NEW DELHI: China's recent complaint that the unrest in Xinjiang was perpetrated by terrorists trained in Pakistan underscores the public manifestation of a nightmare whose origins go back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, more than 20 years ago.
China concerned about lack of action taken against Uighur terrorists
By Ravi Velloor, South Asia Bureau Chief
At the time, Uighur nationalists trained in Pakistan and funded by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency using Saudi money were part of the mujahideen resistance that ultimately won in the vital landlocked nation straddling Central and South Asia.
Extremism has been on the rise in central Asia since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, two years after the Russian army was forced out of Afghanistan. Ever since then, the key Central Asian states that gained independence as a result have witnessed a revival of their Islamic roots.
It is little wonder then that Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs, is also affected. And it doesn't help Beijing that these restless souls, mostly all Muslim, can draw upon a Uighur diaspora outside China.
Mr Ahmed Rashid, one of the foremost scholars of the region, says Uighurs have trained and fought with Afghan mujahideen since 1986. He points out that in the past, Chinese officials have said that arms and explosives used by the rebels against Chinese security forces have come from Afghanistan. Beijing's response was to keep a wary eye on the phenomenon and hope for the best. It stayed clear of the Afghan civil war until 12 years ago, when it began making approaches to the Taleban in order to get its help to control the Afghan heroin flowing into Xinjiang, where money from the illicit trade was fuelling extremism among Muslims.
Uighurs have been showing up on the terrorists' map for more than a decade, with some featuring in the list of those held by the US at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba after the Sept 11 attacks.
According to South Asian intelligence specialists, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim), now in the spotlight over Xinjiang, is believed to have ties with Al-Qaeda.
Etim cadres sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, whose numbers are placed at anywhere between 100 and 1,000 men, are said to receive training in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or Fata.
Beijing has given Pakistan more than US$300 million (S$360 million) to beef up its counter-terrorism capability. While Islamabad has tried to accommodate Chinese concerns and hunt down Etim elements, it has not always been successful. One reason is that in areas such as the Fata, tribal leaders often have more influence than the state, and their protection gives terrorist elements a near-invincible shield.
Besides, in some areas of the Pakistan-Afghan border, the terrain is so hostile that no expeditionary force can possibly hunt down a band of determined guerillas holed out there. Even so, two years ago, Pakistan managed to track down 10 Etim figures and hand them to China.
As recently as May, Beijing was still patient with its 'all-weather friend' Pakistan. When US Navy Seals hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden, there was much finger-pointing around the world and talk of Pakistani perfidy. Many were asking: How could the most wanted terrorist have lived on the doorstep of a military cantonment without coming to notice?
At the time, China stood up to defend Pakistan. But, of late, its misgivings have clearly mounted. It may also be worried that the Pakistani state is far too weakened by the multiplicity of challenges it is faced with. By going public about terrorists trained on Pakistani soil, Beijing was signalling two things this week. First, it showed how sensitive it had become on Xinjiang and, perhaps, how worried it now is.
Second, Beijing seems to be past caring that Pakistan maintains close ties with the Afghan Taleban as a deliberate strategy to influence events in Kabul and as counter pressure against Indian influence in Afghanistan. It now wants Islamabad to act, and to act now against any group with links to Etim, and has conveyed the depth of its feelings in unambiguous terms.
Pakistan can possibly live without the US, but it cannot risk its China relationship catching a cold. Little wonder that Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, reportedly travelled to China over the weekend.