The Taliban has removed Uyghur militants from an area near Afghanistan’s border with China, sources in the region told RFE/RL, in a move that analysts say signals growing coordination between Beijing and the Afghan militant group.
The Uyghur fighters that have been relocated inside Afghanistan are believed to be members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) -- an Uyghur extremist group that Beijing blames for unrest in its western province of Xinjiang and refers to by its former name, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
The Taliban allowed Uyghur groups to operate in Afghanistan during its rule in the 1990s and is believed to still have links with them. China has demanded the Taliban cut any ties with the militants.
Analysts said the Taliban’s move marks a new step in its ties with Beijing, marking the first time the Afghan militants have taken action on the ground to assuage Chinese security fears since they seized power in Afghanistan in August.
“It's what China wants and what the Taliban needs to provide if it is to encourage deeper cooperation with Beijing,” Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the U.S.-based Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told RFE/RL. “The real question is whether they can fully follow through.”
The TIP militants were located in Badakhshan, a province in northeast Afghanistan along the country’s 76-kilometer border with China, and have since been moved to other areas, including in the eastern province of Nangarhar, an ex-Afghan military official with knowledge of the developments told RFE/RL.
The Uyghur militants were present in Badakhshan until last week but have since been removed, a Tajik border guard from the area, citing intelligence reports, separately told RFE/RL on October 4.
It is unclear if the Taliban will hand over the fighters to Chinese authorities, an official in Tajikistan’s state border services, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media, told RFE/RL.
Beijing And The Taliban
China has forged a pragmatic and at times tense working relationship with the Taliban over the decades that has centered on counterterrorism.
Before the collapse of the Western-backed Afghan government, Beijing also had a close working relationship with Kabul and Afghan forces helped monitor and target Uyghur militant groups at China's request.
Since the group’s takeover of Kabul on August 15, Beijing has moved to solidify its relationship with the Taliban, promising economic and development support in exchange for attention to Chinese security concerns, especially monitoring and denying sanctuary to any Uyghur groups in Afghanistan.
The Taliban-led government has called China a close partner and pushed for deeper cooperation with Beijing.
While the relocation of Uyghur fighters marks a notable step in ties between Beijing and the Taliban, analysts caution that the group is still walking a fine line in its burgeoning partnership with China.
During the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001, the group also relocated Uyghur militants from the border regions to other parts of Afghanistan to calm Chinese concerns but stopped short of handing over fighters to Chinese authorities, which strained ties between Beijing and the Taliban.
Andrew Small, a fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin who tracks Chinese activities in South Asia, told RFE/RL that the Taliban may be looking to replicate that strategy.
“This is in keeping with what happened when they were in power before,” Small said. “The Taliban have sought to avoid embarrassment with China as a result of any Uyghur militant activities, but it would be a very different matter if they actually handed them over.”
The Taliban claimed in September that Uyghur militants were not operating in Afghanistan, but the relocation of fighters points to their continued presence in the war-torn country.
Chinese policymakers have long worried about Afghanistan being a base for Uyghur groups, which have been waging a decades-old struggle for an independent Xinjiang, which they refer to as Eastern Turkestan.
During a July meeting in China with the Taliban, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanded that the group sever any ties with the militants.
China has cited terrorism fears for one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most controversial policies: a vast internment camp system that has incarcerated more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities since 2017.
Muslim ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population in Xinjiang and Chinese authorities have long been suspicious of their loyalties. The vast area bordering Central Asia has been the scene of terrorist attacks that Beijing has blamed on the TIP and its predecessor, the ETIM.
Counterterrorism and concerns of radicalization were central to the Chinese Communist Party's justification for its crackdown in Xinjiang and the creation of the camp network, leaked documents obtained by The New York Times in 2019 showed.
But the full scope of the threat posed by Uyghur militants is disputed, with many analysts saying that the groups lack coordination and the capability to launch large attacks.
In 2020, Washington removed the ETIM from its list of foreign terrorist groups, saying it believed there was “no credible” evidence the group still existed.
But a United Nations Security Council report from 2020 said that several hundred Uyghur fighters are believed to be in Afghanistan.
Beijing and the UN still recognize the ETIM as a terrorist group.
The stepped up coordination between the Taliban and China is likely to spread fear among the broader ethnic Uyghur population in Afghanistan.
Many of Afghanistan's Uyghurs -- estimated to be more than 2,000 -- are second-generation Afghans whose parents left China decades ago.
As Beijing and the Taliban forge closer ties, many within the community fear they could be caught up in China’s expanding global crackdown against Uyghurs.
Beijing has aimed to censor and intimidate Uyghur activists and, in some cases, extradite them back to Xinjiang.
Four ethnic Uyghurs from Afghanistan, who spoke to RFE/RL under condition of anonymity for fear of Taliban reprisals, said they were afraid of being deported to China under the new Taliban regime.
Compounding their fears is that many of their Afghan ID cards, which were seen by RFE/RL, say “Uyghur” or “Chinese refugee” on them, making them easier to single out.
Although there is yet no indication that the Taliban plans to target the wider Uyghur community in Afghanistan, the recipe for escalation remains, analysts warn.
“The danger with the Afghan situation is how easy it is to label Uyghurs as militants when that’s not the case,” Jardine said. “China has abused this designation in the past, and unless there is accountability it’s hard to know who is an actual militant.”