By Zia Ur Rehman, Contributing writer

October 15, 2021

ISLAMABAD — As part of their efforts to protect China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan, Islamabad and Beijing have finally succeeded in pushing the Taliban to launch a crackdown on Pakistani separatist groups operating from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan and remove Uyghur rebels from an area that borders China.

In return, the Taliban expects economic cooperation and humanitarian assistance from Islamabad and Beijing, and are lobbying for sanctions to be removed, security analysts believe.

Separatist groups in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan have been alarmed by the increasing arrests of their members and sympathizers by the Taliban in the Afghan provinces of Nimroz and Kandahar and said that the detainees, whose whereabouts are unknown, could be handed over to Pakistani authorities.

Mir Bakhtiar Domki, head of Baloch Republican Guard, one of banned militant groups, said in a statement that the arrests of several Baloch refugees, including senior leader Malik Khan Muhammad Marri, by the Taliban is a matter of concern. “The Taliban should ensure the protection of Baloch refugees like a neighbor, instead of protecting the interests of Pakistan,” said Domki, who is a former Balochistan provincial minister.

Pakistani military first kicked off its operations against Baloch separatist groups in 2004, forcing a large number of insurgents and their families to flee across the border into Afghanistan.

As the Taliban have long been hosting militants who fled from neighboring countries, there was uncertainty over whether the militants-turned new rulers of Afghanistan would keep allowing the foreign militants to stay. Among Pakistan-origin militants, Baloch separatists groups have typically been attacking Chinese interests, including projects linked with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Pakistan components of BRI infrastructure projects, worth over $50 billion.

However, after taking control of Kabul in August, the Taliban has launched a crackdown on members and supporters of Baloch separatist groups. The Balochistan Post, a pro-militant, Urdu-language website, recently reported that Taliban insurgents in Kandahar have been forcing Baloch families to vacate their houses, and are commandeering their vehicles.

A Taliban provincial official in Nimroz told Nikkei Asia under condition of anonymity that the regime has arrested people belonging to Baloch tribes in the province for their links with the Islamic State’s regional affiliate for Afghanistan and Pakistan — known as ISIS-K. “Taliban leadership has also been ensuring that Afghan soil would not be used for subversive activities against any country,” he said.

In February last year when the Taliban signed a deal with the U.S. after months of peace talks, the group committed to preventing militant groups from using its territory to threaten the security of other countries.

Some analysts, including Basir Ahmed Hotak, a Paris-based Afghan security expert, believe that in meetings with the Taliban, Islamabad and Beijing had offered economic cooperation on the condition that the Taliban cuts ties and takes action against the militant groups, such as various Baloch separatist groups, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, as “these groups operate from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan and target Chinese investments,” Hotak told Nikkei.

On Aug. 20, the Baloch Liberation Army carried out a suicide bombing targeting a vehicle carrying Chinese nationals in Gwadar. Similarly, Islamabad and Beijing accused the TTP with ETIM’s support of carrying out a July 14 suicide attack that killed nine Chinese engineers working on a hydroelectric project in Pakistan’s Kohistan District.

The Taliban’s crackdown in Afghanistan has been forcing Baloch separatists to find new hideouts, such as in Iran’s province of Sistan, which shares a border with Balochistan. A police officer in Balochistan on Sept. 28 claimed that three BLA members arrested in an intelligence-based raid in the bordering town of Kech revealed in interrogation that the Aug. 20 suicide attack on Chinese nationals was planned in Iran.

“Taliban are arresting and expelling the Baloch separatists to placate Pakistani fears of being attacked by these groups from Afghanistan, as witnessed in the past,” Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told Nikkei.

However, the new rulers are unlikely to meet the demands of Islamabad and Beijing to flush out sanctuaries of the TTP and ETIM, which are part of an al-Qaeda-led larger Jihadi network that helped the Taliban to capture most of Afghanistan.

“Instead, the Taliban has been facilitating talks between Islamabad and the TTP leadership to resolve their dispute,” said Basit. “On the other hand, Taliban leaders have also recently moved the ETIM’s Uyghur militants from Badakhshan province [in Afghanistan’s northeast], which adjoins Xinjiang in China via the narrow Wakhan Corridor, to eastern and central parts of Afghanistan to address Chinese concerns.”

The Taliban’s newly formed government in Kabul has been facing the challenge of delivering quickly and easing the economic crisis. Because of the disruption to Afghan government revenue and aid, the regime cannot even meet basic expenses such as salaries of government employees.

“In return for their actions against Baloch separatists and removing Uyghur insurgents, the Taliban expect economic support, development cooperation and humanitarian assistance from Islamabad and Beijing, which Afghanistan directly needs at this juncture,” Basit said.

Islamabad and Beijing have been cautiously lobbying with the international community about lifting the economic sanctions against Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to help the new rulers run the country’s affairs.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged his counterparts during a virtual meeting with G20 ministers on Sept. 23 to unfreeze Afghanistan’s foreign assets and stop exerting “political pressure” on the Taliban. Beijing on Sept. 8 pledged $31 million in immediate aid to the Taliban government.

Pakistan has also been offering technical support to the new interim Taliban administration in different sectors, including banking and commerce.