Afghan people hold placards during a protest to condemn violence in Herat, Afghanistan, on May 2. Photo: EPA-EFE
Abdul Basit
Abdul Basit

How the US withdrawal from Afghanistan raises China’s risk of jihadist attacks

  • China faces some difficult decisions as the US and Nato withdrawal removes buffers against Islamic extremism and sources of stability for Chinese investment
  • With the Taliban continuing to insist on an Islamic government, China’s approach must focus on moderating Taliban behaviour and improving border security
Since the September 11 attacks in the United States, China’s Afghan policy has revolved around three pillars: the US exit; curtailing the growth of Uygur militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region; and ensuring stability to expand its Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan. However, this might change abruptly with the US withdrawal. 
The US exit is simultaneously good and bad news for China. On one hand, the strategic vacuum created will allow China to expand its influence in the region. On the other, the void will be too big to be filled by China alone. The unrest in Afghanistan could spill over into Xinjiang, notwithstanding the geographical barriers. 
Arguably, the US withdrawal will generate intense strategic competition between China and Pakistan on one side and India on the other. Furthermore, the revival of the Taliban’s self-styled theocratic rule could deal a blow to Beijing’s policy of fighting the “three evil forces” of separatism, religious extremism and terrorism
China has been critical of US policies such as drone strikes in Afghanistan, considering them a threat to its regional interests and national security. Paradoxically, though, the presence of the US and Nato has benefited China in three distinct ways. 
First, it has served as a bulwark against Islamist extremism while allowing Beijing to stabilise Xinjiang through domestic counterterrorism efforts. The US exit will remove that buffer.


US, Taliban sign historic peace deal to end war in Afghanistan and withdraw US troops

US, Taliban sign historic peace deal to end war in Afghanistan and withdraw US troops
China shares a 90-kilometre border with Afghanistan through the Wakhan corridor, which abuts Xinjiang province. Greater instability on the western frontier when China is already concerned about border issues elsewhere will add to its worries. 
Second, the US and Nato being in Afghanistan have allowed China to spread the reach of its Belt and Road Initiative to Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province and Central Asia without having to worry about Afghanistan. This might no longer be the case.
Finally, the US presence in Afghanistan did not expose China directly to the jihadist threat. Jihadist warnings to China over its oppressive policies against Xinjiang’s Uygur community have remained rhetorical. With the US exit from Afghanistan, this dynamic will change. 
The Baloch and Sindhi separatist groups in Pakistan are already attacking Chinese nationals and investments for exploiting their resources through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In May, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targeted the Serena Hotel in a suicide attack in Quetta, where the Chinese ambassador was staying.


Car bomb kills at least 4 at Pakistan hotel hosting China’s ambassador

Car bomb kills at least 4 at Pakistan hotel hosting China’s ambassador
In recent years, TTP-affiliated influential jihadist ideologue and propagandist Abu Zar al-Burmi has been a vocal critic of China. He has drawn attention to China as the next significant threat to target after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Jihadist groups need a big enemy to justify their extremist narratives and violence. With the US exit from Afghanistan, China might just become that enemy. 

A recent UN report asserted that Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, the Turkestan Islamic Party’s leader, is trying to create a channel to move Uygurs in Syria’s Idlib province to Afghanistan. That would be a major blow to China’s domestic counterterrorism efforts with potentially serious consequences for Xinjiang. 

In 2018, following then-US president Donald Trump’s announcement of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, China invited a Taliban delegation to Beijing to discuss the matter. In their backchannel contacts, China has extracted guarantees from the Taliban not to allow the post-US Afghanistan to become a staging ground for Uygur militants, to protect Chinese investments and bring peace to the country.


Taliban eyes victory as US forces and allies withdraw from Afghanistan

Taliban eyes victory as US forces and allies withdraw from Afghanistan

In return, Beijing has offered to invest in roads and “in future, China also wants to look at energy projects like generating electricity and then transporting oil and gas from central Asia [through Afghanistan]”, one senior tribal leader in Pakistan with close ties to the Taliban was quoted as saying. The Taliban’s silence on the Uygur issue testifies to this. 

If things go poorly in Afghanistan, knowing the fate of Russian and American interventions, China is unlikely to put boots on the ground. Even if Beijing had to join a peacekeeping role in Afghanistan, it would do so through the UN or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation platform.
However, such multilateral mechanisms will hamper China’s ability to secure its interests in Afghanistan. China will use its geoeconomic prowess to encourage the Taliban’s peaceful behaviour. Likewise, Beijing will accept help from Islamabad, which has tremendous influence over the Taliban, to secure its interests. 

The two-decade-long “war on terror” and six years of US negotiations have failed to convince the Taliban to give up on their demands of an Islamic government. Hence, the Chinese-led regional approach to Afghanistan will be better served to find ways of moderating the Taliban’s behaviour and improving border security management to minimise the coming blowback.

 Abdul Basit is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher