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China’s Man in the Taliban
Why the death of Mullah Omar is bad news for Beijing.
In a July 30 article in the Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese newspaper, an unnamed analyst warns that Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death will deal a heavy blow to the Taliban. But China may prove to be another loser — Mullah Omar had guaranteed crucial agreements with Beijing in the past, and was seen as providing the best chance that any future peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government would stick. Despite China’s misgivings about the Taliban, Mullah Omar was a man they could do business with, one of the last of the leading political and spiritual authorities in the militant world that was willing to pragmatically accommodate Chinese concerns for stability in the restive, Muslim-minority northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Beijing’s first concern will be the Afghan peace process. Over the last few years, no country has been a more active and enthusiastic supporter of reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government than China. And this is because Chinese officials see a political settlement in Afghanistan as the only surefire way to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for Uighur militants and a destabilizing force across the wider region. Tensions between the Chinese state, the Han Chinese majority, and the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang have continued to grow in recent years, and armed militant opposition groups have long sought refuge in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal regions. The tensions, coupled with a worsening series of terrorist attacks emanating from Xinjiang and the roll-out of China’s ambitious new Silk Road investment plans in Central and South Asia, have heightened the imperative for a stable Afghanistan. That a tentative peace process exists at all is partly due to Chinese pressure and incentives, notably in encouraging Pakistan to sponsor the talks rather than undermining them.
The immediate risk of Mullah Omar’s death, which may have occurred in a Karachi hospital as many as two years ago, is that the nascent process will be derailed. The second round of meetings between the Afghan government and the Taliban, originally planned for the end of July, have now been postponed. But even if talks resume, it will be harder for Mullah Omar’s successors to ensure that any agreements hold — whether a short-term cease-fire or a comprehensive deal. Other Taliban factions strongly oppose talks, and Beijing risks being in the position of pushing peace talks — which it placed at the center of its Afghanistan policy — with a wing of the Taliban, rather than with representatives who can carry the broader movement with them.
Can a less cohesive and authoritative Taliban leadership deliver on the understandings that Beijing reached with Mullah Omar, especially regarding Xinjiang? When dealing with the Taliban, China always made sure that guarantees came from the very top. During the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, when Beijing was seeking to shut down Uighur militant training camps in and around Kabul, various Taliban interlocutors gave assurances. But Beijing only considered the matter resolved in November 2000, when their ambassador to Pakistan became the first senior representative of a non-Muslim country to meet with Mullah Omar. Mullah Omar promised that while he would not expel Uighur militant groups, the Taliban would no longer allow them to operate autonomously or launch attacks against China from Afghan territory. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Beijing continued to seek assurances of a similar nature from the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s leadership council in exile.
China wanted to ensure that its economic assets would not be attacked and that if the Taliban joined a future power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan, they would continue to be sensitive to Chinese concerns. (Large Chinese investments, such as the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar province, have never been put into operation due to anxieties about the security situation.)
Beijing always doubted how rigorously the rank-and-file Taliban would adhere to any of these agreements — one reason that it doesn’t support the Taliban’s complete return to power in Kabul. But at least with Mullah Omar, they could count on his word carrying serious weight. In the absence of a figure with such unifying authority, a more factionalized Taliban will be far less able to honor the terms of these understandings. And if the movement splinters, all bets are off.
More broadly, Beijing faces a jihadist world that is becoming increasingly hostile to its interests — and increasingly difficult to negotiate with. From the 1980s on, when the preeminent militant figures were headquartered in Afghanistan and Pakistan and receiving active sponsorship or tacit acquiescence from the Pakistani security services, Beijing enjoyed a number of benefits. Given that there were far more important targets, and the cause for an independent Uighur homeland was a peripheral one at best, attacking China over its Xinjiang policies seemed inadvisable. Moreover, with Pakistani facilitation, Beijing preferred buying off its potential opponents: The Taliban benefited from Chinese arms, money, and modest political support. Whether for reasons of tactical necessity or pragmatic advantage, the suffering of their Uighur brothers was a strikingly low priority for the Taliban or for Kashmiri militant groups. In 1997, even Osama bin Laden publicly dismissed bomb attacks in Xinjiang as a CIA plot to divide China and the Muslim world.
That model has become far less viable. Militant groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, have been in armed opposition to Islamabad for many years, and are more than happy to host Uighur militants, transmit their propaganda, and hit Chinese targets themselves. The rise of the Islamic State has even more worrisome implications for Beijing. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader, has openly railed against “Muslim rights” being “forcibly seized in China,” and Xinjiang features actively in Islamic State propaganda. Ready access to Syria via its shared border with Turkey — a country which hosts many Uighur exiles — has resulted in a flow of Uighur recruits and even a small number of Hui, China’s other large Muslim minority group.
Mullah Omar’s death brings the threat even closer to home. In April, three months before his confirmed death, the IMU cited his long absence as justification to switch their allegiance to the Islamic State. The self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the jihadist cause du jour, is the obvious rallying point for any groups disaffected with the Taliban’s leadership, and it is a movement that has shown no hesitation about highlighting China as an enemy of Islam.
The transition in the Taliban leadership does offer some nominal advantages to China. Mullah Omar’s apparent successor as emir, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was running affairs in his absence, may be closer to Pakistan and more amenable to the peace talks than other rival Taliban leaders. But even if he does prove helpful, the jihadi movement’s center of gravity is shifting. For a long time, China has been afforded protection from the hardest edges of militant jihad. With Mullah Omar’s death, that era is coming to an end.
Photo credit: HOCINE/AFP/Getty Images