Page 1 of 2 Taliban force a China switch
By Peter Lee
Because of its deep strategic and economic relationship with Pakistan, the
inviolability of Chinese interests has been largely accepted by all the major
political players inside Pakistan and its sphere of influence in western
However, in a development that Beijing undoubtedly finds very disturbing, China
is getting sucked into the security crisis in the Pashtun border areas of
Two Chinese hostages, engineers working on a cell phone project in North-West
Frontier Province (NWFP), were captured by the Pakistan Taliban in August 2008.
One escaped; the other was released "in a goodwill gesture" by the Taliban
after the President
Asif Ali Zardari administration acquiesced to the imposition of sharia law in
the Swat Valley in February.
It is not inconceivable that Zardari approved the sharia decision - which has
appalled just about everybody - so that the Chinese man would be freed and
Zardari's second state visit to China in February would not fall under the same
hostage cloud that overshadowed his first state visit, in October 2008.
Shoring up Chinese support would be very important to Zardari, given the
implementation last week of his long-brewing and risky plan to curb former
president Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif's political fortunes by
the High Court banning them from elected office over a hijacking in 1999.
Shahbaz Sharif was the chief minister of Punjab province and after he was
forced to step down Islamabad asserting federal control over the Pakistan
heartland province (and Sharif stronghold).
China regards security issues in the Muslim lands of Central and South Asia
through the lens of its fraught relations with the Uyghur Muslim population of
its northwestern province of Xinjiang. Chinese rule over Xinjiang is not
popular, there is a Xinjiang independence movement, and Uyghur militants have
claimed responsibility for several bloody actions, both in the province and in
the Han areas of China.
China is very concerned that Xinjiang separatism enjoys a favorable regional
environment thanks to the collapse of political order in Afghanistan and
western Pakistan - a collapse that China accelerated by pouring arms, training
and some fighters into the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
After September 11, 2001, China aggressively played the Islamic terrorism card
in stigmatizing the Uyghur self-determination movement and conflating it with
the activities of the violently militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement
(ETIM). In 2002, the George W Bush administration acceded in listing ETIM as a
terrorist organization, thus largely foreclosing to Uyghur activists the
international affection and support that has accrued to the Tibetan
However, with the retreat of the central government from Pakistan's Federally
Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering NWFP and the resurgence of militancy
throughout the Pashtun homeland from the opium fields of Helmand in
Afghanistan's west all the way to the Swat Valley, 160 kilometers from
Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, an enormous haven for Islamic militants is
coming into being.
And the local allies, especially Pakistan, that China has traditionally relied
on to police Uyghur militants on its behalf, are in danger of being
marginalized by a powerful and assertive Taliban movement apparently less
willing to defer to China.
Prior to 9/11, elements within the Taliban were eager to deal with China and
display the same consideration for Beijing's interests that characterized their
Pakistani sponsors. "No troublemaking in Xinjiang" has been the repeated
refrain of virtually every Islamist group seeking to curry favor with China.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) (not the Chinese government) concluded an
agreement at the end of 1998, soon after the Taliban took power and while the
Chinese were wrestling with blowback inside Xinjiang from the participation of
Uyghur fighters in the anti-Soviet jihad. In return for training assistance,
the Taliban promised not to "provide any training to Chinese Muslims in China's
Xinjiang province and that it will assist the Chinese authorities maintain
places of worship and madrassas as in China".
In 2000, Stratfor reported: [T]he Afghan ambassador to Pakistan guaranteed a
Chinese delegation that no groups would be allowed to operate against China
When the Taliban became international pariahs after 9/11, their opportunities
for engagement with China diminished. However, on the occasion of one of the
bloodier attacks against foreign interests - the massacre of 11 Chinese workers
laboring on a World Bank road project in Afghanistan in 2004 - the traditional
deference toward China required of current and hopeful clients of Pakistan and
its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was on full display.
The Taliban, who had no qualms about claiming responsibility for the brutal
concurrent massacre of five Medicien Sans Frontiers staff, quickly disclaimed
responsibility and made their pro-Chinese feelings known with alacrity:
Taliban militia has denied responsibility for the killings ... "We deny the
accusation of killing the Chinese workers in Kunduz province of Afghanistan,"
Abdul Latif Hakimi, who claims to represent the ousted militia, told AFP by
telephone from an undisclosed location. Hakimi said the deaths "should not have
The Taliban also worked the phones with the
Associated Press, with another spokesman "pointing the finger" at Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, the independent insurgent leader who operates in Kunduz, as the most
likely author of the massacre. Then the Taliban went the extra mile and
organized a demonstration of 3,000 people "to show their support for the
The defiantly anti-foreign Hekmatyar, who counts Russia, the United States and
Iran as his enemies, also denied responsibility in an interview with Sikh
Question: Are you behind the recent killing of the Chinese?
Hekmatyar: I have no idea about it. The Taliban have split now.
The other faction is led by Mullah Soban. It could be his brainchild. I have
expelled some miscreants from my party. It could be their handiwork. I really
have no idea. [The interviewer also had the praiseworthy temerity to challenge
Hekmatyar on his version of events.] Question: But the Afghan government strongly suspects that you
have masterminded it. They have good reasons to believe this. In fact, you have
admitted it off-the-record while talking to some journalists. Hekmatyar: It is not true. I cannot accept the responsibility if
some miscreants have masterminded it at the US's behest. I believe it is the
handiwork of the Americans. They have used some greedy mujahideen for this
inhuman act to defame the true mujahideen. I suspect that the Americans have
also masterminded the killing of Chinese in Gwador, Balochistan. The US agenda
is to malign jihad and jihadis.
A kidnapping of two Chinese engineers inside Pakistan in the same
year by renegade Taliban leader Abdullah Mehsud elicited a storm of criticism.
The constituent parties of Pakistan's Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal six-party
Islamist alliance made demands that the hostages be released, and it was made
known that the Pakistan Taliban itself suspected that Mehsud - a jihadi who had
been detained at Guantanamo for 25 months and then rather mysteriously released
- was a US double agent intent on sabotaging Sino-Pakistani relations.
Although one hostage died and one was rescued in a botched rescue by Pakistani
special forces, the understanding across the political spectrum that Chinese
interests were a protected class was reconfirmed.
Nevertheless, Taliban and Pakistani relations with China have always been
complicated by the presence of a few hundred Uyghur militants who trained and
fought with some combination of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the ISI.
As early as 1992, almost two dozen Uyghurs died in an armed clash near Kashgar
in Xinjiang and the Chinese government shut down its road links with Pakistan,
including the legendary Karakorum Highway, for several months to stop the
destabilizing flow of fighters, drugs, and AIDS.
Before 9/11, a special training camp for Uyghurs was reportedly operated at
Tora Bora under al-Qaeda and Taliban auspices near the Pakistan border, and a
safe house maintained in the Afghan provincial town of Jalalabad. According to
one report, the Chinese claim 1,000 Uyghur militants trained in al-Qaeda camps.
After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, 22 Uyghurs were captured and
delivered to the United States for incarceration at Guantanamo. Although some
of the captives may have been innocents snared in the web of bounty hunters
(five were released to Albania), most of them did confess to receiving training
on firing an AK-47 at the ETIM training camp at Tora Bora, according to a study
of the publicly available court documents by Long War Journal.
The Uyghur detainees' advocates exploited the fact that the prosecution was
unable to demonstrate unambiguous links between ETIM and al-Qaeda or the
Taliban and made the argument that these young men should be released since had
never displayed any intention of committing terrorist attacks against the
United States, the implication being that they had sought military training
solely for the purpose of the independence struggle against the Chinese in
The Chinese were appalled at the possibility that the legitimacy of the Uyghur
struggle might receive explicit or implicit international endorsement, or that
independent militants or their sympathizers will find a political haven
Beijing has exerted considerable political pressure on the United States not to
release 17 of the detainees into the custody of avowedly non-violent
pro-independence Uyghur emigres in the Washington, DC area, and was also able
to prevail on the Australian government in January 2009 to refuse to take any
Guantanamo Uyghur detainees, either.
The Chinese government has always been extremely aggressive in its efforts to
ensure that Uyghur militants seeking independence for Xinjiang do not find
welcome anywhere, especially in Pakistan.
B Raman reported in the South Asia Analysis Group:
Talking to a group
of senior Pakistani newspaper editors after a visit to China in 2003,
[President General Pervez] Musharraf was reported to have stated that he was
shocked by the strong language used by the Chinese leaders while talking of the
activities of the Uyghur jihadi terrorists from Pakistani territory.
However, except for the killing of ETIM head Hahsan Mahsum in FATA in 2003 by
Pakistani forces, Chinese efforts to get Pakistan to hand over East Turkestan
fighters have been unsuccessful.
In October 2008, on the occasion of Zardari's first official visit to China,
the Chinese media pointedly published a detailed bill of the particulars of the
eight most-wanted ETIM terrorists, presumably so that the Pakistani government
could not excuse continued inaction with any pretended confusion as to who
Beijing was after and why.
To be fair, Pakistan's dilatory response to Chinese demands may have reflected
recognition that attempts to repatriate Uyghur militants to China for
incarceration or worse would probably have provoked the biggest headache for
Sino-Pakistan relations: retaliation against Chinese interests and individuals
However, in 2007, the issues of Islamic radicalism, Uyghur separatists and
Chinese interests collided catastrophically in the matter of the fundamentalist
Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad. The mosque, avowedly pro-Taliban and
linked to al-Qaeda, was a large and provocative bastion of fundamentalist
Islamist power inside Pakistan's capital and committed to the imposition of
Lal Masjid's creeping attempts to extend and deepen its reach beyond its walls
through Islamic vigilantism elicited the same dilatory response from the
Pakistan government that it subsequently displayed in mishandling the growing
crisis in FATA and NWFP.
Abduction of Chinese managers and employees of a massage parlor by the female
members of a madrassa associated with the mosque as punishment for
allegedly immoral activities provoked the anger of the Chinese government and
prompted a cautious, protracted siege of the mosque by the Pakistani army.
Later, when declaring a state of emergency, Musharraf highlighted the Lal
Masjid situation as the primary example of Pakistan's problems with Islamist
Now. We saw the event of Lal Masjid in Islamabad where
extremists took law into their own hands ... The Chinese, who are such great
friends of ours - they took the Chinese hostage and tortured them. Because of
this, I was personally embarrassed. I had to go apologize to the Chinese
leaders, "I am ashamed that you are such great friends and this happened to
After a round of humiliating kow-towing by Pakistan
government officials, the hostages were clad in burkas supplied by the mosque
and released, and another successful interaction in the "hands off" China
tradition of Pakistani security politics was apparently chalked up.
The mosque's leaders ostentatiously advertised their friendship towards China,
as Dawn reported:
We released [the hostages] in view of Pakistan-China
friendship and after an assurance by the local administration that all such
health clinics and massage centers, where "objectionable activities" are
carried out, would be closed in Islamabad," said Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi,
the deputy chief of Lal Masjid.
Despite this happy ending, the
Chinese government was still very disturbed that Uyghurs were associated with
the mosque and that they had accused the masseuses of being Chinese agents sent
to spy on them to forestall disruption of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games by