US hits Uighur terror group to impress China

US hits Uighur terror group to impress China

M.K. Bhadrakumar,

The Trump administration has made a significant overture to Beijing this week over the war in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, during the testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Randall Schriver said in response to a volley of questions from the lawmakers regarding the US strategy in Afghanistan,

  • I think there is the possibility that China, on the counter-terrorism front, could be a partner. They certainly have their own concerns about terrorism within China, and the potential for linkages between terrorist groups operating elsewhere and for that to seep into China.
  • Historically, we have run into some difficulties — what they define as a terrorist, particularly inside China and the way we look at things, there’s an important difference there — but they do have an interest in stability in Afghanistan.

Schriver was speaking in the immediate context of the launch of a series of a rare – if not unprecedented – US air attacks earlier in the week on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the remote northern Afghan province of Badakhshan near the border with China and Tajikistan. In a series of US air strikes, B-52 bombers struck at training camps and fighting positions that supported ETIM operations across the border in China. A press statement from NATO’s Resolute Support Mission said,


  • The U.S. strikes support Afghanistan in reassuring its neighbors that it is not a safe sanctuary for terrorists who want to carry out cross border operations.

Giving details of the air strikes, with video clippings, Resolute Mission General James Hecker told reporters via satellite on February 7, “ETIM enjoys support from the Taliban in the mountains of Badakhshan, so hitting these Taliban training facilities and squeezing the Taliban’s support networks degrades ETIM capabilities.”

The ETIM, of course, has roots in the ethnic Uighur separatist groups of western China. According to Resolute Support, the ETIM “militants have fought alongside al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan, and are responsible for various terrorist acts inside and outside China. In May 2002, two ETIM members were deported to China from Kyrgyzstan for plotting to attack the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.” Resolute Support added that the terror group poses a threat to China and enjoys support from the Taliban in Badakhshan province, and throughout the border region.

At its most obvious level, the US has sent a powerful signal to China that a partnership in the war in Afghanistan can be mutually beneficial. There was a Russian report recently that China might help Afghanistan to set up a military base in the same region where the US B-52 bombers struck. Interestingly, when asked about the US air strikes in Badakhshan, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang gave a nuanced reply on Friday. Sidestepping a pointed query as to whether the US air strikes were backed by Chinese intelligence inputs, Geng noted that China is open to “pragmatic cooperation.” The relevant extracts are reproduced below:

  • I don’t have specific information with regard to this at hand for now. Terrorism is the common enemy of mankind and fighting terrorism is the shared responsibility of all countries in the world. Over the past few years, the ETIM, among other East Turkestan violent terrorist forces, has orchestrated and implemented a series of terrorist attacks inside and outside China, which also posed serious threats to relevant countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. Fighting the East Turkestan terrorist forces represented by the ETIM is not only China’s core concern regarding counterterrorism, but also an important part of the international fight against terrorism. China always upholds the anti-terrorism concept of taking a multi-pronged and holistic approach to address both the symptoms and root causes. We stand ready to continue strengthening pragmatic cooperation in fighting terrorism with all other parties based on the principle of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit so as to jointly maintain international and regional peace and stability.

Curiously, these developments appeared in the run-up to the 2-day visit by the Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi to Washington, where he was received by President Donald Trump at the White House on Friday. (Interestingly, before meeting Yang, Trump spoke to PM Modi to discuss Afghanistan, amongst other topics.) The Xinhua report on the meeting in the White House cited Yang as urging “better coordination on international issues” between China and the US. Yang also met with U.S. National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster “to exchange ideas on promoting China-U.S. cooperation on bilateral, regional and international issues.” (Xinhua)

The US is anxious that China does not team up with Russia and Iran in opposing the war in Afghanistan. Equally, it hopes that any US-China partnership in Afghanistan could reflect on the China-Pakistan relationship. Washington is keen to highlight in the Central Asian region a congruence of interests to work for the success of Trump’s Afghan strategy. The Trump administration has lately stepped up diplomatic activity in the Central Asian capitals, canvassing support for the war.

Most importantly, the US air strikes coincide with the statement on Friday by a top Russian diplomat, Zamir Kabulov, Presidential Special Envoy for Afghanistan, that Moscow has placed the Collective Security Treaty Organization on alert, given terrorist threats from Afghanistan. Kabulov is on record in an earlier statement in December that in the Russian estimation, the strength of the Islamic State in Afghanistan exceeds 10000 fighters “and is continuing to grow.” Russia has alleged that the US is secretly transferring the IS fighters from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan.

Contradictions are galore in the Clausewitzean war in Afghanistan. The US air strikes on ETIM this week targeted Taliban-run training camps, and any weakening of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan can only work to the advantage of the Islamic State. All in all, therefore, the US air strikes signify a smart move by the Pentagon.