Exclusive: Despite China's Pressure on Taliban, Uyghur Separatists See Opportunity in Afghanistan

Despite Chinese pressure on the Taliban to crack down on militant groups, the Uyghur separatist organization at the heart of Beijing's own "war on terror" sees a new opportunity in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to undermine the People's Republic.

"The United States is a strong country, it has its own strategy, and we see the withdrawal of the American government today from this war in Afghanistan, which is incurring huge economic losses, as a means of confronting China, who are the enemy of all humanity and religions on the face of the Earth," a spokesperson for the political office of the Turkestan Islamic Party, commonly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), told Newsweek.

In what appears to be the first remarks by the secretive group to an international media outlet since being removed from a U.S. list of terrorist organizations last year, the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson expressed hoped the U.S. military exit last month would be followed by greater pressure against China.

"We believe that the opposition of the United States to China will not only benefit the Turkestan Islamic Party and the people of Turkestan," the spokesperson said, "but also all mankind."

ETIM has roots in Afghanistan, where China once assisted the U.S. effort to back Muslim mujahideen against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. This conflict and the subsequent Taliban takeover in the following decade served as inspiration for the ETIM.

The group sought to spark a militant uprising of its own in neighboring Xinjiang, the historic home of the largely Muslim Uyghur people that came under Communist Party rule along with the rest of mainland China in the mid-20th century.

The insurgency began with a series of deadly attacks in the 1990s, and violent incidents tied to the separatist cause continued up until 2017 in a bloody bid to weaken China's resolve in Xinjiang, claimed alongside parts of western Gansu and Qinghai provinces by the group to form East Turkestan. It borders eight nations—Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia and Tajikistan—and serves as the core of China's natural energy resource reserves.

The claimed area spans more than 700,000 square miles home to roughly 25 million people.

"East Turkestan is the land of the Uyghurs," the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson said. "After the Chinese government occupied our homeland by force, they forced us to leave our homeland because of their oppression against us. The whole world knows that East Turkestan has always been the land of the Uyghurs."

The ETIM violence in China drew a severe response from authorities, who have set up sprawling detainment facilities that they refer to as vocational education and training centers to suppress the militant threat in Xinjiang. International critics of these centers call them reeducation centers or concentration camps, characterizations vehemently denied by China but encouraged by ETIM.

"We are not terrorists like the Chinese government that targets innocents," the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson argued. "The Chinese government should leave the land of East Turkestan by the peaceful path."

Otherwise, the spokesperson could not rule out the prospect of armed struggle.

"If they choose the path of war without leaving peacefully," the spokesperson said, "then we have the right to choose all kinds of paths in order to restore our homeland."

And while the previous installment of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan established a quarter of a century ago may have provided a safe haven for ETIM, the political situation in the region today is quite different. The ETIM swiftly praised the Taliban's return to power last month, but today China sees a potential security partner in an old foe.

East, Turkestan, Islamic, Movement, Party, training
Purported members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, known officially now as the Turkestan Islamic Party, train in this video entitled "Warriors of Truth," shared July 26 by the group's media office. The video featured a Uyghur-language tag for "Khorasan," a term that refers to a historic region spanning parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Turkestan Islamic Party Voice of Islam Media Center

Interactions between Taliban and Chinese officials have been among the most robust enjoyed by the group with any country in the world, second only to Pakistan, which has emerged as an increasingly important strategic economic and security partner of China in recent years. The Taliban, which now presides over some of the largest reserves of coveted rare minerals, is also eager to find a business ally in the world's second-biggest economy after decades of unrest in Afghanistan.

While Beijing has yet to recognize the resurgent Islamic Emirate, Chinese officials have already promised a widespread assistance package to their war-torn neighbor, including 3 million COVID-19 vaccines and $31 million of humanitarian assistance including food, medicine and materials for the upcoming winter.

In return, China has made clear to the Taliban that it must never allow militant groups, especially ETIM, to thrive.

"Some terrorist groups have gathered and developed in Afghanistan over the past two decades, posing a serious threat to international and regional peace and security," Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Newsweek. "In particular, as an international terrorist organization listed by the UN Security Council, the ETIM poses an immediate threat to the security of China and its people."

Beyond China and the U.N., an array of nations and international organizations including the European Union, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom consider ETIM to be a terrorist organization.

Syria, supported by Russia and Iran, is also actively battling ETIM's Levant-based affiliate in the northwestern, rebel-held province of Idlib, which borders Turkey. Here, the group is one of many actors embroiled in a decade-long civil war in which Washington and partnered countries once backed an armed anti-government opposition.

For many years, the U.S. included ETIM on its Terrorist Exclusion List, part of Patriot Act measures established after the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon even targeted the group with airstrikes in Afghanistan up until at least 2018.

But as relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorated in recent years, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration delisted ETIM, citing a lack of activity, in a move that eased travel and other restrictions for members of the group. This, along with the campaign to brand Chinese policy in Xinjiang as a "genocide," has infuriated Chinese officials.

The Biden administration has not reversed these decisions, and in some ways has only doubled down on tough rhetoric when it comes to China's activities in Xinjiang, intensifying the rivalry between the world's top two powers.

With the U.S. approach to ETIM going forward as yet unclear, China hopes the Taliban will live up to their word on fighting what Beijing considers to be public enemy number one for the People's Republic.

"The head of the Afghan Taliban made it clear to the Chinese side that the Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts that hurt China," Liu said. "The Afghan Taliban should earnestly honor its commitment, make a clean break with all terrorist organizations, resolutely fight against the ETIM and clear the way for regional security, stability, development and cooperation."

Chinese concerns toward the overall presence of transnational militant groups in the region have been especially pronounced amid a series of recent attacks targeting Chinese nationals in Pakistan, where other outlawed groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Baloch separatists have operated.

The Taliban has repeatedly made sweeping commitments to not allow Afghan territory to be used to strike at other nations, as was the case when Al-Qaeda orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. As the 20th anniversary of that day approaches Saturday, such commitments on the Taliban's part constitute the central tenet of the February 2020 peace accord signed by the group and the Trump administration, which paved the way for President Joe Biden to withdraw U.S. forces last month.

Qari Saeed Khosty, who handles social media for the Taliban's Islamic Emirate, reiterated this pledge.

"As we signed up to in the agreement, we commit to our promise that the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against anyone, not against China, not against Russia, not against America, not against any country," Khosty told Newsweek.

"On the other hand," he added, "we also request that the territories of other countries are not used against Afghanistan."

When it came to ETIM specifically, however, Khosty said no comment was required.

"These people are not present in Afghanistan," he said. "We do not need to say anything about them because they are not present on our territory."

The level of ETIM presence in Afghanistan is unclear but a May report by the U.N. Security Council cited unspecified member states as saying the group "consists of several hundred members, located primarily in Badakhshan and neighboring Afghan provinces."

"Many Member States assess that it seeks to establish a Uyghur state in Xinjiang, China, and towards that goal, facilitates the movement of fighters from Afghanistan to China," the report found. "Another Member State reported that the group has also established corridors for facilitating the movement of fighters between the Syrian Arab Republic, where the group exists in far larger numbers, and Afghanistan."

In an interview published Thursday by the Chinese Communist Party's Global Times daily, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said most ETIM members had already left Afghanistan. He also echoed his group's Doha deal obligations in dealing with such organizations.

"First, we will not allow any training on our territory. Second, we will not allow any fundraising for those who intend to carry out a foreign agenda. Third, we will not allow the establishment of any recruitment center in Afghanistan," Shaheen said. "These are the main things."

Taliban, Baradar, China, Wang, meet, Tinjian
Taliban Political Bureau Chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (L) meets with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tinjian, China on July 28. China has promised a widespread assistance package to their war-torn neighbor, including 3 million COVID-19 vaccines and $31 million of humanitarian assistance including food, medicine and materials for the upcoming winter Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Though the Taliban's stunning victory over security forces and its largely uncontested acquisition of Kabul have served as a point of pride for the insurgent-turned-administrative group, Afghanistan remains divided along ideological, tribal, ethnic and religious lines.

In addition to facing even more radical elements such as the Islamic State militant group's Khorasan branch (ISIS-K), which is the focus of U.S. concerns in Afghanistan, the Taliban has also been forced to contend with a renegade band of militias known as the National Resistance Front operating out of the Panjshir valley.

Ali Nazary, spokesperson for the National Resistance Front, accused the Taliban of fraternizing with jihadi groups including Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K. But he said that the Taliban's promise to China regarding ETIM was likely sacrosanct.

For "the Taliban," Nazary said, "the only country that they will not allow terrorist elements to infiltrate is China."

He argued that "China is their ally in controlling the Uyghurs in Afghanistan."

Nazary said ties between China and the Taliban date back to the group's initial rise after the Soviet withdrawal. As a matter of practicality, Beijing quietly engaged with the Islamic Emirate in an effort to curb any room for the ETIM to grow in Afghanistan.

"If 9/11 wouldn't have happened, there is a high possibility that China would recognize the Islamic Emirate back in 2001," he said, "so their relationship is that China sees the Taliban as a stabilizer, as a group that is against democracy."

The Panjshir forces have since been all but defeated, as the Taliban claimed victory over the valley that once repelled incursions by both the Taliban and the Soviets. With the last bastion of resistance effectively neutralized, the group announced on Wednesday a new interim government populated by senior officials of the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate.

Liu explained that China was "following closely" the situation in Afghanistan as it relates to attempts to form a successor administration to that led by President Ashraf Ghani, who fled the country as the Taliban entered Kabul.

The Chinese embassy spokesperson emphasized Bejing's hope that Afghanistan would find sustainable peace, one that precluded serving as a base for ETIM.

"China sincerely hopes all parties of Afghanistan can echo the eager aspiration of the Afghan people and common expectation of the international community, build an open and inclusive political structure, adopt moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies, make a clear break with terrorist organizations in all forms and live in good terms with all countries, especially neighboring countries," Liu said.

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts