM is engaged in the anti-Assad campaign in Syria and the anti-China movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. May 22, 2011 attack on Karachi naval air base in which three aircraft were damaged and five people were killed was attributed to handiwork of the TTP and the ETIM.
Within China, the ETIM may not have caused any violence in China in the recent past, but it continues to hit China’s interests. It was involved in a suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital on August 30, 2016. Three embassy staff members were injured in that attack. On September 12, 2018, nine people were killed and 46 others injured when a man drove his SUV into a crowd and later went on a stabbing spree in China’s Hunan province. The man who did it had a criminal past, and told the Chinese police that he was influenced by Uighur separatist ideology.
On July 16, 2021, China’s Ministry of Public Security warned its countrymen that “they should remain on high alert as frequent terrorist attacks around the world have a strong positive effect on terrorist extremists. Many countries, including China, are still facing the real threat of terrorism especially from the ETIM terrorist organization.”
Yet irony is that within China, due to the lack of coordination among different wings of the government, there is no clear cut strategy with regards to the Taliban or Afghanistan. This is apparent in China’s Foreign Ministry statement which it released recently after State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a telephonic conversation with Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. In that conversation, China had called for close coordination between Beijing and Islamabad to support a stable transition in Afghanistan.
It seems that Beijing, guided by its misconception about the Taliban and greed to lay hands on mineral and other natural resources of Afghanistan, is ready to exonerate the Islamic outfit. However, sooner than later, China will realize its fault: Afghanistan will prove to be a big headache for the world’s second economic power. The Taliban-led violence, uncertainty and instability in Afghanistan will not just have a spillover effect in the Xinjiang region, but will have a negative impact on the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Pakistan too.
On July 14, 2021, nine Chinese workers and four others in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province were killed when a bus carrying workers to the 4,300 MW Dasu hydropower project was met with a suicide bomber attack. The Dasu hydropower project is part of the CPEC programme. More than one month has passed, no one has claimed responsibility for this heinous attack. A few days ago, Pakistan placed blame on the Taliban across the border for the blast, stating, “Afghan soil was used for this incident.”
These developments in no uncertain terms show how the situation will unfold in Afghanistan in coming days. China needs to wake up to the reality that Afghanistan is a graveyard for empires. After Russia and the US, it is now Beijing’s turn to see its strategic ambition getting to smithereens under the weight of the Taliban’s extremism and the group’s innate nature to walk along dangerous terror outfits like al Qaeda.
-The writer is a senior journalist with wide experience in covering international affairs; views expressed are his own