Even as news channels were going full throttle on the clash between the Chinese and Indian troops in Arunachal Pradesh, quite a different kind of attack was on several hundred miles away.
In Kabul, armed men opened fire in a hotel frequented by Chinese nationals, possibly killing many, in an operation which has been claimed by the Islamic State(IS). The Taliban were quick to react with a counteroperation. But their hands are full.
Just last week was an attack on the Pakistani embassy, and another on its prime protégé Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who once bombed Kabul into submission. There are many who would like Hekmatyar dead, and Pakistan out of the country. But why militants would target the Chinese is another matter altogether.
Behind the Kabul Attack on Hotel Frequented By Chinese
The Taliban are trying to play down the attack, with their spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid stating that the three gunmen had hit the hotel in the afternoon of 12 December before being quickly engaged and killed by security forces and that no foreign residents were killed. All of that remains to be probed.
Video grabs show smoke billowing out of the hotel, and at least, two Chinese nationals jumping from windows to escape. Hospitals report that a total of 21 injured had been received with three dead on arrival.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that ‘several’ Chinese nationals were injured. At least two of those killed included Afghan nationals who were working for Chinese companies. Also present were Taliban cadres which is interesting since they seem to be on chummy terms with the Chinese. Those casualties will not be known.
Analysts note that the attackers, according to IS pictures, used Makarov pistols, grenades, and explosive blocks for the attack. The IS also claimed that its attack killed 30, all of which is a slap on the face of the Taliban, and a little more than that of Beijing's.
On the Islamic State of Khorasan in Afghanistan
Even less is known about the Islamic State Khorasan province (ISK), supposedly the Afghan arm of the Syria-based Islamic State. ‘Khorasan’ is meant to encompass parts of modern-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
While ISK had sworn allegiance to the IS in 2014 when it was formed by a group of Pakistani militants, it has since become diffused, joined by former cadres released by the triumphant Taliban after its takeover, deserters from the Taliban, and those from other ethnic groups who have been sidelined and threatened.
A rare video of March 2022 shows several small groups swearing allegiance to the Amir Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, who together with lower-tier leaders seem to have, according to a UN Report, a degree of operational control over at least part of its operations. Certainly, the ISK has been deadly in Kabul and against minorities; but it shows little ability elsewhere.
China's Afghanistan Ambitions
Earlier, it announced a Wilayat into ‘Hind’ ( India) in 2019, following it up with some slick propaganda campaign in the magazine ‘Sawt ul Hind’ which aimed to actively recruit Indian Muslims, a fact attested to by several cases by the National Investigation Agency. It also announced a Wilayat in Pakistan, which was hardly noticed initially.
But in 2022, it claimed attacks in Pakistan, often overlapping with those of the Tehrik e Taliban. It also attacks Central Asian countries as it did with a series of rocket attacks, indicating a disparate group with different objectives.
It was perhaps inevitable that the group would sooner rather than later, turn to China which has been making its presence felt in Afghanistan since the US left.
In September, ISK launched its most comprehensive diatribe against Beijing, beginning with an overview of China’s rise, a dim view of China’s ability to dominate its neighbours, and notably an inevitable ‘Third World War’ between Russia, China, and the US.
It asks how the Chinese ‘kuffar’ can expect to achieve total victory over the Muslims?” warning the “red atheists whose hands are soaked with the blood of innocent Uyghur Muslims” of the revenge that stopped them from realising their economic dreams. The ISK clearly don’t like the idea of the Belt and Road Initiative, and they like even less that the Taliban seem to be kowtowing to Beijing. All in all, a fair warning of strikes was to come. And it did.
What China’s Taliban Backing Imply for Foreign Policy
China has become a bigger target now that it is seen as a ‘patron’ of sorts of the Taliban whose cause it is now espousing. Kabul looks to China not just for aid – of which it announced one billion Yuan in March 2022 but also for diplomatic clout.
Both Russia and China have invited Taliban leaders for meetings in Beijing, with Foreign minister Wang Yi posing for photographs with Taliban Foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and notably, Pakistan’s Mahmoud Shah Qureshi.
In the words of Special Envoy Yue Xiaoyong, China has conducted “intensive multilateral coordination” including at the UN, Moscow Format, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and its own launch of the Mechanism for Coordination and Cooperation among the Neighboring countries of Afghanistan, with the foreign ministers’ meeting at Tunxi, where the Taliban also attended.
It has also opposed travel restrictions on them, even while pressing for the release of Afghan bank funds—all in all a valuable patron, who says nothing at all about their human rights excesses, or their treatment of women which has gotten worse in recent months.
Beijing is said to be eyeing vital lithium deposits, and while the Global Times reported Chinese businessmen had conducted on-site inspections of lithium deposits, it also admits the sheer difficulties involved. At a time of serious economic dangers, however, Beijing would probably opt to sit on deposits – as it has at the copper mines of Aynak – till a more favourable time.
That time is clearly not now. It's not just the ISK. Chinese ambitions and their treatment of fellow Muslims have irked many in Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan. The ISK's summing up of Chinese ambitions is another thing, while their twinning with Pakistan probably does Beijing little good, given the misery Islamabad has caused the country.
It seems that the time-honoured Afghan jinx has hit Beijing as well. After carefully keeping Afghanistan at arms distance and working only thorugh its ‘all weather friend’ Pakistan, the decision to step in directly may cost them dearly. That China has a strong intelligence footprint here is also apparent since the Chinese had warned Kabul that it needed to increase security for its embassy just a day before the attack.
None of this is likely to make Beijing pull up and run. Quite the contrary, it's all becoming something of a mire, especially since Beijing’s backing seems to have persuaded sections of the Taliban that it can continue its repressive policies, particularly against women. China can hardly object, and the Taliban know it. It’s the one feeding into the other. Beijing is not known nowadays for much wisdom. But it might want to give the Taliban a push towards more inclusivity. That’s the only way to put the ISK on a back foot.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)