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China, Pakistan, and the "Taliban Syndrome"

Author(s): M. Ehsan Ahrari

Source: Asian Survey, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Jul. - Aug., 2000), pp. 658-671
Published by: University of California Press
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M. Ehsan Ahrari
The "Taliban syndrome"-the movement to create an
Islamic orderin Afghanistan-is likely to threatenPakistan's strategicinterests and domestic stability. Ideologically, this syndrome is a blend of strict
observanceof Islam based on Saudi Arabia's salafiyya (puritanical)tradition.
Social practices observed by highly conservative elements of the Afghan
tribes and lower middle classes of the Subcontinentallow virtually no room
for interpretationor deviation.
Islamic forces of Pakistanhave created and nurturedthis syndromein the
madrasahs (religious schools) of Pakistan,where the Taliban ("students"in
Farsi) from Afghanistan received their education. Since the chief thrust of
this education is on Islam and the need for jihad (holy war) to establish an
Islamic government,the Talibanmembersbecome firm believers and fervent
practitionersof this training. During the formativeyears of their exposure to
power politics of Afghanistan,the Taliban had to fight a numberof military
battles to reunify that country. This fact validated the emphasis on militancy
in these madrasahs. The "Talibansyndrome"also refers to the ever-escalating role of radical Islamists in the domestic and foreign policy of Pakistan
and other contiguous states. Since this syndrome recognizes no borders, it
zealously seeks to establish an Islamic form of governmentanywhere in the
region. For instance, if the Taliban remains in power in Afghanistan and
their allies in the sporadic civil war in Tajikistangain an upper hand, then
Kazakhstanand Kyrgyzstanwould have ample reasons to worry aboutpolitical instability within their own borders. Uzbekistan, despite all its fervor
againstIslamist forces of change, also remainsvulnerable. It is worth noting

M. Ehsan Ahrariis Professor of National Security and Strategyat the

Joint and Combined WarfightingSchool, Armed Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Virginia.
Asian Survey,40:4, pp. 658-671. ISSN: 0004-4687
? 2000 by The Regents of the University of California/Society. All rights reserved.
Send Requests for Permission to Reprint to: Rights and Permissions, University of California
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that in April 2000, the presidents of Kazakhstan,Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan,

and Turkmenistansigned an agreementto conduct "joint operationsto combat terrorism, political and religious extremism, multinational organized
crime, and other security threats."1
The People's Republic of China (PRC) has special reasons for concern
over the potentialeffects of the Talibansyndromeon the political stability of
its Xinjiang Province, where the Uighur Muslims are seeking to win independence. One report about continuing political unrest in Xinjiang observes,
"Separatistsentiment, never fully quelled, has been reignited in recent years
by Iran's Islamic revolution and by the newly independentCentralAsian nations created in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse."2 Another recent
report on the escalating political turbulencein this province notes, "China
pins the unrestin Xinjiang on a small numberof 'separatists,''terrorists,'and
'religious extremists' who it accuses of having links with 'foreign hostile
forces' seeking to split the motherland."It goes on to state, "Most observers
believe that the security situation in Xinjiang is far more serious than in Tibet. Local Chinese leaders have talked of 'a life and death struggle' with the

Precise figures on the total Muslim population in China are not available.
Informationreleased for the years 1912-49 listed it to be around50 million,
but data issued in 1990 placed the total number of Muslims at around 17
million, a result of migrationto neighboringCentralAsian republics in part
spurredby the influx of Han Chinese promotedby the government. According to RichardDe Angelis, the Muslim population in China may be divided
into two large groups:Hui-who are descendents from CentralAsian, Arab,
and Persian Muslim immigrants who intermarriedwith Han Chinese-and
Turkic Muslims of China's Western province. These include Uighur,
Khazak, Tajik, and Kyrgyz groups.4
Muslims of Turkic origin primarilylive in Xinjiang ("the new frontier,"in
Chinese). The area is in the middle of Kazakhstan,Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan,Afghanistan,and Pakistan.The landmass of Xinjiang is one-sixth
1. "Russia: Security Council 'Assertive' on Doctrine, Caspian" (in Russian), Kominersant
(Moscow), in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), Daily Report/CentralEurasia,
April 22, 2000.
2. "Police Battle Terrorists in China's Restive Northwest," Associated Press, August 29,
3. John Gittings, "Chinese 'Brutality' Used to Crush Ethnic Dissent," Guardian (London),
April 21, 1999.
4. RichardDe Angelis, "Muslims and Chinese Political Culture,"Muslim World 87:2 (April
1997), pp. 151-68.




of all of China. The population of Xinjiang includes the non-Muslim Han

and variousgroups of TurkicMuslims (the Uighur, Kazakh,Kyrgyz, Uzbeks,
and Tartars). The Uighurs are reported to be largest group. Xinjiang has
plenty of naturalresources,including precious minerals,coal, and petroleum.
Confirmed oil reserves are "expected to reach 6.5 billion tons, along with
billions of cubic meters of naturalgas."5
The record of the Uighur independenceis intermittent. It was marredby
conquest by the Mongol and then by the Manchus. After conqueringChina,
the Manchus invaded EasternTurkistanin 1759 and ruled it until 1862. The
Eastern Turkistanis (Uighurs) with the help of the Ottomans expelled the
Manchus in 1863. The Uighurs briefly established the independentstate of
EasternTurkistan. China, with the help of Britain, regained control of Eastern Turkistanin 1877. The area was formally annexed to China in 1884 and
given its present name, Xinjiang. The Uighurs have not only maintained
theirreligious identity throughoutthe long occupationby China, but also kept
alive their aspirationto become independentonce again.
Traditionally,Muslim groups in China have maintained their distinction
from the mainstreamHan population, largely as a result of their affiliation
with Islam. Although the Hui became more assimilatedinto the Han culture
than their Turkic counterparts,they still maintainedtheir separate religious
identity. The culturaldifferencesbetween the Han and Chinese Muslims (especially Uighurs) are acute and may not be reconciled, since the Chinese
political regime inhibits cultural and political pluralism. Thus, ethnic and
religious minoritieswho wish to maintaina separateidentity undergorepression and hardshipto sustain their very existence. The regime strives to assimilate them into the mainstreamHan culture.
According to De Angelis, the Han social ordergives primacy to a Chinese
society "foundedon the political, social, and religious premises of filial piety
and the Confucian ancestorcult." Chinese Muslims did "not accept the Confucian formulation of state and society." De Angelis argues that Muslims
"remainedalien to the largerculturewhile their sharedfaith led them to identify deeply with the largerworld communityof Islam, the universal Ummah."
Because of their unique religious perspective, Muslims were "scorned by
Confuciansociety," and they, in turn,"turnedmore to their faith as a basis of
their identity." The northwesternand southwestern parts of China experienced Muslim unrest in the latter half of the 19th century. Until the communist takeover of 1949, the general attitude of the various Chinese
governmentstowardMuslims of Chinaoscillated "betweena policy of assim5. "EasternTurkistan:NaturalResources,"EasternTurkistanNational Freedom Center [June
9, 1999], on the World Wide Web at <http://>
June 30, 2000].


ilation and one of autonomy [that] resulted in hardshipfor the Muslims and
their continued mistrust of the Han administrations."6
In the early years after the communist takeover, during the relaxation
phase of the HundredFlowers era in the PRC, a numberof secessionist Muslim rebellions erupted. China's Muslims suffered atrocities during the CulturalRevolution in the 1960s. As a result, many fled to the Turkicregions in
Soviet CentralAsia. The Shadian Incident that unfolded in 1967 led to the
closing down of several mosques and burning of Muslim religious books.
This incident formed part of a larger attemptto wipe out what the government termedthe Four Olds-old ideas, old culture,old customs, and old habits. Muslims in China, like MarranoJews under the Spanish Inquisition,
"prayedin secret at home. Their children pursued their study of the Quran
with their imams (Akhonds)in the evenings." Despite the repression, even
the fasting in the Muslim holy month of Ramadanwas observed. Conflicts
between the Han and Muslims escalated when the latter were compelled to
eat pork. According to some reports,"abominableacts of anti-religiouscoercion were perpetratedwhen pork bones were thrown into wells in order to
pollute irretrievablythe drinkingwater." Official reportssay 1,600 Hui Muslims were massacred and 4,400 Hui homes were destroyed in July 1975.
During the rampage, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) "used not only
guns and cannon, but also air bombings."7
After the fall of the Gang of Four in late 1976, the Chinese Communist
Party decided to ease tensions with Muslims. A documententitled "Circular
of Rehabilitationto the ShadianIncident"stated that this incident should not
have been dealt with as a "counterrevolutionaryrebellion." The circularadmitted that the use of militaryforce was "wrong"and declaredthat "the many
leaders and the people of Hui nationalitywho were involved in this incident
should be rehabilitated." The Chinese government also provided economic
assistance to widows and orphans of this brutal phase. In 1987, the party
committee of Yunnan "rectified the previous records" and exonerated the
leaders of the rebellion "from being treated as counterrevolutionaries."8
Nonetheless, afterthe emergence of five independentstates in CentralAsia
in the early 1990s, many Muslims in Xinjiang Province harbor their own
aspirations of independence. Moreover, the success of the Afghan mujahideen against the former Soviet Union has palpably encouragedthe Islamist
groups of Xinjiang.9 The increasedpoliticization of Uighurs in Xinjiang has
6. De Angelis, "Muslims and Chinese Political Culture,"pp. 156-160, passim.
7. The preceding discussion is extractedfrom RaphaelIsraeli, "A New Wave of Muslim Revivalism in China,"Journal of Muslim MinorityAffairs 17:2 (October 1997), pp. 269-82.
8. Ibid.
9. John Pomfret, "SeparatistsDefy Chinese Crackdown:Persistent Islamic Movement May
Have Help from Abroad,"WashingtonPost, January26, 2000.




caused a great deal of concern in China. The PRC has sought reassurances
from the Khazak and Kyrgyz governments and signed several agreements
ensuring border security. Despite these agreements,the leaders of the PRC
leaders remain wary of the potential escalation of Islamic resurgence in the
Muslim regions of their own country due to the continuing civil war in Afghanistanand the political instabilityin Tajikistan. There have been frequent
reports of clashes between Uighur separatists and Chinese government
forces. The most notable clash was the so-called Pinavuanjie Assault in
1992. The Chinese authorities,like their Soviet counterpartsin previous decades, described this incident as a battle with gangster groups. However,
since the clashing forces were identified as Hui Muslims, one cannot rule out
that this event was relatedto the separatistactivities. A year later, skirmishes
and turmoil broke out in 12 counties of Xinjiang. There was also a reportof
increased clashes between Chinese security forces and Uighur Islamist separatists in Xinjiang in January2000.
In light of these recurringincidents, a classified circularfrom government
sources in December 1999 discusses infiltrationof "Islamist militants from
Saudi Arabia, Iran, other Persian Gulf states, Turkey, and India." Hence,
Chinese officials stated that "they have strong reason to suspect that the
Uighur separatistsreceive help from abroad." They also suspect that explosives used in terroristincidents in Xinjiang were Chinese made but originally
"exportedto Pakistan and then re-exportedto Afghanistan.'"1

A View from Pakistan

The promotion of Islamic government within one society or its export to
neighboring countries may be studied by using David Lake's and Donald
Rothchild's concepts of "escalation"and "diffusion." According to these authors, escalation occurs "when a conflict in one countrybrings in new foreign
belligerents-whether neighbors or great powers." Diffusion occurs "when
ethnic violence in one state increases the probabilityof conflict in a second
state."11 In the context of this study, reasons for the intensification of the
conflict (i.e., escalation) in China are a blend of ethnic differences and the
desire of powerful militant groups to establish an Islamic government. For
Pakistanand Afghanistan,the reasons for escalation of conflict include ethnic
and sectariandifferences and the urge to create an Islamic government. Islamic orthodoxy-especially the predilections of a number of Sunni groups
to eradicate the Shias (Pakistan and Afghanistan) and followers of the
10. Ibid.
11. David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, "SpreadingFear: The Genesis of Transnational
Ethnic Conflict,"in The InternationalSpread of Ethnic Conflict,eds. David A. Lake and Donald
Rothchild (Princeton,N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 23-24.


Ahmadya sect in Pakistan-has also resulted in a high degree of turbulence

and bloodshed in both countries. Reasons underlying diffusion are the intense desire on the part of indigenous Islamic groups to establish Islamic
governmentsin a numberof CentralAsian countries. The Taliban as a force
of diffusion are actively involved in supportingthe Islamist groups in Central
Asia and in Xinjiang.
Members of the Taliban are Sunni Muslim, predominantlyof Pushtoon
origin. The Taliban practice of Islamic puritanism is nurtured in the
madrasahsof the Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Islam(JUI) in the northwesternprovince
of Pakistan where they received their religious education. The JUI-run
madrasahsfollow a theological line that is very similarto the Saudi salafiyya
tradition. Therefore, that party's religious and social thinking has heavily
influenced the socio-politico-religious character of the Taliban. Since the
1970s, the JUI has been known for its pursuitof Islamic orthodoxy,blended
with strict social and moral codes. As a religious nurturerand a political
supporterof the Taliban,the JUI has emerged as an importantorganizationin
Pakistan. On many occasions, the governmentof Pakistanfound itself competing with the JUI as well as another major Islamist party, the Jamaat-eIslami (JEI) for influence.
Even though the JEI is not directly involved in the religious education of
the Taliban, it has niche issues that serve as sources of its political power.
For instance, its position on the instrumentof jihad is well established. The
JEI, though, has shown willingness to enter into occasional political agreements with other political parties. The JEI's single-minded commitment to
the creationof an Islamic governmentin Pakistanbecame questionablewhen
it joined a coalition to establish democracyin the 1970s. The JEI's commitment to democracywas short-lived. For instance, the JEI became a vanguard
in a highly contentiousmovement that declaredthe Ahmadya sect in Pakistan
a non-Muslim entity. Moreover, during the dictatorshipof General Zia ulHaq, the JEI gained unprecedentedpolitical clout. Its constant endeavors to
Islamize Pakistan were in harmony with Zia's political objective of using
Islam to legitimize his own rule. Currently,the JEI still remains a leading
advocate for Islamization. As such, there are hardly any theological differences between the JEI and JUL. In fact, the JEI is very supportive of the
Taliban, both within and outside Pakistan.
The Taliban version of Islam may be depicted as a mixture of the Islamic
puritanism that is observed in Saudi Arabia and Afghan tribal practices.
However, it is importantto make two relatedpoints. First, these tribalpractices are not uniformlyfollowed by the entire Afghan society, which is more
nuanced in its approachto religion and societal affairs, especially as they
involve gender relations. Second, these characteristicstranscendthe formal
borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan and also prevail in the lower middle-




class Muslim families of the entire Subcontinent. In this environment, all

aspects of enlightenmentand secular education are perceived as antithetical
to Islam. For instance, the Taliban's insistence on the creationof an Islamic
state is an integralaspect of many Islamistpartiesin the Subcontinent. However, Talibanpracticesof banningfemale education,mandatingthe use of the
burqa (complete covering of a woman) as opposed to hijab (covering of the
face), or requirementthat men not even trim their beard are quintessentialto
the JUL. Taliban's strictrequirementsare not observed even in Saudi Arabia.
All religious parties of Pakistan, since the days of President Zia ul-Haq,
have been radicalized. The foremost responsibility for this radicalization
rests with Zia's decision to Islamize the Pakistanipolity. Pakistan's role in
the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation intensified the element of Islamic militancy. Since this war was portrayedin Pakistanas Islam's war on
the atheistic Soviet communists,the militant aspect of the jihad became popular within Pakistanisociety. The prominentroles played by the JUI and the
JEI in Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union enabled them to continue
political and jihadi activities to Islamize Pakistan after the cessation of the
Afghan war.
There also emerged in Pakistan other Sunni extremist parties, such as
Sipah-e-Sahabe-e-Pakistan(SSP, the Society for the soldiers of the companions of the Prophet),Markaz-e-Dawa-wal-Irshad(Center for Islamic invitation and guidance), the Lashkar-e-Tayba(Army of the faithful), and the
Harakat-ulAnsar (HUA). The HUA was renamed the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (Movement of religious fighters) after the U.S. labeled the HUA a
"terrorist"group. The last two groups were in the forefront of the Kargil
military action in Kashmir. A sad aspect of the Islamizationof the Pakistani
society also emerged in the form of sectarianhatredbetween the predominant
Sunni population and the Shiites, who constitute about 10%-15% of that
country. The Sunni puritanpartieshave been instrumentalin promotingsuch
hatred. For instance, the JUI has a well-establishedrecordof producingtreatises that "apostatizethe Shiite Islam."12 The JUI influence on the Taliban
explains the staunchanti-Shiitestance of the latter. This theological position
of the Talibanhas affected their treatmentof the Afghan Shiites. In turn,the
Taliban's anti-Shiite policies have poisoned their ties with Iran.
In response, the Shiites have formed extremistparties of their own. These
include Tahrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafariyya(Movement for the defense of
Jafari[Shia] law) and Sipah-e-Mohammad(Mohammad'ssoldiers). The latter group was specifically established to eradicatethe SSP and succeeded in
assassinatingthe founderof the SSP, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. The spiral of vio12. Eijaz Haider, "Pakistan's Afghan Policy and Its Fallout," Central Asia Monitor, no. 5
(1998), pp. 1-6.


lence furtherratchetedupwardwhen an equally fanatic anti-Shia group, the

Lashar-e-Jhangi(Army of Jhangvi), came into existence in the aftermathof
Jhangvi's assassination. The cumulative effect of this sectarian-basedviolence is that Pakistan is edging closer to chaos.
While the Pakistanigovernmentremains a strong supporterof the Taliban
groups in Afghanistan, it has not been able to influence their political or
religious agenda. The Taliban have become almost an indispensable group
for Pakistanbecause Pakistanneeds their manpowerin the Kashmirconflict.
According to one report, the Taliban's growing significance, along with its
strong JUI connection, has enabled the former to achieve "a level of social
integrationwith the Pakistani society that is scary."13 The overall outcome
of this type of alliance might be creating a powerful momentum toward an
attainmentof Islamic puritanismthat might tear apartthe very social fabric of
that society.
Pakistan's heavy involvement in the ongoing Afghan civil war appearsto
be influenced by a numberof factors. First, as a country that lacks strategic
depth vis-a-vis India, Pakistan seeks various avenues of building spheres of
influence and alliances in its northernneighborhood. Moreover, Pakistanis
also driven by the fact that if it reduced its efforts at strategic influence in
CentralAsia-given the zero-sum naturethat both South Asian countries assign to strategic affairs affecting each other-then India would emerge as a
main beneficiary of this ineptitude. Second, given the complexity of the ethnic politics of Afghanistan,Tajikistan,and Uzbekistan and its linkages with
Pakistan,no Pakistanigovernmentcan afford to remain a neutralobserverof
the unpredictablepower play in Afghanistan and elsewhere in CentralAsia.
Third, the great Sunni-Shia divide of the Islamic world holds a special
meaning in Southwest and CentralAsia. Shiite Iran constantly watches the
strategicquicksandin which various Sunni groups are maneuveringto remain
dominant. Whichever Sunni groups become powerful, they are likely to affect the fortunesof the Shia minoritiesin Afghanistanand elsewhere in Muslim CentralAsia. The Shiite groups in Afghanistanare suffering a great deal
since the Talibanhas brandedthem as infidels. Therefore,Irancannot afford
to watch passively while Shia groups are either annihilatedby the Talibanor
exiled into Iran. By the same token, Pakistancannot lower its own supportof
the Taliban. If the anti-Talibanforces were to gain an upper hand in the
Afghan civil war, Iran's strategic influence would be enhanced. Thus, the
Taliban has strainedthe ties between Pakistan and Iran. These ties promise
to remain under stress until the Taliban and the Iranian government reach
some form of accommodation. In this context, Pakistan has little choice
other than remainingheavily involved in the Afghan civil war.
13. Ibid., p. 5.




An essential side effect of Pakistan's military supportof the Taliban has

also emerged in relation to its growing appeasementof indigenous Islamist
puritangroups. The influence of the overall Taliban syndrome on the strategic affairs of Pakistanis palpably on the rise in the aftermathof the leading
role played by the Taliban and their Islamist supportersof Pakistan in the
Kargil conflict of May-July 1999. This reality was not at all affected even
by the militarycoup of that Octoberin Pakistan. As Pakistantries to come to
grips with the Taliban syndrome, its next door neighbor, China, watches
closely how its own Muslim population in the Xinjiang will be affected by
this seemingly growing radicalizationof Islamic parties in the region.

The Taliban, Islamic Internationalism,and

Its RegionalImplications
Notwithstandingthe growing instabilityof Pakistan,Islamic internationalism
seems to be popularizingthe Taliban syndrome in Pakistanand the contiguous areas of Central Asia and Xinjiang. This phenomenon is based on the
notion of a Muslim Ummah. It de-emphasizessuch exclusivistic characteristics of a modern-daynation-stateas nationality,ethnicity, and tribalidentity.
The Talibanpresumes that all Muslim men and women are brothersand sisters in faith and that all must work together to improve the welfare of the
Ummah. This theological position is common to all Islamist parties sympathetic to the Taliban.
In describing this theological emphasis, it should be pointed out that nationalism and ethnic or tribal identities have not dissipatedfrom the Muslim
world at large. Muslim unity was a scarce commodity in CentralAsia during
the so-called basmachi14 rebellion. Since then, ethnic differences and
ethnonationalismare still very much alive in CentralAsia. In the creationof
Bangladesh,ethnic and linguistic differences outweighed the commonalityof
the Islamic faith shared by the people of East and West Pakistan.
Despite this reality, Islamic internationalismcontinues to be emphasized
by the most radical Islamist parties in Muslim countries. This philosophical
outlook was effectively practiced during the Afghan war against the Soviet
occupation. It was not portrayedas a struggle of people of a Third World
country (Afghanistan) against a militarily powerful neighbor (the USSR).
Rather, it was depicted as a jihad of Muslims of Afghanistan against the
communist infidels. In the lexicon of Lake and Rothchild, Islamic internationalism was used to escalate the struggle between Islam and communism.
The involvement of Pakistan and the U.S. was also an example of the same
14. Basmachi means "bandit,"a highly pejorativeand contemptuousphrasegiven by the Soviet occupiers to the Muslim rebellion that eruptedbetween the Russian revolutionand the early


phenomenon. During the initial phase of the war, the Soviet Union also tried
to use the Soviet Muslims-albeit unsuccessfully-in its propagandato gain
supportfor the puppet regime of Afghanistan. This escalatory aspect of Islam did not work for the Soviet Union largely because it was used to justify
the communistinvasion of a Muslim country. The Afghan use of the concept
of jihad duringtheir freedom struggle against the Soviet occupiers later "became part of the mass consciousness of the local peoples in CentralAsia and
greatly stimulatedIslamic revival."15 This was a good example of the diffusion of the conflict.
Another aspect of Islamic internationalismin Central Asia-diffusion of
conflict-is the role of the Islamic Resurgence Party (IRP) that was formed
in the Soviet Union in 1990. Its primaryagenda was the promotion of the
common bond of Islam among all the Islamist parties of CentralAsia. As
one authornotes, the IRP "stood for the ideal of revival of Islam, restoration
of Islamic culture and the maintenanceof Islamic traditions." According to
this report,IRP leaders describedaffairs among nations as "the age-old struggle between the ChristianWest and the Muslim East."16 They considered
Islam as the only power that could withstandthe Western and Russian imperialistic suppressionof Muslims. However, in orderto be victorious, the IRP
promotedthe idea that Muslim people of the former Soviet empire must educate themselves about becoming "real Muslims." Hence, Islam must be revived or should spreadto regions where it is unknown. Aside from rejecting
nationalism and differences based on language and ethnicity, the IRP also
rejects pan-Turkism,Pan-Arabism,and Pan-Iranianismas threatsto Islam. It
advocatesthatMuslim unity should be based solely on the greatercommunity
of believers, the Ummah.
The IRP established close ties with the Afghan mujahideen,and these ties
only grew stronger in 1992 with the onset of the Tajik civil war. Even
though the ostensible end of the Tajik civil war in 1997 resulted in a setback
for the Islamist forces in Tajikistan,the cross-borderbonds between Islamist
groups remained firm. The currentgovernments of Tajikistanand Uzbekistan are fearful of the growing power of the Islamist groups as the Central
Asian populace becomes more fervently-Islamic. The authoritariancharacter
of these two regimes might turnout to be catalytic for the popularityof other
reform groups. An idiosyncrasy of authoritarianrule is that it equates political dissent with treason,thereby disallowing legitimate protest activities. As
the Muslim character of the Central Asian societies becomes more pronounced, this authorpredicts that Islamist groups will enhance their promi15. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modem Islamic World (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1995), p. 277.
16. PinarAkcali, "Islamas a 'CommonBond' in CentralAsia: Islamic RenaissancePartyand
the Afghan Mujahideen,"CentralAsian Survey 17:2 (June 1998), pp. 276-84.




nence. In turn, the governments of Tajikistanand Uzbekistan will suppress

these groups as they resist authoritarianchallenges to their activities. Their
demandsfor political change include assigning primacyto Islam in the political arena.
In addition, one should consider continued economic underdevelopment,
high unemployment rates, high birth rates, and the pervasive ineptitude of
governments in order to explain the likelihood of political extremism and
attendantinstabilityin CentralAsian countries. Some authorsexpect that the
large oil reserves of the CaspianSea will bring prosperityto CentralAsia.17
Unless political and economic institutions are built to make optimal allocational and redistributivepolicies, oil-related prosperity would only increase
the determinationof powerful nations of the region (i.e., Russia, China, and
Iran) to have a large say in determining the pipeline routes. These three
countries may scheme to determinewhich groups will be in power in countries like Kazakhstan,Uzbekistan,Turkmenistan,Tajikistan,and Azerbaijan.
In other words, the oil-related CentralAsia's "new great game" of the 21st
century does not hold high promise for political stability for the region. In
this unpredictablegame, the Taliban remain only one, albeit a potent, force.
The precedingvariablesregardingthe potentialfor growing political instability in CentralAsia may also be used to describe the potential for political
instabilityin the Xinjiang Province of China. For instance, the leaders of the
Taliban regime of Afghanistan and the JUI of Pakistanreportedlydiscussed
the possibility of forming a "bloc of Islamic countries"opposed to the U.S.
The promoters of such a movement are reported to be the leader of the
Taliban, Mulla Mohamad Umar, and JUI leader, Fazl-ur-Rahman.18

Chinese Anxiety
The theological aspect of the Taliban movement worries the rulers of China.
Their chief concern stems from the Taliban's potential for becoming a catalyst for an Islamic revolutionin the Xinjiang Province, whereby this province
would become anotherindependentIslamic state in the region. Contactsand
military training among the Taliban groups, the IRP groups of Tajikistan,
Uzbekistan, and Muslim separatists of Xinjiang Province are widely reported. 19

The India-Pakistanmilitary conflict in the Kargil region of Kashmir of

May-July 1999 coincided with China's sensitivity over NATO's air war
17. For a backgroundof this increasinglyimportantissue, see Ariel Cohen, U.S. Policy in the
Caucasus and CentralAsia: Building a New 'SilkRoad' to Economic Prosperity,HeritageFoundationBackgrounder,no. 1132, July 24, 1997, on the World Wide Web at <http://www.heritage.
132.html> [accessed June 30, 2000].
18. "Talibanand JUI to Form a Block of Islamic Countries,"Deccan Herald, July 15, 1999.
19. James Pringle, "Muslims in China Pay Price of Peace," Times (London), June 4, 1999.



against Yugoslavia. China's chief concerns were over the war's symbolic
aspects. First, ethnic cleansing was carried out under the auspices of
Slobodan Milosovic's government. In my view, the rulers of the PRC must
have been constantly reminded during that war of the similarity between
Milosovic's brutaltreatmentof independence-mindedKosovars and China's
own treatmentof the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and Buddhist Tibetans.
There are also some differences between these conflicts. The fact that China
is a nuclearpower forecloses the probabilityof a multinationalmilitaryaction
against it. It is conceivable that Western industrialnations could take other
coercive measures, such as imposing economic sanctions, against China in
order to resolve the Tibetan issue. A potential use of economic sanctionsunlikely though it may be-continues to remind leaders in Beijing of the
potential vulnerabilityof their country to outside pressure.
Chinese reaction to NATO's war on Yugoslavia was an interesting study
of paradoxand contradictions. During the initial phase of that war, the official Chinese press defendedMilosovic's "right"to mercilessly crack down on
ethnic Albaniansin Kosovo. An analysis of the Chinese response to the conflict showed that Yugoslavia was portrayedas an innocent victim. Some Chinese publications portrayed President Bill Clinton wearing a Hitler-type
mustache. But later on the Chinese press softened its criticism of NATO.
The Chinese governmenteven allowed some press reportsdetailing the plight
of Albanian refugees. Nonetheless, the governmentreportedlyissued circulars to various universities "instructingprofessors to be careful when they
denounce the NATO operation."20 However, the most direct impact of
NATO's war on Yugoslavia in China was reportedto be "the establishment
within the communistparty of two committees to draftrecommendationsfor
policies in Tibet and Xinjiang."21The recommendationsof these committees
are likely to be scrutinizedby the internationalcommunity.
In the interim, China may produce discreet demands on the Pakistanigovernment-which relies heavily on military aid and political support from
Beijing-to control the activities of the Taliban groups operating from its
territory. It is likely that China was forced to see the India-Pakistanconflict
in a different light. India accused Pakistanof actively supportingthe border
skirmishes with Taliban mercenaries. If India's accusations are true, then it
is a clear-cut outcome of the Taliban syndrome. Hence, Beijing is likely to
be more sympathetic to the Indian perspective, especially since it is concerned about the portrayalof its treatmentof ethnic minorities. During the
height of the Kargil dispute, China reportedly rebuffed Pakistan's former
20. John Pomfret, "Shift Shows Sensitivity to Ethnic Tensions at Home," InternationalHerald Tribune,May 8, 1999.
21. Ibid.




prime minister,Nawaz Sharif, when he visited Beijing to seek political support of that country's involvement in the ongoing conflict.
China will have to consider its crucial strategic interests vis-a'-vis India.
Given the increasingly intricate web of strategic interests that the PRC is
developing in the Islamic Middle East and CentralAsia, Beijing will continue
to be trappedbetween the many competing interests in the domestic and international political arenas. Notwithstanding these contradictions, SinoPakistani strategic ties will probably remain unaffected. After all, other
payoffs for China are too high to abandona nuclear Pakistan.

Islamist groups in Pakistanare directly responsiblefor creatingand nurturing
the Taliban syndrome. It is tempting to think that these groups quite wittingly created this syndrome so that they could use it for an Islamic revolution in the contiguous area. However, one has to be excessively charitableto
give Pakistani Islamists credit for being so farsighted. Farsightednessrequires cool-headed calculation, a pragmaticapproachto planning for future,
and a ready willingness to alter plans. Extremistsbelonging to any religion
or ideology have little use for these traits.
In all likelihood, this phenomenon was fortuitous. It happened at a time
when Pakistanhad a dictator,GeneralZia, who was also interestedin Islamizing Pakistan. After the eventual implosion of the Soviet Union, Pakistan
and Afghanistanwere alreadybeing governed underthe bannerof an Islamic
republic. One should ask why the Muslims of CentralAsia do not enjoy the
fruits of the Taliban syndrome. One should also ask why there is no cooperation between the Taliban and Islamist groups of other predominantlyMuslim
states of CentralAsia and Xinjiang. There are great similaritiesbetween the
Afghan struggle against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the struggle of
the Uighur Muslims and their Chinese rulers.
Pakistanfaces a dilemma regardingthe Taliban syndrome. It wants to use
it againstIndia in Kashmir,but leaders in Islamabadare genuinely concerned
about stemming its tide within their country. These hard-line,jihadi Islamic
groups want to wage a military battle against India to solve the Kashmir
dispute. Domestically, though, these groups want to purify their society by
eliminating the Shias and followers of the Ahmadya sect. The educated and
secular-mindedPakistanis are increasingly alarmedabout the future of their
country. They do not wish to be citizens of a nuclear state where forces of
traditionand obfuscation are growing strong. The military coup of October
12, 1999, did not diminish the level of internalviolence or Islamic militancy.
At the moment, Pakistan does not seem to be in firm control of its strategic
affairs. As the Taliban syndrome gathers momentum in Pakistan's contiguous areas,Beijing is bound to demandthat Islamabadcontrol the activities of


its allies. An extreme scenario of a Taliban alliance with the Islamist groups
in Xinjiang might not be farfetched. Even if the Taliban are defeated in Afghanistan, the attemptedIslamization of Pakistan and its neighboring areas
would only slow down or be postponed. Islamizationis a politico-religious
phenomenonthat is based on Islamic internationalism. Whether a moderate
or a hard-lineversion of Islamizationmaterializesin Pakistanand elsewhere
in CentralAsia will depend on how the existing governmentstreat political
dissent within their borders. Equally important,the state of economic development of these countries will also influence the modality of Islamizationin
these countries. A steady pace of economic development, along with a potential lessening of authoritarianrule (which means increased tolerance of
political dissent), would enable the moderateIslamist groups to compete for
power and influence with other groups in the coming months and years.
Under such circumstances the potential emergence of religious extremism
promises to be minimal.
How China deals with these developments within the Xinjiang Province
will also affect the course of political stability and economic developmentin
that province. If the past behaviorof the Chinese leadershiptowardpolitical
dissent, that is, the brutal suppressionof protestersin TiananmenSquare or
the more recent suppressionof the Falun Gong religious sect-were to continue in the future,then Xinjiang Province would only edge towardincreased
political turbulenceand instability.