For Them, Afghanistan Is Safer Than China

Persecution in Xinjiang is pushing Uighurs over the border.

Ethnic Uigur women look through a security fence as Chinese soldiers stand guard in Urumqi, in China's far west Xinjiang region, on July 9, 2009. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Ethnic Uigur women look through a security fence as Chinese soldiers stand guard in Urumqi, in China’s far west Xinjiang region, on July 9, 2009. (Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghanistan’s borderlands have long been a refuge for ethnic minorities fleeing persecution in China. In the 18th century, when the Qing empire conquered Xinjiang, Uighurs who rebelled against Qing rule escaped to Badakhshan. Today, China’s campaigns and restrictions against the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group in the western region of Xinjiang, have spurred an exodus into Afghanistan, especially after Beijing and the local authorities intensified their crackdown on Uighur freedoms, religion, and culture.

Beijing claims that terrorism is spilling over from Afghanistan into Xinjiang. But in reality, Chinese oppression and ethnic conflict in Xinjiang are helping to further destabilize Afghanistan and turn young Uighurs, increasingly targeted by the Chinese state, toward violent resistance.

Many Uighurs have been opposed to rule from Beijing since China seized the region in 1949, and resistance to Chinese control goes back centuries. In the 1990s, after the Central Asian republics gained independence following the Soviet Union’s collapse, Beijing feared Uighur ambitions to create their own state of “East Turkestan.” Especially after the 9/11 attacks, China attempted to characterize Uighur ambitions as terrorism, beginning the “anti-three evil forces” (extremism, terrorism, and separatism) campaign.

Between 1990 and 2010, the Chinese government gradually turned Uighur ethnic identity and religious practices into national security threats. Daily discrimination and persecution against Uighurs include, but are not limited to, difficult access to passports, hotels, banking services, and the internet. Uighur women are constantly forced to unveil and have had their long dresses cut by local officials, who abhor Muslim women’s modesty as a firm expression of their faith. In a country where firearms are banned for citizens, kitchen knives in Xinjiang need to be engraved with identification codes and must be physically secured to fixtures at home. The large-scale protests and killings in Urumqi on July 5, 2009, intensified oppression in Xinjiang, creating a vicious cycle of government repression and Uighur resistance.

China’s Uighur policy is influenced by its broader national ambitions. As Robert D. Kaplan observed, “The repression of the Turkic Uighur Muslim community in western China—including the reported internment of up to a million people in secret camps—is a key part of Beijing’s new imperial policy.” Kaplan argued that China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative “requires the complete subjugation of the Uighur population.” The 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress report in October 2017 stated that over the next several decades, China will “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”

China’s reassertion of its power has made internal stability a cornerstone of its domestic and foreign policies. The central government and provincial authorities have tightened domestic security measures in Xinjiang under the banner of “anti-terrorism“ and “stability maintenance.” These brutal campaigns have caused Uighurs to flee to Central Asia and Southeast Asia to escape ethnic and religious persecution.

For Uighurs—who share ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties with Central Asian populations—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which border Xinjiang, were previously refuges. In 1962, in what is known as the Ili-Qoqek Incident, 60,000 Uighurs and Kazakhs from Xinjiang fled to these Central Asian territories under Soviet rule. These countries are all economically dependent on China and have yielded to Chinese pressure on Uighurs. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has institutionalized the Central Asian countries’ security cooperation against the “three evil forces” directly targeting the Uighurs.

In light of the restrictions placed on Uighurs by authoritarian governments in Central Asia, war-torn Afghanistan has been the only neighboring country where it is politically and religiously safe for Uighurs to seek refuge, especially in Taliban-controlled areas

In light of the restrictions placed on Uighurs by authoritarian governments in Central Asia, war-torn Afghanistan has been the only neighboring country where it is politically and religiously safe for Uighurs to seek refuge, especially in Taliban-controlled areas

. The difficult terrain of the narrow Wakhan corridor connecting Xinjiang to Afghanistan is the panhandle to Badakhshan province. The number of Uighurs there may now number 4,500. The authors’ recent interviews with some experts on ground in Central Asia and South Asia indicate possibly 150 Uighur households residing in Badakhshan.Some of them are militants. China’s internal ethnic divisions, coupled with the vicissitudes of Afghan war and politics, have produced Uighur militant movements and resistance in Afghanistan, including some with connections to the Taliban and al Qaeda. The extent of Uighur involvement in Islamic militancy has always been heavily disputed, with Uighur organizations claiming numbers are small or nonexistent and Beijing attempting to paint all Uighur resistance as extremism. After the 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S.-China anti-terrorism cooperation in 2002, the U.S. State Department and United Nations listed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organization. In 2003, the Chinese government released a list of the first batch of East Turkestan terrorist organizations and members, including ETIM. According to this list, Hasan Mahsum and Abdukadir Yapuquan formed ETIM and ran terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 1997. Mahsum was later killed by Pakistani troops in October 2003. A Council on Foreign Relations report, citing a Russian news article in 2000, said Osama bin Laden pledged funds to ETIM and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in a 1999 meeting in Afghanistan.

In the 2000s, the U.S. ouster of the Taliban regime, Pakistan’s military operations against al Qaeda in the tribal areas, and divisions within the Uighur movement over fighting alongside al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands versus conducting a nationalist movement in Xinjiang resulted in a rollback in the Uighur militant presence in Afghanistan. The United Nations estimated that there were roughly 200 ETIM members in Afghanistan in 2007. Some ETIM members, according to Yapuquan, fled to the Middle East, including Turkey and Syria.

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