Pakistan guards China’s Great Wall against jihadists

From the images which illustrate the pages of the Majma’ al-tawarikh, the magnificent historical manuscript that emerged from the city of Herat around 1425CE, we may attempt to imagine how it may have appeared: the grim-faced communist, president Xi Jinping, metamorphosed into a cherubic archangel Gabriel with red and purple wings, appearing, deus ex machina, to save the prophet of a new, Islamic world order, Maulana Masood Azhar Alvi, from the torments of a tyrant’s prison.

Pakistan guards China’s  Great Wall against jihadists

A file image of Maulana Masood Azhar. Reuters

In 2016, a Jaish-e-Mohammed fidayeen unit had stormed the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, and hoping to avert a crisis, Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif jailed the jihadist leader.

“India and its paid agents were going after him. The Sharif government registered a case against him and was arresting his associates, pro-India media was running a campaign against him—China intervened and declined the Indian request to put him on the list of terrorists,” wrote the Jaish ideologue Naveed Masood Hashmi.
“This is how god works,” the cleric exulted, “this is the way of the almighty.”

This week, dismayed Indians have struggled to make sense of China’s latest shoot-down of efforts to have Azhar listed as a terrorist by the United Nations. Like its predecessors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government built the case for proscribing Azhar on high-principles appeals, arguing there ought not be double standards on terrorism.
These appeals to universal moral values, the kind prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru would have been proud of, have great persuasive force: it’s hard, after all, to make the case for popping babies in microwave ovens. But, the world does not run on high moral principles. Behind China’s actions is the relentless pursuit of its national interests.

In 2017, president Xi vowed to build “a great wall of iron” to protect Muslim-majority Xinjiang province from jihadist violence. The end of the war in Syria is a security nightmare for Beijing. Estimates of how many Xinjiang-origin jihadists there were in Syria vary —“some say 1,000 or 2,000, 2,000 or 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000, and some say even more”, Beijing’s special envoy Xie Xiaoyan said last summer.

Ledgers recovered by US forces, recording details of women members of the Islamic State, bear out these numbers. Of the 1,139 women listed, 76 reported Xinjiang as their place of origin, making China’s far-western region the third most common place of origin after Dagestan with 200, and Turkey with 124.

To put these numbers in context, consider this: 23 Indians are known to have joined in the fighting in Syria; Pakistan and Indonesia a few hundred each. Elsewhere in Asia, the potential risks have been demonstrated: it took the Philippines armed forces five months of brutal fighting to recapture the city of Marawi from Islamic State fighters.

Beijing fears that the jihadists evicted from Syria could end up on its peripheries and then use Afghanistan and Pakistan to launch an insurgency in Xinjiang.

From the biography of Abu Omar al-Turkistani, a senior commander in al-Qaeda’s ethnic-Uighur affiliate, the Turkistan Islamic Party, we know Xinjiang jihadists do indeed have deep roots in the region. Xinjiang-born al-Turkistani fought with Osama bin Laden against the United States at Tora Bora, and went on to spend a decade in a Pakistani jail. Then he returned to Afghanistan, joined a group linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan before moving to Syria to fight alongside al-Qaeda in Aleppo and Latakia. He was killed in a January 2017 drone strike in northwestern Syria.

Beijing has reacted with remarkable focus to the slightest hint of Islamist challenge, cracking down on visible signs of religious expression in Xinjiang, like long beards and veils. It is also flooding the region with cash and migrants from elsewhere in China.

That hasn’t, however, put an end to the problem: the 2016 car-bombing of the Chinese mission in Bishkek, the 2015 slaughter at the Aksu coal mines, the 2014 killings in Kunming, and the 2013 bombing at Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square are all evidence of a deep threat.

Iron walls to block threat from across the Karokaram mountains is critical to China, and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency key to building them. The ISI can not only contain jihadists inside Pakistan, but exercise influence over their one-time patrons, like the Afghan Taliban.

For Beijing, irking India is a small price to pay for keeping the ISI happy, especially when the debate concerns a terrorist who has the great virtue of never having spoken out against Beijing’s persecution of Xinjiang’s Muslims.

Even though China does not want the instability and economic costs that would come with India-Pakistan conflict, anything short of an outright war is an acceptable price to pay.
New Delhi needs to make a dispassionate appraisal of what sanctioning Azhar is actually worth. The sanctioning of the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s parent organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and its chief, Hafiz Saeed, after 26/11 hasn’t forced Pakistan to shut down either its military infrastructure or charitable operations.
Even though the United States’ treasury department has had stringent sanctions in place against Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar for years, it has done nothing to stop him from living in all but plain sight in Karachi.

The Jaish, it is often forgotten, has been sanctioned, as an organisation, since 2001 but that hasn’t stopped it from building a seminary in Bahawalpur, running training camps, or staging attacks.
Indeed, the UN 1267 committee’s annual monitoring reports show that the Taliban have expanded their narcotics operations and revenues, despite international proscription. The bankruptcy of the global sanctions regime put in place after 9/11 is no more graphically illustrated by the fact that its principal target, al-Qaeda, today controls exponentially greater territory than it did then.

Fancy diplomatic moves play well on television but aren’t going to make India more secure. New Delhi needs to focus on growing the country’s counter-terrorism capacity and building smart alliances with countries facing the same enemies such as Afghanistan and Iran.

Leverage and capacity win wars, not words. The post-9/11 world is a lot like the world before it—unprincipled and unscrupulous. India has to learn to work in the world that exists, not the world it wishes for.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 15:01:33 IST

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