A ‘people’s war’ against terror
  • Mon, 03/06/2017 - 15:34

Atul Aneja
MARCH 04, 2017 22:10 IST

It was February 27 when, outside the sprawling convention centre in Urumqi, Chen Quanguo declared a “people’s war” against an insurgency that Beijing has been finding hard to eradicate. Addressing a sea of armed forces, set for deployment in the rugged Xinjiang Autonomous Region, of which Urumqi is the capital, Mr. Chen proclaimed: “Bury the corpses of terrorists and terror gangs in the vast sea of the people’s war.”

Mr. Chen, as the Community Party Secretary of Xinjiang, is a powerful figure, with a direct line to Beijing. He has built a formidable reputation as the go-to official in trouble spots following his earlier stint as the Party Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. If the grapevine in Beijing is to be believed, he could be a contender for a post in the powerful Politburo of the Communist Party of China, which is set for a leadership overhaul later this year. His evocation of the “people’s war”, echoing a preferred terminology of Mao Zedong, may not have been accidental.

The mobilisation of the armed forces in Urumqi followed the mid-February knife-attack near Hotan, in which eight people were killed. These killings are the result of an ethnic Uighur militancy, which has been draped as an identity and power contest between the indigenous Uighurs and Han settlers of Xinjiang. The soldiers that Mr. Chen addressed were bound for Aksu, Hotan and Kashgar, which are not just the frontlines of the fighting, but also icons along the ancient Silk Road that the current government wants to revive.

Historically, Aksu was on the junction of two major Silk Road routes — the northern Tarim basin and the dangerous passage through Muzart pass in the Tian Shan mountain ranges. British Army officer Sir Francis Younghusband passed through Aksu in 1887 during his famous journey from Beijing to India. He captured the mercantile spirit of the Silk Road town with these words: “There were large bazaars and several inns — some for travellers, others for merchants wishing to make a prolonged stay to sell goods.”

Kashgar is another oasis city along the Silk Road with a 2,000 year past. Today, it is both the terminus of the Karakoram Highway and the multi-billion dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The city is well-known for its massive Id Kah mosque, emblematic of Islam’s deep permeation in its ancestry.

Surgical strikes on the cards

As militant attacks continue in the region, the Chinese are considering surgical strikes to smash the challenge of insurgency, combining air power with ground operations by Special Forces. Unlike previous occasions, military planes, especially helicopters, have been introduced in the combat theatre. They were part of the joint drills with the ground forces that took place late last month. Yet more work and equipment upgrade may be required before surgical strikes can be launched, says Wang Guoxiang, a Beijing-based counterterrorism expert, as quoted by Global Times.

Xinjiang’s sparse population — embedded in some of the highest mountains in the world as well as forbidding deserts — would make counterinsurgency a soldier’s nightmare. The east-west Tian Shan mountains split Xinjiang into the Dzungaria in the north and the energy-rich Tarim Basin in the south. Tarim, in turn, is home to the Taklamakan desert, which became the graveyard of many travellers and merchants seeking fortunes along the Silk Road. Despite its status as the largest administrative unit in China, only 4.3% of Xinjiang is habitable. The sheer complexity of geography and vast physical size appear to have conspired to make counterterrorism in this region a long-drawn exercise.