Taliban tell China Afghanistan will not become a base for Uighur separatists

Taliban officials crank up diplomacy to lay the groundwork for international recognition on their potential return to power

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China. AP
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A top-level Taliban delegation visiting China on Wednesday assured Beijing the group will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for plotting against another country.

The delegation is in China for talks with Beijing officials as the insurgents continue a sweeping offensive across Afghanistan — including areas along their shared border.

Their frontier is just 76 kilometres long — at a rugged high altitude and without a road crossing — but Beijing fears Afghanistan could be used as a staging ground for Uighur separatists in Xinjiang.

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told AFP those concerns were unfounded.

“The Islamic Emirate assured China that Afghanistan's soil would not be used against any country's security,” he said.

“They [China] promised not to interfere in Afghanistan's affairs, but instead help to solve problems and bring peace.”

Beijing confirmed the thrust of the talks, which were led on the Chinese side by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But in Kabul, Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani urged the international community “to review the narrative of the willingness of the Taliban and their supporters on embracing a political solution".

“In terms of scale, scope and timing, we are facing an invasion that is unprecedented in the last 30 years,” he warned in a speech on Wednesday.

“These are not the Taliban of the 20th century … but the manifestation of the nexus between transnational terrorist networks and transnational criminal organisations.”

Analysts say China, whose stated foreign policy position is non-interference in other countries' issues, is queasy about the religiosity of the Taliban given their proximity to the Muslim-majority Xinjiang province.

But the meeting gives legitimacy to an insurgent group craving international recognition — and a potential diplomatic shield at the UN — to match their military march across the nation.

“Wang Yi pointed out, the Afghan Taliban is a crucial military and political force in Afghanistan,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.

“China has throughout adhered to non-interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs … Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people,” he said, in stark contrast to the “failure of US policy towards Afghanistan".

“Afghan people have an important opportunity to stabilise and develop their own country.”

Taliban officials have cranked up their international diplomacy in recent months, seeking global recognition for when they hope to return to power.

They have made sweeping advances across Afghanistan since May, when US-led foreign forces began the last stage of a withdrawal due to be completed next month.

Beijing hosted a Taliban delegation in 2019, but backdoor links with the insurgents existed before, through Pakistan.

Communist Party leaders in Beijing and the fundamentalist Taliban have little ideological common ground, but experts feel shared pragmatism could see mutual self-interest trump sensitive differences.

For Beijing, a stable and co-operative administration in Kabul would pave the way for an expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan and through the Central Asian republics.

The Taliban, meanwhile, would consider China a crucial source of investment and economic support.

“By getting the Chinese on their side, the Chinese would be able to provide them with diplomatic cover at the Security Council,” Australia-based Afghanistan expert Nishank Motwani told AFP.

“It is important to note … when other countries open up their doors and engage with the Taliban it undercuts the legitimacy of the Afghan government and presents the Taliban almost as a government in waiting.”

The Taliban's campaign has so far seen them capture scores of districts, border crossings and encircle several provincial capitals.

Government forces have abandoned some rural districts without a fight, but are digging in to defend provincial capitals even as the insurgents tighten a noose around the cities.

Rights groups have accused the insurgents of committing atrocities in territories under their control, including in the border town of Spin Boldak, where Afghan officials accuse Taliban fighters of killing about 100 civilians.

The nine-member Taliban team in China was led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the movement.

Updated: July 28, 2021, 1:57 PM