For Them, Afghanistan Is Safer Than China

Persecution in Xinjiang is pushing Uighurs over the border.

Ethnic Uigur women look through a security fence as Chinese soldiers stand guard in Urumqi, in China's far west Xinjiang region, on July 9, 2009. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)
Ethnic Uigur women look through a security fence as Chinese soldiers stand guard in Urumqi, in China's far west Xinjiang region, on July 9, 2009. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghanistan’s borderlands have long been a refuge for ethnic minorities fleeing persecution in China. In the 18th century, when the Qing empire conquered Xinjiang, Uighurs who rebelled against Qing rule escaped to Badakhshan. Today, China’s campaigns and restrictions against the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group in the western region of Xinjiang, have spurred an exodus into Afghanistan, especially after Beijing and the local authorities intensified their crackdown on Uighur freedoms, religion, and culture.

Beijing claims that terrorism is spilling over from Afghanistan into Xinjiang. But in reality, Chinese oppression and ethnic conflict in Xinjiang are helping to further destabilize Afghanistan and turn young Uighurs, increasingly targeted by the Chinese state, toward violent resistance.

Many Uighurs have been opposed to rule from Beijing since China seized the region in 1949, and resistance to Chinese control goes back centuries. In the 1990s, after the Central Asian republics gained independence following the Soviet Union’s collapse, Beijing feared Uighur ambitions to create their own state of “East Turkestan.” Especially after the 9/11 attacks, China attempted to characterize Uighur ambitions as terrorism, beginning the “anti-three evil forces” (extremism, terrorism, and separatism) campaign.

Between 1990 and 2010, the Chinese government gradually turned Uighur ethnic identity and religious practices into national security threats. Daily discrimination and persecution against Uighurs include, but are not limited to, difficult access to passports, hotels, banking services, and the internet. Uighur women are constantly forced to unveil and have had their long dresses cut by local officials, who abhor Muslim women’s modesty as a firm expression of their faith. In a country where firearms are banned for citizens, kitchen knives in Xinjiang need to be engraved with identification codes and must be physically secured to fixtures at home. The large-scale protests and killings in Urumqi on July 5, 2009, intensified oppression in Xinjiang, creating a vicious cycle of government repression and Uighur resistance.

China’s Uighur policy is influenced by its broader national ambitions. As Robert D. Kaplan observed, “The repression of the Turkic Uighur Muslim community in western China—including the reported internment of up to a million people in secret camps—is a key part of Beijing’s new imperial policy.” Kaplan argued that China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative “requires the complete subjugation of the Uighur population.” The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress report in October 2017 stated that over the next several decades, China will “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”

China’s reassertion of its power has made internal stability a cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policies. The central government and provincial authorities have tightened domestic security measures in Xinjiang under the banner of “anti-terrorism“ and “stability maintenance.” These brutal campaigns have caused Uighurs to flee to Central Asia and Southeast Asia to escape ethnic and religious persecution.

For Uighurs—who share ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties with Central Asian populations—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which border Xinjiang, were previously refuges. In 1962, in what is known as the Ili-Qoqek Incident, 60,000 Uighurs and Kazakhs from Xinjiang fled to these Central Asian territories under Soviet rule. These countries are all economically dependent on China and have yielded to Chinese pressure on Uighurs. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has institutionalized the Central Asian countries’ security cooperation against the “three evil forces” directly targeting the Uighurs.

In light of the restrictions placed on Uighurs by authoritarian governments in Central Asia, war-torn Afghanistan has been the only neighboring country where it is politically and religiously safe for Uighurs to seek refuge, especially in Taliban-controlled areas. The difficult terrain of the narrow Wakhan corridor connecting Xinjiang to Afghanistan is the panhandle to Badakhshan province. The number of Uighurs there may now number 4,500. The authors’ recent interviews with some experts on ground in Central Asia and South Asia indicate possibly 150 Uighur households residing in Badakhshan.

Some of them are militants. China’s internal ethnic divisions, coupled with the vicissitudes of Afghan war and politics, have produced Uighur militant movements and resistance in Afghanistan, including some with connections to the Taliban and al Qaeda. The extent of Uighur involvement in Islamic militancy has always been heavily disputed, with Uighur organizations claiming numbers are small or nonexistent and Beijing attempting to paint all Uighur resistance as extremism. After the 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S.-China anti-terrorism cooperation in 2002, the U.S. State Department and United Nations listed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization. In 2003, the Chinese government released a list of the first batch of East Turkestan terrorist organizations and members, including ETIM. According to this list, Hasan Mahsum and Abdukadir Yapuquan formed ETIM and ran terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 1997. Mahsum was later killed by Pakistani troops in October 2003. A Council on Foreign Relations report, citing a Russian news article in 2000, said Osama bin Laden pledged funds to ETIM and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in a 1999 meeting in Afghanistan.

In the 2000s, the U.S. ouster of the Taliban regime, Pakistan’s military operations against al Qaeda in the tribal areas, and divisions within the Uighur movement over fighting alongside al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands versus conducting a nationalist movement in Xinjiang resulted in a rollback in the Uighur militant presence in Afghanistan. The United Nations estimated that there were roughly 200 ETIM members in Afghanistan in 2007. Some ETIM members, according to Yapuquan, fled to the Middle East, including Turkey and Syria.

A new Uighur militant organization, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), began to emerge in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2006. TIP has claimed attacks in China, seeking to target China and Chinese interests in different locations. China rejected TIP claims of responsibility for bus bombings in Shanghai and Kunming ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. After the Syrian civil war began in 2011, TIP has been fighting alongside various groups, including al Qaeda in Syria. One report suggests that 300 to 5,000 well-organized, battle-hardened Uighurs have played a key role in ground offensives against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the northern regions. An Islamic State recruitment document listed 114 foreign fighters from Xinjiang, namely Uighurs, who are fighting in Syria.

The Islamic State has played a role in the formation of Uighur militancy in Afghanistan, where the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has criticized China for oppressing Uighur Muslims and called for jihad against China. The Islamic State’s global ambition and bloody strategy, as demonstrated in Syria, quickly led to a shift in China’s approach toward Afghanistan from a previously development-centered policy toward targeting Uighur militants, especially in Badakhshan province. China has stepped up its diplomatic visits and communications with Kabul and has provided the Afghan government with counterterrorism aid and assistance, including training and equipment to fight the perceived Uighur threat. In 2015, China promised to provide $73 million to support the Kabul government. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security swiftly arrested Uighur businessmen and deported them back to China.

Afghan cooperation with China on the Uighur issue is not only motivated by money but also by hopes to convince China that the Uighurs in Afghanistan were trained by Pakistan, thus blaming the country for China’s domestic issue. After the Islamic State threatened in 2017 to “shed blood like rivers” to avenge Beijing’s “oppression” of Muslims in Xinjiang, Afghanistan and China stepped up cooperation in joint border patrols in the Wakhan corridor. Following media reports that Chinese troops were patrolling in the Wakhan corridor and that China was building a military base to carry out counterterrorism training missions in the corridor, the Afghan ambassador to Beijing announced in September that Afghan troops would be trained in China. The specter of Uighur militants joining the ISKP in Afghanistan would be a nightmare for Beijing.

The presence of foreign terrorist groups such as ETIM and IMU in Afghanistan underscores that internal political and security dynamics in China and Central Asian states—such as the Tajikistan civil war, ethnic conflicts in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan’s crackdown on Islam, and the conflicts and groups in the Middle East (such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State)—have contributed to the intensification of terrorism in Afghanistan. As Chinese government repression grows, and Uighur resistance rises, Uighur militancy in Afghanistan surges with it. China’s actions are in essence exporting violence and ethnic conflict onto Afghan territory.

The Xinjiang government’s repressive policies, including the “re-education camps,” only serve to drive Uighur militancy and complicate Afghanistan’s internal security. Long-term stability and peace in the borderlands of the Wakhan corridor can only be served by promoting genuine ethnic harmony and religious freedom in Xinjiang.

Haiyun Ma is an assistant professor of Chinese history at Frostburg State University and founder of the Zhenghe Forum.

I-wei Jennifer Chang is an independent analyst specializing in Chinese security and foreign policy.

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