In early February 2018, US forces conducted airstrikes in Afghanistan’s north-eastern province of Badakhshan, supposedly targeting ‘support structures’ of the ‘East Turkistan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM), allegedly a group of Uyghur extremists hailing from China’s far west said to be focused on attacking the Chinese state. (1) United States Forces – Afghanistan claimed the strikes targeted direct cross-border threats to China and Tajikistan emanating from the ETIM in Badakhshan. AAN guest co-authors Ted Callahan (*) and Franz J. Marty (**) show that such US claims are questionable, as there is no evidence that the few Uyghur extremists in Badakhshan, about whom there is only scarce and ambiguous information, pose any direct cross-border threat.• Bozoi Gumbaz in the Little Pamir in Badakshan where during the 1980s a Soviet base was built out of concerns of (feared, but not actual) infiltration of mujahedin coming in from China. Photo: Co-Author Dr Ted Callahan (2017)
Latest Airstrikes in Badakhshan
On 6 February 2018, US Forces–Afghanistan (USFOR-A) command stated that “over the past 96 hours” air assets operating under its authority had conducted “a series of precision [air] strikes” in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan. While US airstrikes in Badakhshan were not unprecedented (2), the intensity of the latest airstrikes was unusual and USFOR-A touted them as a demonstration of the stepped-up US air campaign in Afghanistan and its expansion to the northern parts of the country. (3)
The authors were unable to determine how many airstrikes were conducted and what exactly they hit. USFOR-A as well as the Afghan Ministry of Defence declined to comment. (4) US Air Force Major General James B Hecker, Deputy Commander-Air for USFOR-A, confirmed that a US B-52 conducted three strikes on three separate targets in Badakhshan on 4 February 2018, all in the same sortie, without giving exact locations. (5) However, there were reports of additional US and Afghan airstrikes in Badakhshan around the end of January and beginning of February (see below).
USFOR-A vaguely referred to having targeted “Taliban fighting positions” and “Taliban training facilities” that allegedly also supported “operations conducted by ETIM in the border region with China and Tajikistan,” “ETIM training camps” and “support networks,” “defensive fighting positions that [USFOR-A] have previously witnessed the Taliban and ETIM to utilize,” “other fighting positions” and “stolen Afghan National Army vehicles that were in the process of being converted to vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.” (6) But Major General Hecker later backtracked on the claim that they had hit the ETIM, saying USFOR-A “didn’t actually strike ETIM terrorists when we were doing this. We were strictly striking the training camps that both the Taliban as well as the ETIM use.”
Information (albeit not definitively confirmed) from various sources, including on the ground in Badakhshan, indicated the following strikes, locations and targets:
- On 15 January, some reports claim Afghan Airforce A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft conducted airstrikes, hitting insurgent positions in Khostak, a reported safe haven for foreign fighters in Jurm district, as well as in the area of Dara Khol in Yamgan district;
- On the night of 30-31 January, USFOR-A allegedly hit a target in Bashand village, located in central Warduj, a district that has been under complete Taleban control since 1 October 2015 and reportedly also hosts a significant foreign fighter presence. “Foreign fighter positions” and a captured Humvee were mentioned as possible targets. Local sources reported that a mosque located close to the home of the Taleban’s deputy provincial shadow governor, Mawlawi Amanuddin, was damaged in the strike;
- On 4 February, a US B-52 hit a target in Hawasah-e Yakhshira (also known as Bazparan locally), located near Chakaran, the district centre of Warduj. According to some accounts, the target was a former Afghan National Army base. This was reportedly the airstrike shown in a video USFOR-A released;
- On 4 February, the same B-52 hit a second target in Abjin, also near Chakaran. According to some accounts, the target was a former Afghan Local Police base and was shown in another video USFOR-A released;
- On 4 February, the same B-52 hit a third target also in Warduj. Details remain unclear; Sar-e Pul-e Ab-e Jal and Zer-e Chenar Chakaran were reported as possible locations;
- On 4 February, but around 20 hours after the US B-52 strikes, the Afghan Air Force reportedly hit a target near Abjin, with some accounts indicating that this strike only damaged some barns and did not cause any casualties;
- On 4 February, the Afghan Air Force reportedly hit more targets in Ab-e Raghuk and Furghamiro, both in the district of Jurm neighbouring Warduj.
While several sources indicated that the strikes destroyed at least two Humvees and other military vehicles and materiel (see here), the same sources also indicated that they caused no or only a few casualties.
US officials, in their prepared remarks and when specifically asked, declined to offer casualty figures. Major General Dawlat Waziri, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defence, stated the airstrikes had killed six Uzbek nationals in Warduj. Major Nasratullah Jamshidi, Deputy Public Affairs Officer of the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps also reported six fatalities, but referred to ‘Tajikistanis’. Asked about Uyghur casualties by the authors on 14 February 2018, Waziri explicitly said there were no reports of such casualties. Furthermore, no other source mentioned any Uyghur casualties.
All this raises questions about US allegations that Uyghur ETIM fighters are present in Badakhshan and that they pose a threat to neighbouring countries.
Presence of Uyghur Extremists in Badakhshan
Until 2014, most claims of foreign militant activity in northern Afghanistan referred to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which had a significant presence in the region during Taleban rule. There were few, if any, reports of Uyghur militancy in the north post-2001, though Uyghurs were sometimes mentioned as one ethnic group among many believed to have fighters in the IMU. A Reuters article from 2014, citing Taleban sources, claimed there were 250 Uyghurs in Nuristan and Kunar (the article made no reference to a Uyghur presence in any other Afghan province), in addition to another 400 in Pakistan. Speaking on background, an active-duty member of the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) with multiple deployments to Afghanistan, including in 2014, stated the number of Uyghurs in Afghanistan in 2014 was never more than 100 at any given time and often less as they frequently moved across the Afghan-Pakistani border to avoid US strikes.
With the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission due to conclude at the end of 2014, concerns appeared to increase among Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China, that foreign militants would take advantage of the expected security vacuum to move into Afghanistan and from there attempt to infiltrate into China or Central Asia. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited Kabul in early 2014 to discuss security cooperation and was assured by his Afghan counterpart that Afghanistan “would never allow the ETIM to take advantage of the Afghan territory to engage in activities endangering China.”
As far as the co-authors of this report could determine, the only subsequent concrete incident involving Uyghurs in Afghanistan was the extradition of 15 Uyghurs to China in February 2015. But these individuals were reportedly arrested in Kabul City and Kunar, not Badakhshan. Furthermore, alleged links of the extradited men to violent extremists remained vague at best and were, in one case, not even mentioned. (7)
In general, Badakhshan did not host any significant population of foreign fighters until the latter half of 2014 following the displacement of several hundred Central Asian militants from North Waziristan as a result of the Pakistani Army’s Zarb-e Azb Operation launched on 15 June 2014. According to one former high-ranking Taleban member in Badakhshan, in autumn of 2014 the Peshawar Shura issued orders for Taleban groups across the north to receive and settle between 200 and 500 militants, most of whom were non-Afghan Uzbeks and Tajiks, with smaller numbers of Kazakhs and Uyghurs. It is unclear how these militants reached Badakhshan. Some reportedly crossed from Pakistan directly into Badakhshan, despite the more than 600 kilometres separating North Waziristan from Chitral, which borders Badakhshan on the Pakistani side. According to the same JSOC source quoted above, they had been tracking the movement of other such fighters as they came across the border in other places. But those militants started to disperse, travelling mainly by road in small groups, assisted by smugglers experienced in getting through Afghan government checkpoints.
At present, Afghan sources in Badakhshan estimate that there are around 250 foreign fighters and 60 non-combatant family members of such fighters in the province, almost all of them in Warduj and Jurm districts, where the latest airstrikes took place (a handful are allegedly in the district of Raghistan; see also earlier AAN research here). Most of these foreign fighters are apparently from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but Uyghurs are said to be among them. A former United Nations employee stated that, as of the end of 2016, between 50 and 100 Uyghur extremists were residing in Afghanistan or nearby Pakistani areas. Roughly 75 per cent of those Uyghurs were believed to be in Chitral or neighbouring Badakhshan. This source estimated that there are currently about 70 to 80 Uyghur fighters in Badakhshan itself (the rest of the tracked Uyghurs are reportedly the remaining extremists who were pushed out of Waziristan into Zabul in south-eastern Afghanistan, where many of them were killed in fighting with the Taleban in November 2015, according to the same source). (8)
Reliably identifying and tracking foreign fighters is virtually impossible though. Specific names obtained by sources on the ground could not be corroborated by the former UN employee. Although this might partly be due to constant changes of noms de guerre, the simplest explanation – that information is unreliable, if not incorrect – is also possible. Determining those fighters’ actual origins is equally difficult. For example, while a local source described one militant, Haji Furqan, as perhaps the most important Uyghur commander in Badakhshan, the former UN employee indicated that Furqan is originally from Kazakhstan (but possibly of ethnic Uyghur background).
No reliable information on ETIM
Although Afghan officials and local sources attributed the radicalisation of the insurgency (9) and the dramatic increase in successful insurgent attacks in Badakhshan in 2015 (particularly the capture of the district centres of Warduj on 1 October 2015 and Yamgan on 18 November 2015) to the presence of foreign fighters, there was never any specific mention of Uyghurs, let alone a separate Uyghur group such as the ETIM, being responsible for this shift. The former UN employee mentioned above asserted that whenever the Uyghurs in Badakhshan fight, they do so embedded in Taleban formations, not in exclusively Uyghur units. He also stated that the Uyghurs primarily serve as trainers for other insurgents and that, compared to the about 2,000 Taleban fighters in Badakhshan as estimated by local sources, Uyghur combat power is not a decisive factor on the battlefield.
Hence, allegations about the presence of a Uyghur extremist organisation in Badakhshan (whether ETIM or any other) are questionable. ETIM itself is shrouded in mystery. Though recognised as a terrorist organisation by some nations and organisations (including the US (10) and the United Nations), the situation is not as straightforward as this implies. In fact, the term ETIM is an external designation that was never used by the extremists themselves, who (at least originally) called themselves Shärqi Türkästan Islami Partisi (the East Turkistan Islamic Party or ETIP), which was later listed as an alias of ETIM by the United Nations). Some scholars also point out that reports portraying ETIM as a well-established Uyghur extremist group with links to other international terrorist organisations are dubious. They argue that such reports are based on biased Chinese government information, as there are indications that China deliberately designated any Uyghur opposition movements as ‘terrorist’ (11) and inflated alleged threats in order to garner international support – or at least acquiescence – to repress such groups and Uyghur dissent in general (see also endnote (1)). The US designation of ETIM was allegedly mainly based on the same questionable Chinese and similarly doubtful Central Asian intelligence (for more detail on scepticism about the ETIM, see here and here).
Other sources often cited as evidence of a militant Uyghur organisation are propaganda videos released by a group calling itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). According to the former UN employee, the name TIP was originally employed during Taleban rule as an umbrella designation encompassing various Central Asian Islamist movements, including the IMU in Afghanistan and Uyghurs organised under the banner of the ETIP. This incarnation of the TIP broke up during the initial phase of the US-led intervention in Afghanistan in November-December 2001. However, in 2006 some Uyghur groups using the name and logo of the TIP in their online messaging reappeared, which is why the current TIP is regarded as the successor of the ETIP.
Experts cautioned that it is often hard to substantiate where exactly these videos were filmed and whether they accurately depict actual ETIM/TIP capabilities. Furthermore, videos claiming responsibility for specific attacks inside Xinjiang (China) have often been contradicted by facts on the ground (see also here). However, the former UN employee cited above indicated that videos showing the training of fighters appeared genuine and to depict fighters who speak Uyghur Turkic. He added the footage, seemingly originating from Pakistan or Afghanistan, never showed more than two dozen fighters, which – as propaganda videos usually try to boast size and strength – corroborates the assessment that the number of such fighters in the region is relatively low.
Overall, the former UN employee acknowledged that the ETIM is rather a ‘legal’ umbrella term to refer to an array of Uyghur extremists who often and rapidly change the names of their groups.
Despite the terrorist designation, there has not been a single confirmed incident of an attack conducted or planned by the ETIM in or from Afghanistan. For example, while the “UN Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida, and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities” (hereafter the UN Sanctions Committee) alleged that ETIM used bases in Afghanistan to launch attacks in China in May 1998 as well as February, March and May 1999, these claims were described as “impossible to confirm through other sources” and as dubious. (12) Perhaps tellingly, the summary of the UN Sanction Committee’s reasons for listing the ETIM as a terrorist group include only one unspecific reference to Afghanistan. Similarly, in the aftermath of their latest airstrikes in Badakhshan, USFOR-A cited only one concrete example: the extradition of just two alleged ETIM members from Kyrgyzstan to China in May 2002 who were accused of plotting to attack the US embassy in Kyrgyzstan; the case had no visible link to Afghanistan. USFOR-A declined to clarify how the attack in Kyrgyzstan was related to their claim that ETIM militants “enjoy support from the Taliban in Badakhshan and throughout the border region.” (13)
Researcher Sean Roberts has also corroborated the apparent lack of substantiated ETIM/TIP activity inside Afghanistan. He compiled a comprehensive list of 45 alleged Uyghur terrorist attacks conducted between 1990 and 2011, none of which had any visible Afghan connection. Additional research by Raffaello Pantucci and Edward Schwarck argued that prior to 2013 and the documented Uyghur involvement in the Syrian civil war, hardly any Uyghur terrorist activity could be confirmed worldwide, and none with a significant link to Afghanistan.
The former UN employee confirmed that ETIM has been fixated on Syria in recent years and most Uyghurs who went to Syria left China for Southeast Asia (where counterfeit identification documents are easier to get) and then travelled via Turkey into Syria. A much smaller number of Uyghurs reportedly left China via the Central Asian states or Pakistan. Despite the changes in Uyghur militancy, mainly driven by the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there has been no corresponding rise in the number of Uyghur militants in Afghanistan. Nor has there been any evidence of Uyghur militants moving from the Middle East to Afghanistan following the recent ‘defeat’ of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
There is also no credible evidence that Uyghur extremists use Badakhshan as a training ground or a base to plan attacks. In March 2018, the TIP’s media branch, Islam Awazi, posted two videos, one dated December 2017 and the other dated February 2018, (14) showing Uyghurs, along with Afghan insurgents, involved in combat against Afghan forces. Much of the footage does appear to have been filmed in different parts of northern Afghanistan. The authors were able to confirm through local sources in Badakhshan that some segments show combat in Jurm and Warduj districts, and that one of the fighters pictured in the films is the reported Uyghur commander mentioned earlier, Haji Furqan. As in general with such videos, the exact source is unclear and it is difficult to say whether or to what extent it shows actual Uyghur/TIP capabilities and operations; in some sections, the fighting almost appears staged. Compared to TIP videos archived by the SITE Intelligence Group, this video appears to be the first TIP footage from Afghanistan or Pakistan since 2014, which corroborates the assessment that violent jihadist Uyghur activity remains focused on Syria, not Afghanistan. In this regard, it is also noteworthy that the topography and vegetation visible in almost all of the previous TIP propaganda videos from the region strongly suggests they were filmed in the Pakistani tribal areas or in the Afghan provinces of Kunar or Nuristan, not Badakhshan. Furthermore, well-placed sources requesting anonymity asserted there have been no signs of increased activity among Uyghur fighters in Badakhshan during the past two years, suggesting they use the area mainly as a safe haven rather than as a facilitation zone.
No cross-border threats
USFOR-A further claimed that the recent US airstrikes prevented “the planning and rehearsal of terrorist acts near the border with China and Tajikistan” and targeted “the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a terrorist organization operating near the border with China and Tajikistan.” However, there are no past or on-going insurgent or terrorist activities anywhere near the Afghan–Chinese border. The same is true for the immediate vicinity of the Afghan–Tajik border in Badakhshan (the closest the insurgents have got to the Tajik border in Badakhshan was an unsuccessful attempt to advance on the border village of Eshkashem at the beginning of May 2017). The Taleban, who are themselves accused of hosting transnational terrorist groups such as the ETIM, have reassured neighbouring countries on numerous occasions that their goals are limited to Afghanistan and that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used for cross-border attacks (see for example here). However, these claims have not mollified neighbours such as Tajikistan and China.
The short 76 kilometre Afghan–Chinese border runs along an almost impassable mountain range with peaks at 5,698 metres above sea level and is crossable only via two rarely-travelled mountain passes: the Tegermansu, 4,872 metres above sea level, and the Wakhjir, 4,927 metres above sea level, both of which are simple footpaths (the latter crosses a glacier). The border is located at the end of a sparsely populated area known as the Wakhan Corridor (the panhandle of Afghan territory wedged in between Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south, abutting China to the east). The seasonal camps of approximately 600 semi-nomadic Kyrgyz living in the Little Pamir, a high-altitude valley at the end of the Wakhan, are usually a day’s walk or ride from the uninhabited border zone (there are no roads).
Aside from the remoteness and daunting physical geography of the Little Pamir, additional factors would make any attempt to cross into Xinjiang exceedingly difficult for Afghanistan-based insurgents. The only way east through the narrow Wakhan runs through or past dozens of villages inhabited by the Ismaili Wakhi, followers of the Aga Khan who are unlikely to be sympathetic toward Sunni militants. There are also at least three checkpoints manned by the Afghan Border Police. From the end of the only drivable road in the Wakhan, travellers would then have to start a four-day, 100-kilometre trek to the nearest cross-border pass, the Wakhjir, traversing areas patrolled by more border police and local Kyrgyz acting as a frontier constabulary. Finally, Chinese forces closely monitor their side of the border, where they have a nearby military base. They too employ the resident (Chinese) Kyrgyz to keep informal watch over the area, as one European discovered in 2007 when he and his Afghan guide were swiftly arrested by the Chinese after having strayed across the border – possibly the first foreigner to cross it since the British explorer Bill (HW) Tilman in 1947. (15)
In aggregate, these factors explain why there have not been any reports of any insurgent activity in the Wakhan Corridor and along the remote and inaccessible Afghan-Chinese border. The few security incidents that do occur are typically related to drug trafficking and criminality, and happen in the villages along the road, not the seasonal camps near the border. This further strains the credibility of USFOR-A’s claims that the insurgents targeted in the latest airstrikes in Badakhshan had any connection with the AfghanChinese border given that Bashand, the location of the airstrikes closest to the Afghan–Chinese border, is about 300 kilometres away in a straight line.
In contrast to the short Afghan–Chinese border, the 1,357 km Afghan–Tajik border (about 820 km of which is in Badakhshan) is Afghanistan’s second-longest international border after its border with Pakistan. Demarcated by the Panj River rather than a mountain range, the border has two characteristics making it an unlikely thoroughfare for insurgents. First, there is very little infrastructure on the Afghan side, making much of the border in Badakhshan logistically difficult to reach.
Second, like the Wakhan Corridor, the Afghan-Tajik border in Badakhshan is mainly inhabited by Ismailis, whose presence on both sides of the border acts as a sort of cordon sanitaire. Reinforced by the Tajik border police, who patrol most of the border, these Ismaili communities are alert to the presence of any outsiders. Though security on the Afghan side varies because of limited security capacity, difficult topography and a lack of infrastructure, the Tajik side is comparatively well monitored, as they have maintained the Soviet practice of vigilant policing and are especially suspicious of Afghans, mainly due to concerns about narcotics trafficking.
As a result, the few security incidents that occur usually involve clashes with armed smugglers, producing occasional casualties (see latest example from February 2018). However, such incidents pose a criminal – but not a terrorist – cross-border threat, and in any case would have been unaffected by the USFOR-A strikes. Various NGOs and a knowledgeable local source (previously a senior official in the Afghan Border Police) confirmed the absence of insurgent activity along the border. In the border districts of Afghan Badakhshan, such as Raghistan, insurgent presence and activity is limited to the mountainous central regions and not the riverine border areas.
Real, but exaggerated consequences of misperceived cross-border threats
Despite the absence of credible cross-border terrorist threats to neighbouring countries in northern Afghanistan, the official narrative of insecurity espoused by the Afghan government and its neighbours is often paranoid, credulous and replete with greatly exaggerated figures of active insurgents. Such narratives, typically involving a massive insurgent presence in border provinces such as Badakhshan, are often put forth by China and Russia with the apparent collusion of Afghan officials who are regularly quick to hype any supposedly destabilising threat posed by foreign militants. Afghan motives are not difficult to understand: the graver the perceived threat, the more funding they are likely to receive to address it. (16) But why neighbouring countries have come to accept the idea of a serious terrorism threat from Badakhshan is more puzzling.
For example, considerable media attention has focused on increasing Chinese involvement in Badakhshan. Despite official denials from both the Afghan and the Chinese side, there is evidence (including photographs) showing that Chinese forces were – at least during 2016 – conducting joint border patrols with Afghan forces in the Little Pamir. While such patrols were reportedly suspended in late 2016 after they became public, another article indicated that they resumed in 2017. Given the steadfast official denials, the circumstances that led to such joint border patrols remain unclear, but they were likely caused by unwarranted Chinese concerns about illegal border crossings and at least initially were based on informal arrangements between provincial-level officials.
Whatever the nature of this Sino-Afghan cooperation, Chinese patrols in the Wakhan have had no impact on security, according to local Kyrgyz sources. They have mainly been useful in coordinating efforts among Afghan, Chinese and Tajik forces (as the joint patrols include vehicles, they have to enter the Little Pamir via an old Soviet-era track coming from Tajikistan, as the Little Pamir can only be reached on foot or on horseback from the Afghan and Chinese sides; hence, some accounts assert that the patrols also include Tajik forces). However, different sources contradict each other as to whether these patrols are based on an existing border cooperation agreement; as the alleged agreement is not publicly available, this cannot be independently verified.
More recently, there have been reports about the construction of a Chinese-financed Afghan military base inside Badakhshan (which has sometimes been incorrectly portrayed as a Chinese base). As with the joint border patrols, these reports were denied by both Afghan and Chinese officials. However, there is a proposal for a Chinese-financed Afghan National Army mountain brigade that would also include a base. Unlike the joint border patrols, this proposal has not gone beyond the discussion phase and neither the location for a base nor the schedule for its construction have been agreed. This was explicitly confirmed by Major General Waziri, the spokesman of the Afghan Ministry of Defence, in an interview with one of the authors on 14 February 2018, as well as other sources. Hence, reports that “preparations for the construction of [such] a military base (…) have already begun” or that the base would be located in the Wakhan are incorrect, probably as a result of misunderstanding, misquoting poorly formulated official statements or unfounded assumptions. (17)
The idea of a Chinese-financed Afghan National Army mountain brigade in Badakhshan dates back to at least February 2017. According to several sources, there has been no visible progress on this front since then, which casts serious doubt over the plan’s viability. Although China’s supposed willingness to finance an Afghan mountain brigade is a clear indication of how concerned they are about purported cross-border threats, the amount of media attention the issue received misleadingly suggested something along the lines of an international Chinese base akin to the one in Djibouti, rather than mere funding for a base that would be manned by Afghan – not Chinese – soldiers.
Tajikistan, which, given its longer border with Afghanistan, is more vulnerable than China, sometimes expresses its concerns about deteriorating security (see for example here) and on several occasions has closed its official border crossings to Afghanistan. (18) However, such reactions usually have no broader impact, though they can cause serious problems for Afghans in the sparsely-populated border districts who depend on trade with Tajikistan. One explanation may be that Tajik reactions, unlike those of the Chinese, do not garner major headlines or have much effect upon external funding (19). But Tajikistan, though concerned about alleged Tajik extremists in Afghan Badakhshan, appears to assess unlikely cross-border threats more soberly and realistically than either Russia or China.
The impression given by USFOR-A press releases of airstrikes targeting a Uyghur terror organisation threatening to launch cross-border attacks from Badakhshan does not accord with reality and amounts to tilting at windmills. There is no indication that the latest airstrikes wounded or killed any Uyghurs. Furthermore, information about the few Uyghur extremists in Badakhshan, as well as whether they have any affiliation with either the ETIM, TIP or any other group, is scarce and ambiguous. But even if there is some organisational affiliation, given the near-impossibility of any insurgents making their way across the border into China and the absence of insurgent activity along the Afghan–Tajik border in Badakhshan, it is hard to take seriously any claims that they pose a credible cross-border threat.
Why USFOR-A nonetheless chose to adopt the narrative of striking ETIM remains unclear. In an e-mail from the Resolute Support Press Desk to co-author Franz J Marty, dated 13 February 2018, USFOR-A declined to comment. Several diplomatic sources in Kabul mused that it might have been to demonstrate that the US is addressing (empty) concerns of a spill-over from Afghan Badakhshan into western China and Tajikistan to pre-empt any possible Chinese or Russian meddling in Afghanistan. Or it might has been some quid pro quo move to gain Chinese or Russian support in other theatres. More cynically, it may simply have been an attempt to justify striking Taleban targets in a remote area few Americans have ever heard of (and where no US or NATO troops are deployed) by tying it into a narrative of transnational counterterrorism efforts.
Despite USFOR-A describing the latest operations as an expansion of their air campaign to Badakhshan and the north, there have been no reports about further airstrikes in Badakhshan. It therefore remains to be seen whether the latest US airstrikes were an anomaly or indeed the start of a broader campaign across the north.
* Dr Ted Callahan is an anthropologist and a Donald R Beall Fellow in the Defense Analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School. He has travelled extensively in the Tajik, Chinese and Afghan Pamirs, including nearly two years spent living in the Wakhan Corridor carrying out his PhD research. From 2014-17, he was based in Faizabad, Badakhshan as a risk management advisor to the German government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.
** Franz J Marty is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan, and focuses on security and military issues. He has visited Badakhshan (on the Afghan and Tajik sides) several times, including a one-month stay in the Wakhan Corridor. He can be followed @franzjmarty on twitter.
Edited by Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kouvo
(1) Uyghurs claim to be the original inhabitants of what is today the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the far west of China, which is sometimes referred to as East Turkistan. Uyghurs, speaking a Turkic language and being predominantly Sunni Muslims, are linguistically, ethnically and culturally distinct from the Han Chinese, the largest of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups (minzu, 民族). The fears of Han Chinese domination, combined with the strictures imposed by the Chinese state, have bred resentment and sometimes violence in Uyghur communities. However, labelling all such violent acts ‘terrorist’ would be an oversimplification, as researchers note that many violent incidents appear “to be spontaneous acts of frustration with authorities, rather than premeditated, politically motivated violence [ie terrorism].” The same researchers also state that disaffected Uyghurs inside Xinjiang and Uyghur jihadists who have left their homeland seem to be distinct groups. This dispatch solely focuses on Uyghur extremists in Afghan Badakhshan and not on Uyghur extremism in other places.
(2) According to one unpublished report, there were only two US airstrikes in Badakhshan during the whole of 2017, but already at least three such strikes alone as of early February 2018. There have also not been many Afghan Air Force strikes in Badakhshan in the past, with the mentioned report only indicating three such strikes during the whole of 2017.
(3) The mentioned communiqué released by USFOR-A stated that “[d]uring these strikes, a U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress dropped 24 precision guided munitions on Taliban fighting positions, setting a record of the most guided munitions ever dropped from a B-52. The aircraft has played a leading role in Air Force operations for decades, and was recently reconfigured with a conventional rotary launcher to increase its reach and lethality.” USFOR-A have significantly increased their air campaign in Afghanistan in the wake of the new US South Asia strategy that was announced in August 2017 (see here).
(4) E-mail reply from Resolute Support Press Desk to co-author Franz J Marty, dated 13 February 2018; Interview with Major General Dawlat Waziri, spokesman of the Afghan Ministry of Defence, conducted by co-author Franz J Marty on 14 February 2018.
(5) The US B-52 Stratofortresses are stationed at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
(6) USFOR-A press releases dated 6 February 2018 and 8 February 2018; e-mail reply from Resolute Support Press Desk to co-author Franz J Marty, dated 13 February 2018.
(7) Al Jazeera quoted sources as describing one of the extradited men, Israel Ahmet, as a honest businessman. An official of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service, reportedly said that Ahmet “was detained for lacking legal documentation and carrying counterfeit money.” Elsewhere the article states that Ahmet was “flagged as a spy,” though there is no information given that would link him to violent extremist.
(8) The majority of the Central Asian militants displaced from North Waziristan to south-eastern Afghanistan had reportedly joined Mullah Dadullah and the self-declared Islamic State (Daesh) in Zabul province, where most of them were swiftly crushed in fighting with the Taleban in November 2015 (for the fighting in general see here and AAN analysis here and for further information paragraphs 33 and 34 of the Seventh Report of the [UN] Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, dated 5 October 2016, found here).
(9) In one incident in April 2015, insurgents reportedly beheaded at least 28 members of Afghan government forces after they had been taken prisoner (see here).
(10) On 3 September 2002, the US State Department added the ETIM to the list of “foreign individuals and entities that commit, or pose a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism” and whose “financial support network” can therefore be targeted under Executive Order 13224. The ETIM is not designated by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organizations; ie it is designated as a terrorist organisation that is subject to sanctions, which are, however, less strict than sanctions against Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
(11) In fact, after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, when China began to push for the designation of the ETIM as a terrorist organisation, it indicated an amalgamate of over 40 “Eastern Turkistan” organisations that “have engaged themselves in terrorist violence to varying degrees, both overtly and covertly,” but the same Chinese report mentions that only eight of them (one of which is ETIM) “openly advocate violence in their political platforms.”
(12) These examples all pre-date the US-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 and would have little, if any impact on the current situation. In this regard, allegations that ETIM militants had fought alongside al-Qaida and the Taleban during the initial phase of the US-led intervention in 2001 are ambiguous (see here and here).
(13) E-mail reply from Resolute Support Press Desk to co-author Franz J Marty, 13 February 2018.
(14) The mentioned videos were obtained by the co-authors; they are no longer online.
(15) See HW Tilman, “Two Mountains and a River”, Cambridge University Press, 1949. Tilman was also arrested as a ‘spy’.
(16) For example, a New York Times article from late 2014 noted that, given Chinese security concerns, “the Afghans have sensed an opportunity to secure a new, rich benefactor.” And indeed in October 2014 Afghan President Ashraf Ghani returned from China on his first official trip abroad as president with a pledge of 330 million US dollars in aid to the end of 2017 (in the previous 13 years, China had given a total of 250 million US dollars in aid to Afghanistan).
(17) For example, an AFP report stating that the alleged base will be built in the Wakhan does not give any specific source for this location but seems to speculate that because of the joint patrols and the temporary presence of Chinese patrol troops in the Wakhan, a ‘Chinese’ base will also be constructed there. Even if a Chinese-financed base should actually be constructed (which is, as explained in the main text, uncertain), it is unlikely that it will be in the Wakhan, as Major General Waziri and other sources confirmed that the base would be for a unit of the Afghan National Army (which has no presence in the Wakhan) and not the Afghan Border Police (which has a small presence in the Wakhan). Other unconfirmed reports suggested Zebak district, among others, as a possible location.
(18) For example, at the end of December 2017/beginning of January 2018, Tajikistan (at least partially) closed its main border crossing in Panj-e Poyon (in the Tajiki province of Khatlon) with Sher Khan Bandar (Afghanistan, province of Kunduz) (see here for the closure; and here for the re-opening) (it could not be determined, whether the closure also included other Afghan-Tajik border crossings). In general, Tajik border closings sometimes appear rather random with unclear or questionable reasons.
(19) Tajikistan is considered the poorest of the former Soviet Republics. As an example of its reliance on outside funding in security matters, reports from September 2016 indicated that China financed the construction of new border guard bases and outposts.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020