The Sinification of Afghan Counterinsurgency

14 September 2018 – Maryland, USA

by Dr. Francis Grice

Recent reports suggest that the Chinese military has begun construction of a military base in the narrow Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan that borders mainland China. Rather predictably, the Chinese government has denied the claim and declared instead that the military is active in the area purely to help the Afghan armed forces with building a mountain brigade for counterinsurgency operations. Regardless of which statement is true, the outcome is much the same: China is stepping up its counterinsurgency presence and activities in Afghanistan.

There are numerous national and international risks and benefits for China from this escalation of their presence in Afghanistan, which are explored in this sister article. Moving beyond these broad ramifications, however, it is worth giving some detailed consideration to the implications from a counterinsurgency point of view, which are be profound in themselves.

Afghanistan

An increase in Chinese involvement and guidance could help to shift the character of Afghan counterinsurgency from the American model to the Chinese approach. This change will be far from cosmetic because Chinese counterinsurgency tends to emphasize a more totalitarian model of pacification than the American version. Specifically, the Chinese model tends to embrace the deployment of larger numbers of military and paramilitary forces, installation of comprehensive surveillance apparatus, infiltration of religious institutions and other organizations with potential ties to the insurgents, and mass importation of loyal Han Chinese settlers to alter the demographics of the area towards the government. In contrast, current-day American counterinsurgency doctrine advocates primarily for somewhat smaller troop deployments, the controlled use of force, the empowerment of the local population to achieve self-sufficiency when it comes to defending themselves against the insurgents, and generally making a lighter footprint within conflict areas.

Related to this shift in strategy, there may be a noticeable increase in human rights violations conducted by Afghanistan in the name of counterinsurgency. The Chinese government’s record on respecting non-combatants during its counterinsurgency operations is hardly commendable, with numerous abuses against civilians reported by human rights groups, researchers, and UN observer missions within both Xinjiang and Tibet. Most recently, the UN has accused China of turning Xinjiang into a giant prison camp for its Muslim Uyghur population, which comprises roughly 45% of the population in the province. Regardless of whether the Chinese begin implementing counterinsurgency operations within Afghanistan itself, or whether it simply advises the Afghan military on how to conduct its own such operations, there is likely therefore to be a shift towards greater levels of indiscriminate use of violence, mass intimidation, mass incarceration, and other methods that breach basic human rights.

The insurgency in Afghanistan is also likely to become yet further internationalized. This is a process that has been building for some years now, with Iran and Russia both increasing their presence. China’s expansion into its eastern regions will add yet another actor into the fray, moving the situation in the country closer towards a multipolar proxy conflict in which the United States and China support the government independently of one another and Russia and Iran do the same for the insurgents. This could complicate an already convoluted conflict yet further.

Despite the coming greater involvement of China in favor of the Afghanistan government, however, the likelihood of the Taliban being defeated, and staying defeated, remains remote. Multiple great powers, including Britain, Russia, and the United States have attempted to pacify resistance forces in Afghanistan over the centuries, with little enduring success. The Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 is particularly relevant here because the Soviet forces attempted to implement many of the same kinds of violent counterinsurgency methods that we are likely to see used or encouraged by the Chinese military, with calamitous results.

Moreover, while the Chinese government has been at least somewhat successful in keeping a lid on the religious and nationalist unrest it has faced within Tibet and Xinjiang, it enjoys several advantages in these territories that are absent in Afghanistan. In particular, the Chinese government makes the claim, albeit quite controversially, that Tibet and Xinjiang are historically a part of China. This makes it easier for them to maintain domestic support for their actions, to encourage Han Chinese to migrate into the conflict area, and to avoid meaningful international reprisals by operating behind the shield of sovereignty. In contrast, Afghanistan has no historical meaning for the Chinese people, making their willingness to support the government through a protracted campaign likely to be much lower and reducing their propensity to want to migrate into the country. Furthermore, any actions by China in Afghanistan cannot be brushed aside as matters of internal affairs, which increases the risk of a major global backlash against China should it try to commit itself too aggressively into the conflict zone.

Yet, one scenario does hold a greater promise of success within Afghanistan than the others. If the Chinese can limit themselves to occupying and controlling just the Wakhan Corridor itself, then this might be an achievable goal.  The population of this narrow pass is only about 10,000 people and this is a number that the Chinese military could much more easily manage than taking on the much larger general Afghan population. Other advantages include that the pass is cut off from most of Afghanistan, with the only entrance point being a narrow space across the Hindu Kush Mountains; that the influence of the Taliban in the area currently is somewhere between low and non-existent; and that the form of Islam practiced is generally moderate in character. Possession of the pass would still be strategically useful for the Chinese from a counterinsurgency perspective, as it would still enable them to sever the connections between the insurgents in Xinjiang and those in Afghanistan, as discussed below.

If China can limit its ambitions in Afghanistan, then its chances of successfully defining, establishing, and either avoiding a hostile reaction or holding onto its interests in the face of militant resistance increase. Yet, with an increasingly aggressive foreign policy being demonstrated by the Chinese government as a matter of course, it seems unlikely that they will restrain themselves in this way. Instead, they are likely to push China down that that same well-trodden path that so many other rising imperial powers have pursued when it comes to occupation and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, with predictably tragic results.

Xinjiang

While the potential changes to counterinsurgency in Afghanistan outlined above are certainly notable, the ramifications that may matter most to the Chinese government relate to its own security situation in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, located inside China’s current international borders. The Chinese have faced resistance to their rule in Xinjiang since it was occupied in 1949, but in recent decades this dissent has mushroomed in size and intensity, resulting in a dangerous mixture of bloody riots, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism. Despite investing considerable time and resources into pacifying the region, the Chinese government has managed only to partially contain rather than wholly eliminate the problem.

To justify this failure, the Chinese government has blamed a variety of external Uyghur and Islamic extremist groups for supporting the militants in Xinjiang with training, political support, and strategic coordination. Just some of the groups so scapegoated include the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, the World Uyghur Congress, al-Qaeda and ISIS. Some of these groups are adamant in their rejection of the idea that they have taken part in promoting any terrorist or guerrilla warfare against China, but others are quite forthright about being involved in this way.

While Chinese government claims about outside interference are undoubtedly exaggerated, there have been a growing number of impartial reports about militants travelling to the Middle East to fight with ISIS and other extremist groups, receiving training while abroad, and then either returning or preparing to return home as a bigger threat. These stories are sufficient in number to suggest that the ties between Xinjiang and various external groups may indeed be growing and having some impact back in Xinjiang, even if it is lesser in scale than the Chinese government claims.

As a result, it is fair to say that if the Chinese government manages to successfully sever some or all of the links between Xinjiang and Afghanistan then this would damage the Uyghur resistance movement in Xinjiang to at least some degree. The impact of this achievement may, however, be more muted than they would like the world to believe.

Feature Photo:  Chinese Military, – Times Asia, Flickr, 2018

Inset Photo:  Chinese Police officers on alert – PixaBay, 2018

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting

Dr. Francis Grice is an Assistant Professor in Political Science and International Studies at McDaniel College. He holds a PhD in defence studies from King’s College London. His areas of specialization include Asian security and foreign policy, international relations, security studies, leadership, and political violence. His most recent book, The Myth of Mao Zedong and Modern Insurgency, was published in 2018.