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China’s “Anti-Terrorism” Alliance Puts Afghan Rights at Risk

China has “anti-terrorism” plans for Afghanistan. And they don’t bode well for human rights.

Published in: Hasht e Subh Daily

Last week in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani endorsed a proposal by the visiting Chinese military chief, Gen. Fang Fenghui, for Afghanistan to join China, Pakistan and Tajikistan in an “anti-terrorism” alliance. And now, national security advisor Mr. Hanif Atmar is in Peking for security discussions with high-level Chinese officials, including Gen. Fang. General Fang’s interest in these three neighboring countries is partly geographical—their shared border with China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

It’s understandable that China, Pakistan and Tajikistan all fear the spillover security effects of the continuing war in Afghanistan. But General Fang’s rhetoric about how they should collaborate to “fight terrorism” is effectively code for imposing repressive security measures and clamping down on domestic dissent—in other words, the same strategy China has pursued in Xinjiang.  No one at the gathering raised concerns about China’s long record of ethnic discrimination, religious repression and other abuses in Xinjiang, which has fostered profound alienation among the province’s Muslim Uighur population. 

Afghanistan, which is seeking Chinese military assistance in the form of aircraft and radar equipment, and has been courting Chinese investment, has already signaled that it’s willing to go along. In January 2015 it extradited to China several Uighurs, even though it put them at grave risk for torture. Eager to see such efforts continue, China has promised over US$70 million in military aid for Afghanistan under the new proposal.

Both China and Pakistan are part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, together with the US and Afghanistan, which has stepped up efforts in recent months to jumpstart peace talks in Afghanistan. So far, the group has not succeeded in getting the Taliban to the table.  It’s unclear what influence China will have in these talks over its longtime ally Pakistan, whose relationship to extremist armed groups has been duplicitous at best. In their approach to internal security, however, China and Pakistan have much in common.

Following a May 2014 attack by unidentified assailants in two SUVs on a busy market in the regional capital, Urumqi, that killed 31 people, the Chinese government announced a year-long counterterrorism crackdown in Xinjiang. Within the first month, police arrested 380 suspects and prosecuted more than 300 people for terror-related offenses.

Pakistan  responded with similar draconian measures to  the December 2014 attack by the Pakistani Taliban on a school in Peshawar that left at least 148 people dead, including 130 children. They included issuing a national counterterrorism plan that empowers security forces to kill with impunity,  creating secret military courts to try terrorism suspects, and  lifting  an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty, resulting in the execution of 360 prisoners since January 2015.  Whatever impact these measures will have in combatting extremist violence, they have already undermined legitimate government institutions and basic rights, creating a vacuum extremist groups can exploit.

Tajikistan is following a similar trajectory. Its respect for human rights has worsened dramatically in the past year as the government declared the country’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, a terrorist organization and banned it. The authorities have used that prohibition as a pretext to imprison approximately 200 opposition activists, arrest several lawyers and at least one journalist, and harass nongovernmental organizations.

China, Pakistan and Tajikistan do not provide the model Afghanistan needs to address the growing Taliban threat while upholding fundamental rights. In 2015, the Taliban managed to wrest control of or contest more of the country than at any time since 2001. An important factor behind those gains has been popular discontent over abusive security forces and corruption. Afghanistan has already taken missteps by putting essential rights at risk, and more missteps will only fuel resentment and instability.

A few months ago, an adviser to President Ghani countered concerns I expressed to him about threats to journalists by noting that Afghanistan had greater media freedom than any of its neighbors—hardly setting a high bar for freedom of the press.  Threats to Afghan media have increased since 2014, and not just from the Taliban. The Afghan government has failed to investigate or prosecute  violence against journalists, and has significantly restricted the media from reporting from certain areas. 

The Afghan government has also further curtailed the rights of detainees. Torture in detention by the security forces is a longstanding problem in Afghanistan. Despite the United Nations’ yearly reports and recommendations to end rampant torture in detention facilities, the government has yet to prosecute any officials implicated in torture. A new law permitting indefinite detention of security suspects without trial significantly increases the risk of detainee mistreatment and abuse.

The predatory behavior of pro-government militias—lauded by some warlords as an essential bulwark against the Taliban—has been critically important in the Taliban’s success in gaining territory this past year. Despite Ghani’s promises to rein in such groups, in recent months some government officials have actively recruited new  “national uprising” forces and other irregular troops, feeding into a vicious circle of alienating the population and creating more fertile ground for the Taliban.

Responding to the Taliban threat with repression and abuse is dangerously self-defeating. It should not be a pretext for crushing dissent or evading accountability.  Instead, the government should respond in a manner that respects international human rights and humanitarian law, embrace inclusion and reform to address the problems that fuel armed opposition, and build sound judicial and other governmental institutions to offer redress and channel legitimate political aims.

Afghanistan is at a critical juncture. Continuing reforms and preserving fundamental rights is key to a durable peace in the country. The Afghanistan government should make clear to General Fang that the Afghan people value their rights and freedoms too much to sacrifice them in a dubious counterterrorism alliance.

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