Picture of ETIM fighters on Ranger Ford and Humvees somewhere in mountainous Badakhshan

Uighur fighters are present in mountainous Badakhshan

A video clip released by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) shows a group of well-armed militants while maneuvering somewhere in mountainous region of Badakhshan province, which shares a tiny 64-mile border with China. The clip shows a group of ETIM fighters on Ranger Ford and Humvees, holding M16 and M4 rifle guns, which are used only by the Afghan military forces in Afghanistan.

Following the release of the clip, the Afghan ministry of defense confirmed a Chinese militant group is operational in Afghanistan. The ministry provided no details on their whereabouts.

Over years, the Islamist groups are present in Afghanistan under protection of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Reports say the radical Islamist Uighurs have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State –Khorasan Province, an outfit which has been behind some deadliest attacks in major Afghan cities.

An op-ed published by the Foreign Policy, claims that Afghanistan’s borderlands have long been used by the Uighur ethnic minority who flees persecution in China. “Today, China’s campaigns and restrictions against the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority group in the western region of Xinjiang, have spurred an exodus into Afghanistan, especially after Beijing and the local authorities intensified their crackdown on Uighur freedoms, religion, and culture,” part of the article states.

Zubair Aref, a deputy spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense, told Kabul Now that the ministry’s intelligence department has already launched investigation to collect more intelligence about group’s activities in Afghanistan. “Such groups might be independent in their origin countries, but all of these groups are operating under the Taliban umbrella in Afghanistan,” he said.

Officials at the ministry of defense say that Afghan defense and security forces have lost those equipment and weapons in the war against the Taliban.

Nik Mohammad Nazari, spokesperson for Badakhshan governor, also confirmed that Uighurs were operating alongside the Taliban but noted that they have not received any report indicating the ETIM was operating independently in the province.

According to the local official, Uighur fighters and their families are living in a valley named “Dara Khostak” in Jurm district of Badakhshan province. The Taliban control part of the district.

Most of the foreign militants, including Uighurs, were killed or forced to flee to Pakistan’s border areas as the result of massive operations conducted by Afghan defense and security forces during this year, local security officials say.  

Afghan forces have recently reclaimed three districts of the northeastern province of Badakhshan. According to Nazari, around 200 Afghan and foreign militants have been killed during the operation of Afghan forces in the three districts.

Atiqullah Amarkhel, a retired army general, believes without foreign support, Uighur militants cannot build military bases and pose threats against China. He further went on to argue that unlike of the ISKP and the Taliban who fight against US in Afghanistan, the ETIM main objective is to fight against China. “If the group can secure a base in Afghanistan which is impossible without foreign support, the relations will get worse between the Chinese government and Afghanistan,” he warned.

The Taliban, however, have rejected presence of the ETIM in Afghanistan. Reports regarding the armed presence of the ETIM in Afghanistan is just a ‘propaganda’ aimed at ruining relations between the Taliban and the neighboring countries, the Afghan militant group said.

According to TRT World, Beijing sought to improve ties with the Taliban movement in 1990s. But later, the Chines government, concerned over security threats posed by Uighur fighters, pleased the Afghan government to fund establishment of a mountainous brigade military unit in Badakhshan province. The brigade, however, was not established for unclear reasons.

The separatist ETIM is a Muslim separatist group founded by militant Uighurs with a military strategy to fight for independence of Turkic-speaking Uighurs.

The US treasury department put ETIM on the list of terrorist organizations in 2002 when the American and Chinese governments signed an agreement in the fight against terrorism.