The US plan announced this week to speed up the withdrawal of thousands of troops from Afghanistan may have troubling consequences for China, which shares a border with the war-torn country in its far west region of Xinjiang.
Acting defence secretary Christopher Miller said on Tuesday the US would cut its military presence in Afghanistan to 2,500 troops from 4,500 by January 15, while also drawing down forces in Iraq to a similar number.
The pull-out will exacerbate a “power and military-security vacuum”, according to Nishank Motwani, deputy director at Kabul-based think tank the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.
He said the gap could be filled by terrorist groups and Taliban fundamentalists angered by Beijing’s repressive policies towards ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
The UN estimates more than a million Uygurs have been detained in Xinjiang – a region three times the size of France – in what Beijing calls “vocational training centres” aimed at countering a separatist and terrorist insurgency. Clashes between Uygurs and Han Chinese in the region killed hundreds in 2009.
The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to remove the Taliban from power. It said the Taliban were providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that masterminded the September 11 attacks the same year in New York and Washington, which killed almost 3,000 Americans.
While China found the presence of the US military in its own backyard unsettling, it used the opportunity to link Washington’s anti-terrorism war to its own drive to suppress Muslim Uygur opposition groups in Xinjiang. Clashes between Uygurs and Han Chinese in 2009 killed hundreds of people.
The US welcomed China’s support and in 2002 designated the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – a collection of Uygurs who believe Xinjiang should be an independent Islamic state – as a terrorist group. Because of ETIM’s close ties to al-Qaeda, several of its leaders were killed by the US in air strikes on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Motwani at the Kabul think tank, who has researched Afghan politics for the past decade, said he was pessimistic about the country’s prospects. US withdrawal was supposed to be conditional on the Taliban renouncing and severing its ties with al-Qaeda, but none of these conditions had been met, he said.
“If Afghanistan spirals out of control in terms of security, the spillover effects of that conflict would be felt in China,” Motwani said. He added that while ETIM was at present “severely constrained” in its ability to attack China, this could change if the Taliban increased its control over Afghanistan.
In Miller’s announcement of the troop cuts, he said they are to meet outgoing President Donald Trump’s commitment to reduce US involvement in foreign conflicts. US allies, as well as some Republican and Democrat members of Congress, criticised the troop drawdown as destabilising ahead of president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
With Trump still refusing to recognise his defeat in the November election, analysts said Washington’s policy confusion could further play into the hands of groups in Afghanistan who also hold an anti-China grudge.
Further, as Beijing-Washington ties badly frayed under the Trump administration, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on October 20 said the US will remove ETIM from its list of terrorist organisations, a decision that clearly angered Beijing.
The move exposed a “double-standard on anti-terrorism”, said Iljan Anagyit, a spokesperson for the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region’s information office, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
“Xinjiang will steadfastly crack down on ETIM and other terrorist forces,” Anagyit said at a press conference on Wednesday in the capital Urumqi, Xinhua reported.
Estimating the true numbers of Uygur militants in Afghanistan is difficult. But US-backed Radio Free Afghanistan in 2018 said Taliban forces with dozens of Uygurs in their ranks had taken control of huge areas of rural Badakhshan. The province in northeast Afghanistan shares a 90km (56 mile) border with Xinjiang.
The UN Security Council said in a report in July that ETIM controlled between 1,100 and 3,500 fighters, most of them in the city of Jisr al-Shughur in northwest Syria, with about 500 in Badakhshan.
Motwani in Kabul said Biden’s track record suggested he would see through the complete withdrawal of US forces by May next year.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London, said the past year had been marked by growing irritation among Washington officials, who say China has unfairly enjoyed the regional security provided by US and Nato forces.
“I think as tensions with China have gone up you have seen a growing push towards calling out China’s perceived ‘free riding’ in Afghanistan,” he said.
Pantucci, who is writing a book about China and its relations with Central Asia, said think tanks in Beijing frequently pointed to Afghanistan’s reputation as a “graveyard of empires”.
He said: “I think this is why you have seen the Chinese play a very back seat role in many ways, because they don’t want to be the next empire to be dragged into the morass of Afghanistan.”
The British Empire tried and failed three times to gain control over the Central Asian nation. Historians say one of the factors behind the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the failed war it fought in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989 to prop up a socialist regime friendly to Moscow.
More than 2,000 US troops have been killed in the Afghanistan war. The US has poured more than US$109 billion into the conflict, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Adjusted for inflation that exceeds the amount spent on the entire reconstruction of Europe after World War II under the Marshall Plan.
Shi Yinhong, an official adviser to China’s State Council, said Beijing had no interest in replacing the US role in Afghanistan because of the costs and risks. “The Americans, the Russians, the English, they all made fruitless attempts to mould Afghanistan into what they wanted, China is not going to follow them,” he said.
Shi said Beijing’s policy was to maintain relations with a wide spectrum of groups in Afghanistan, including the US-backed Afghan government in Kabul and the Taliban, as well as the leaders of powerful tribes that have influence in different regions.
“Because the fighting between Kabul and the Taliban is very intense, with a unified Afghanistan lying far into the future, this will make all countries act with restraint,” he said.
Motwani said China’s strategy to mitigate any instability from the US withdrawal would centre on Pakistan, another country with which it shares a land border. “China is going to work more closely with Pakistan when it comes to Afghanistan as opposed to playing a leading role directly,” he said.
Both countries regard each other as what they call “iron brothers”, partly because of a shared strategic interest to counter India, but also due to Chinese investment, most notably in the form of the US$46 billionChina-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Pakistan also has strategic value to China because of its ties to the Taliban, mainly through its intelligence service. Despite suffering terrorist attacks from the group, Pakistan sees value in the Taliban as a tool to wield influence over neighbouring Afghanistan.
Pantucci cautioned that there was an inherent uncertainty in trying to cultivate friendly relations with the Taliban, which he said was riddled with factional infighting.
Dr Elizabeth Wishnick, an associate professor of political science at Montclair State University in New Jersey, said Beijing had not ruled out intervening directly in Afghanistan and was looking for more covert means of doing so.
“China has been developing private security forces that could potentially work in high conflict areas like Afghanistan,” said Wishnick, who runs China’s Resource Risks, a website analysing the risks of China’s resource-related projects around the world.
“Chinese experts continually say their country will never send troops into Afghanistan,” she said. “But this apparently does not apply to border security forces or private military companies.”