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The Taliban, Afghanistan and the Uyghurs

The value of Afghanistan’s rare earth elements is estimated at $3 trillion. The pullout has happened, and those minerals are up for grabs — and China is grabbing.

A broken-off minaret of Xinqu Mosque lies near a Chinese national flag near the house of worship in Changji outside Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China.
A broken-off minaret of Xinqu Mosque lies near a Chinese national flag near the house of worship in Changji outside Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China.
REUTERS/Thomas Peter

China is the Taliban’s new best friend.

China’s leaders are filling the vacuum in Afghanistan left by the U.S. pullout at the end of August. China has officially recognized the Taliban as the governing leadership in Afghanistan. China is funding Taliban operations, not just humanitarian aid.

What’s the story here?

China wants control over Afghanistan for three reasons.

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First, Afghanistan has some of the world’s most valued resources — under the ground. They are known as REEs, rare earth elements, the minerals that are needed in nearly all electronics, from phones to drones: cobalt, lithium, copper, gold, uranium. The value of Afghanistan’s minerals is estimated at $3 trillion.

The Soviets discovered this treasure trove during their occupation of Afghanistan 30 years ago. They commissioned geological surveys, mapped where the resources were located and built infrastructure to facilitate Soviet extraction of the riches. In 1989 the Soviets precipitously left Afghanistan, but the surveys remained behind. U.S. geologists got their hands on them and updated them.

Whoever controls these minerals will control much of the world economy.

The New York Times reported (July 25, 2017): “The lure of Afghanistan as a war-torn Klondike is well established: In 2006, the George W. Bush administration conducted aerial surveys of the country to map its mineral resources. Under President Barack Obama, the Pentagon set up a task force to try to build a mining industry in Afghanistan — a challenge that was stymied by rampant corruption, as well as security problems and the lack of roads, bridges or railroads.” President Donald Trump promised to pull out of Afghanistan, but he, too, was unwilling to abandon those REEs.

But the pullout has happened, and those minerals are up for grabs — and China is grabbing. China currently has global dominance of rare earths, both through internal sources and in production. But because these minerals are vital to technology in all areas, enough is never enough.

The second reason is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the BRI. This is China’s vast network of roads, ports, power grids and railways that extends through at least 140 countries all over the world: Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. The Chinese government lends money to a country to build infrastructure projects. The hidden agenda, of course, is the geopolitical outcome: the debtor’s allegiance and gratitude to China for facilitating domestic development and support for China on the global political stage.

There are six main “belts” in this enormous network. One of them, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, is now being planned to go through — yes, Afghanistan.

photo of article author
Ellen Kennedy
Beijing is currently building a road through the Wakhan Corridor, a thin strip of land that gives China a 46-mile border with Afghanistan. This road will complement the CPEC route and it will offer quick and easy transportation for bringing Afghanistan’s minerals directly to China.

The third reason why China wants control in Afghanistan is because of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, are located primarily in China’s Xinxiang province. This province is directly connected to Afghanistan through that small geographic fingertip linking the two countries, the Wakhan Corridor.

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China has been persecuting the Xinjiang Uyghurs for years, on two accounts. First, Xinjiang also is a treasure chest of rare earth minerals. Mineral exploration started in Xinjiang in 2007. There are vast deposits of niobium, tantalum, and other minerals, and the Uyghurs are literally in the way. Beijing’s strategies to remove the Uyghurs from Xinjiang are nothing short of genocide.

The other part of the anti-Uyghur story is that the Uyghurs have long pressed for autonomy and independence. China portrays the Uyghurs as terrorists and insurrectionists.

In early October, the Taliban forcibly removed Uyghur militants who were near the Afghan-China border. There is conjecture that the Taliban will hand these Uyghurs over to China, to what will almost certainly be a grim fate.

According to some reports, a condition of Beijing’s increasing economic support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is in exchange for the Taliban to monitor and deny sanctuary to Uyghur groups in Afghanistan.

The geopolitics in this region will remain complicated by Afghanistan’s “resource curse.” The wealth under the ground is a flashpoint as nations vie to control these assets.


World Without Genocide is holding a webinar, “Afghanistan: War Crimes, Genocide, and the International Criminal Court,” on Sun., Oct. 24, from 1 to 2:30 pm Central Time. The event is open to the public. Register by Oct. 23. $10 general public, $5 students and seniors, free to Mitchell Hamline students, $25 for Minnesota lawyers for 1.5 Elimination of Bias credits. “Clock hours” for teachers, nurses, and social workers.

Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and an adjunct professor of law.