Security

Pakistan, China eye with concern Afghan Taliban ties to terror groups

By Zarak Khan

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A Pakistani soldier stands guard as stranded Afghan nationals return to Afghanistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on August 15. [AFP]

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan and China are closely watching the Afghan Taliban's relationship with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and other terrorist groups.

The Afghan Taliban in a deal with the United States in February 2020 agreed to prevent the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups or individuals.

However, members of al-Qaeda, the TTP, the ETIM and other terrorist groups were seen fighting alongside the Taliban as they took over Afghanistan in August.

Pakistan is mainly concerned with the TTP, a Pakistani militant outfit that has been involved in high-profile attacks in the country.

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Pakistani rescue workers and onlookers gather around a wreck after a bus plunged into a ravine following a bomb explosion blamed on the TTP, which killed 12 people including nine Chinese workers, in Kohistan district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on July 14. [Stringer/AFP]

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A file photo of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)-linked coal mining project in Tharparkar taken in June 2020. [Zarak Khan]

Meanwhile, China has in the past blamed the ETIM, a Uighur separatist group, for terror attacks and has used the group as justification for its measures in Xinjiang, where rights groups say that more than a million Muslims are incarcerated in indoctrination camps.

Both Islamabad and Beijing held the TTP responsible for a July 14 suicide attack that killed nine Chinese engineers who were working on a hydroelectric project in Kohistan district in northwest Pakistan.

The TTP is seeking to "conduct more activities in Pakistan, and more Chinese people or Chinese projects may be attacked in order to increase pressure on the Pakistani government", said an analyst cited by the Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times on September 18.

China will soon become the "next target", Mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi, an influential al-Qaeda ideologue and a Pakistani national, warned in a video message in 2014.

He urged all extremist groups, including the TTP, to carry out attacks on Chinese embassies and companies and to kidnap or kill Chinese nationals.

In the past, the TTP claimed responsibility for the killing and kidnapping of a number of Chinese nationals, mainly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, and often issued detailed statements against the Chinese regime.

Chinese and Pakistani officials have raised concerns that the return of the Afghan Taliban could embolden the TTP and ETIM.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi in late July separately asked the Taliban to cut ties with the two groups.

Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, director general of Inter-Services Intelligence, on September 4 also visited Kabul to discuss with the Taliban leadership the potential expansion of the TTP and the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), according to Pakistani officials.

'Not easy' to sever ties

The Afghan Taliban are unlikely to take action against the ETIM and TTP at the behest of Beijing and Islamabad, say analysts.

Starting in mid-April, the Taliban launched more than 5,500 attacks in 31 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces "with the direct support of more than 10,000 foreign ... fighters representing 20 groups, including al-Qaeda, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba], TTP, IMU [the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan], ETIM, and ISIL [another abbreviation for ISIS]", Afghan Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Ghulam Isaczai told the UN Security Council August 6, nine days before the former Afghan government fell.

"The link between the Taliban and the transnational terrorist groups is stronger today than at any point in recent times," he added in his briefing that day to the UN Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan.

"Al-Qaeda helped to make the Taliban powerful enough to challenge the Kabul government by setting up a transnational terrorist formation that integrated regional terror groups, such as the ETIM, the TTP and Jamaat Ansarullah [known in Afghanistan as the Tajik Taliban]," said Qari Hameed, a Jalalabad-based religious scholar.

"The TTP has deep-rooted and strong relations with al-Qaeda and its allied groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.

"It will not be easy for Islamabad and Beijing to untangle the co-operation among these transnational groups, which are part of a global jihadi network run by al-Qaeda," Hameed said.

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