Sun, Nov 09, 2014 - Page 8 News List

China, Afghanistan building relations

By Matthew Rosenberg

Since the British first tried and failed to subdue Afghanistan in the 19th century, stumbling into a costly Afghan war seems to have become a mandatory step for global power players. The Soviet Union did it in the 1980s, and the US battle there has passed the 13-year mark.

Now, China seems to be taking its turn in coming to grips with Afghanistan’s role in its national security.

No one expects China to be sending troops any time soon, even with the US and NATO pulling out the last of their combat forces at the end of this year. However, China has taken a major step in formalizing closer relations with the Afghan government: Last week, it said it planned to provide billions of US dollars in new economic and security assistance.

That is being taken as good news by US officials, who have sought to encourage China to take a larger role in Afghanistan beyond just trying to develop the nation’s mineral wealth. Afghan officials, whose economy is in dire shape and whose government is struggling to pay its bills, are eager to find a new source of aid and investment.

A major factor in China’s stepped-up involvement with Afghanistan is a growing alarm in Beijing over Islamic militancy among Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group from northwestern China, analysts say.

Since 2001, a smattering of Uighur militants have fought in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Chinese officials blame a Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, for a spate of attacks that have killed hundreds of people in China over the past two years.

Some experts say Chinese fears that the Uighur separatist cause might spread widely among other militant groups are overblown. Yet where some see unfounded fears, the Afghans have sensed an opportunity to secure a new, rich benefactor.

Further, interviews with Afghan officials suggest that they also hope to use the presence of Uighur militants here to drive a wedge between China and Pakistan, which has aided and sheltered the Taliban in the past and is a long-standing ally of Beijing.

In the past year, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, has persistently flagged to Beijing each and every one of the dozens of Uighurs who it said were caught by Afghan forces fighting inside the nation. Afghan and Western officials familiar with the effort say that the intelligence agency has painstakingly prepared dossiers for Chinese officials, laying out evidence tracing the militants back to Islamic training camps inside Pakistan.

The subject was atop the agenda last month when agency acting director Rahmatullah Nabil quietly visited Beijing before Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai’s first state trip to China, officials familiar with the negotiations said.

Then, after a meeting last week between Ghani Ahmadzai and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Beijing, Chinese officials said the two had agreed to jointly press the fight against Uighur militants.

“In the area of security, President Ghani expressed readiness and staunch support from the Afghan side in China’s fight against East Turkestan Islamic Movement terrorist forces,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Kong Xuanyou (孔鉉佑) told reporters after the meeting, according to Reuters.

Nabil said it was “a big achievement” that the Chinese government was now listening to the Afghans about Uighurs who were being trained in Pakistan.

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