China’s mining ambitions in Afghanistan haunted by militants

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China’s mining ambitions in Afghanistan haunted by militants

Escalating threats from Islamist militants are casting doubt on the future of big-money Chinese mining projects in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas (CAPEIC) signed a 25-year oil extraction deal with the Afghan Taliban authorities for the Amu River oil field in northwestern Afghanistan. The company is expected to invest $150 million in the first year of the contract and $540 million over three years.

This is the Taliban’s first known international investment deal since it swept to power in August 2021, promising the globally isolated regime desperately needed cash. China is also reportedly in talks with the Taliban to exploit massive copper reserves in Mes Aynak, 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul.

However, China’s growing economic footprint in Afghanistan is attracting unwanted attention from militants. ISIS-K, the regional affiliate of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, has stepped up hostile rhetoric against Beijing.

Last September, ISIS-K published an in-depth editorial titled “China’s Daydream of Imperialism” in its Voice of Khorasan magazine. The article warned that China’s pursuit of resources in Muslim lands and its treatment of its own Muslim Uyghur population in the Xinjiang autonomous region could lead to conflict with the group, according to Lucas Webber, editor of Militant Wire, a website analyzing militancy.

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan a year and a half ago, it appears that ISIS-K is finding space to operate freely in the country, and it has begun to make good on its threats against Chinese interests.

In December, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for an attack at a Kabul hotel popular with Chinese citizens. This month, an attack on Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry was thought to be targeting a Chinese delegation inside, although there has been no independent verification of this claim.
“This is an extremely outrageous terrorist attack, and we are deeply shocked by it,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said of the hotel attack. Saying Beijing appreciated the Afghan security forces’ “sharp reaction,” he added, “We also call on the Afghan interim government to take strong and resolute measures to ensure the security of Chinese nationals, institutions and projects in Afghanistan.”

While ISIS-K has targeted various foreign missions and a Sikh temple in the past year, China appears to be a prime target due its ties with the Taliban — short of officially recognizing their government — and the economic lifeline it seems to be lending the regime.

“There is a significant Chinese business contingent in the country, and there have been some landings of non-commercial Chinese aircraft over the past year,” Asfandyar Mir, a senior South Asia expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Nikkei Asia.

Experts agree that ISIS-K is the largest Islamist organization with China in its crosshairs and that it poses significant security risks to Beijing’s diplomatic and economic presence in Afghanistan.

The Turkistan Islamic Party, another insurgent group that advocates for the rights of Uyghur Muslims, is reported to have established bases in the northeastern Afghan province of Badakhshan. The group, however, is under pressure from its Taliban hosts to refrain from attacking Chinese interests inside Afghanistan or using Afghan soil to launch operations against such targets abroad, Mir said.

“It seems that the TIP is redirecting itself as a political movement, possibly due to Chinese pressure on the Taliban,” said Abdul Basit, research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. This, however, may be helping ISIS-K strengthen its ranks by recruiting disgruntled militants who want to take a harder line. Simmering discontent in Central Asia against what is seen as China’s imperial hubris makes it easy for ISIS-K to recruit from these regions, Basit added.

ISIS-K follows a Salafi-jihadi Islamic ideology and seeks to establish a caliphate across Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Iran and India.

While the Afghan Taliban protect fellow ethnic Pashtun militant groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, the ISIS-K is seen as a foreign interloper with fighters as ethnically diverse as Chechens, Uzbeks and Indians.

ISKP, as the group is also known, “seeks to draw a contrast between their fighters and the Taliban, accusing the Taliban of being a Pashtun nationalist movement with a noninterventionist [stance], refusing to use its political influence to help the oppressed Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang,” Webber said. “Conversely, by criticizing and threatening China while also conducting attacks against Chinese nationals, ISKP presents itself as the only true Islamic militant vanguard standing up for Muslims in ‘East Turkestan,'” as the Uyghurs call their homeland.

—–courtesy: Nikkei Asia