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China looks to Tajiks to spy Afghan terror risks

China's Plan To Build A 'security Outpost' In Tajikistan Points To Mistrust In The Taliban To Curb And Crush Anti-China Militant Groups

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A Tajik frontier guard soldier patrols the border Pyandj river at the Afghan border not far from the town of Pyandj some 220 kilometers from Dushanbe. Photo: AFP / Vyacheslav Oseledko

When Tajikistan’s parliament said on October 28 that China will finance the construction of a “security outpost” near its border with Afghanistan, the announcement lifted the lid on a security relationship that has quietly evolved in recent years with an eye on checking Islamic terror and militant groups.

The post, to be located near Vakhon village in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province in the Pamir mountains that border on China’s sensitive Xinjiang province and Afghanistan’s volatile Badakhshan province, will nominally be used for Tajikistan police special forces and managed by the ministry of internal affairs.

Analysts and observers say the facility is a spy station all but in name. Tajikistan’s parliament, which is symbolically housed in a building constructed and donated by Beijing, has insisted that Chinese troops will not be stationed at the US$8.5 million facility, which will reportedly be made up of 12 buildings.

China will undertake the facility’s design and provide its equipment, according to local Tajik press reports.

Police forces and others stationed at the new outpost will have plenty to monitor across the Afghan border. Russian media recently reported that the Taliban has entered an alliance with an ethnic Tajik militant group bent on overthrowing Rakhmon’s government.

The announcement came as tensions rise between Afghanistan’s Taliban government and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon, who like others has still refused to recognize the country’s new Islamic rulers.  

At the same time, China is wary of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an ethnic Uighur militant group that fought side-by-side with the Taliban against the US and NATO forces but ultimately aims to create an independent state in China’s Xinjiang province.

China has pressed the Taliban to cut ties with and crush the ETIM, but it’s not clear that a more hardline faction led by leaders of the Haqqani network who now control the nation’s powerful interior ministry is willing to abide by Beijing’s wishes.

The new Tajik security outpost’s location underscores Beijing’s concerns. Afghanistan’s northern provinces serve as safe havens for various transnational terrorist groups operating in the country, including ETIM and Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an anti-Taliban group that reports indicate is making common cause with Uighurs in the country to bolster its ranks.  

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Islamic State-Khorasan fighters at the Sheikh Jalaluddin training camp in Afghanistan in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

According to a June 2021 United Nations report, there were then an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters operating in Afghanistan. ETIM fighters were then actively assisting the Taliban in securing key targets in Badakhshan province against then US-backed government forces.

Many of these fighters not only have sympathies with ISIS-K, al-Qaeda and other terror outfits like ETIM, but also aim to extend their jihad beyond Afghanistan, the UN report claimed.

Some analysts suggest that cross-border impetus, including possible ETIM or even ISIS-K assaults into Xinjiang, may have grown with the end of the war against US and NATO forces. In speeches on Xinjiang, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has expressed concern about Uighur militants potentially using Tajikistan as a backdoor to attack China.

Beijing is clearly sensitive to the wider regional risk. Xinjiang is a key conduit for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) drive in Central and South Asia. Beijing has indicated its desire to connect Afghanistan to its funded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure-building program to promote more trade and connectivity in the region.

But while China has dangled possible rich BRI investments to the Taliban in exchange for routing extremist groups Beijing considers a threat, it’s not clear any concrete infrastructure deals are in the near-term offing.

Beijing’s aid to the Taliban government has so far been piddling since the militant outfit took Kabul and established an “Islamic Emirate.”

Some analysts suggest China’s move to finance and build a new outpost in Tajikistan points to Beijing’s wariness about the Taliban’s true intent. While China may not overtly deploy troops to the outpost, it will clearly be used to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance on extremist groups situated across the border.

Local reports have indicated the surveillance system to be installed at the post will be “made-in-China”, which likely means Chinese advisors and technicians will be situated there to assist their Tajik counterparts.

The Tajiks will be focused on Jamaat Ansarullah, also known as Ansarullah or Ansorullo, an extremist group founded by a rogue former Tajik opposition commander, Mahdi Arsalon, a decade ago that is bent on overthrowing Rakhmon’s government.

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Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in a file photo. Photo: AFP via Getty / Majid Saeedi

Jamaat Ansarullah is also known as the “Tajik Taliban” and has been outlawed as a terrorist organization by Dushanbe. The Afghan Taliban put Arsalon in control of security of five districts near the Tajik border in July during its lighting takeover of the country.

Rakhmon recently rang alarms about what he called “terrorist groups” positioned at points along its more than 1,300-kilometer border with Afghanistan, which he suggested could penetrate neighboring nations and turn the region into a melting pot of transnational jihad that threatens both Central Asia and China.

The outpost will not be the first Tajik-Chinese security collaboration. The two sides conducted their first joint counterterrorism exercises back in 2006 and most recently in August this year. The two sides also hold exercises through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Moreover, over the past five or six years, China has quietly helped to operate the Shaymak military base in Tajikistan’s Murghab region near the Afghan border and the narrow Wakhan corridor that extends from Afghanistan to China’s Xinjiang region.

A Radio Free Europe report claims that Tajikistan recently offered to hand complete control of the post to Beijing in exchange for economic aid, though Asia Times could not independently corroborate the report. What is clear is that Chinese border guards can be seen helping to manage the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border near the Wakhan corridor since at least 2015.

News of the new outpost came soon after a recent meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Afghanistan Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Qatar.

At the meeting, Wang reiterated that Beijing’s support for the Taliban government remains conditional upon its clamping down in particular on ETIM. He was quoted as saying China “hopes and believes that the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with ETIM and other terrorist organizations, and take effective measures to crack down on them.”

But while Wang offers a carrot to the Taliban in Kabul, it’s putting in place the pieces to wield a stick from across the border in Tajikistan.