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China’s Military Ties in Afghanistan
Whispers is an intelligence and analysis column focused on post-democratic Afghanistan
China’s Ties in Afghanistan
Chinese-manufactured military vehicles can be seen patrolling in Afghanistan's Little Pamir region. Photograph:(WION)
Chinese Military Personnel in Afghanistan
China has repeatedly denied it has sent troops to Afghanistan, framing any official cooperation with the Taliban as law enforcement or for counter terrorism. While police cooperation does appear to be happening, there has also been a rise in reports of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel on the ground in Afghanistan.
Currently, a unit of Chinese soldiers appears to have taken up residence at Bagram Air Base. Furthermore, China has been active around the region, building several “secret bases” in Eastern Tajikistan and committing significant resources and manpower to help train counter-terrorism units in several of Afghanistan’s neigboring countries. Based on this information, we felt it worthwhile to examine the possible military ties between the Taliban and the PLA.
“China does not interfere in internal Afghan affairs, nor does it want to safeguard its interests through such interventions.”
–Wang Yi, Foreign Minister, China, 24 March 2022
China’s relationship with the Taliban stretches back to 1998, when an errant Tomahawk missile was sold to China. In 2000, Mullah Omar reassured the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Lu Shulin, that the Taliban would not allow any group to use its territory to attack China. China has long viewed the Taliban as an important partner for its own security, maintaining relations even during the 20 years the Taliban were out of power. Now, that security partnership has been fully revived.
The Chinese military has been active in Afghanistan for years. Despite official statements to the contrary, there have been a plethora of photos, videos, and impartial eyewitness reports that indicate the PLA forces are present and have been for years. The presence of Chinese forces at Bagram is just one of the most striking recent developments. However, China has also recently been conducting joint counter-terrorism patrols with Afghan forces and entering “Little Pamir” twice a month through Tajikistan.Chinese troops habitually use a local school in Bozai Gumbaz to stay overnight and are reputedly barred from talking with locals.
The presence of international forces at Bagram Air Base is a clear indicator of how serious the Chinese government is about regional stability and cracking down on terrorism. China reportedly has a contingent of troops housed at the base who were initially described as a “technical assistance team”. Other rumors have spread that they are training select units of the Haqqani Network, and photos of supposed PLA members posing as Hazaras and walking through Afghan markets have been provided. Furthermore, staff from the Chinese Embassy are routinely observed traveling to and from the base. It is a natural choice for housing personnel given that Bagram represents one of the few defensible positions in the country, and the Chinese are familiar with the airfield since it has been used by Chinese military cargo aircraft since January 2022.
Western speculation that China would fill the power vacuum left in Afghanistan after the US’ withdrawal was well-founded. China has repeatedly indicated clear support for the Taliban, even while withholding official recognition. Several Chinese sponsored meetings have been held with regional partners to try and demonstrate regional resolve for aiding Afghanistan. Furthermore, China has made several economic overtures to the Taliban and explicitly stated that Afghanistan will be an integral part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Although the presence of troops may surprise some observers, it is the natural evolution of a relationship that is deeply focused on security.
International press coverage of China’s actions toward the Taliban have been focused almost entirely on economic issues from rare earth metals to coal to highways, and other development projects. It has become the contemporary prism with which the world views Chinese engagement with developing countries. However, if one reads Chinese press statements carefully, security is clearly the paramount goal for Beijing. At the conclusion of almost every conference on Afghanistan, the Chinese spokesperson can be heard to speak in sotto voce about the threat of terrorism.
We believe China’s decision to place troops in Afghanistan is an intelligent move. As The Afghan Digest has repeatedly noted, the Taliban have been lackluster security partners so far. Given China’s need to be more hands on in monitoring and countering terrorism, placing observors such as military personnel with background in terrorism is essential to complement their diplomatic personnel.
Although these military personnel are certainly serving a variety of functions, we believe first and foremost they are reporting on terrorist groups like ETIM who are known to be in the country and seem to be rallying new recruits daily. They are also likely developing assets to better assess the strength and capabilities of terrorist groups and determine if the Taliban are funding, training, and/or equipping them. Undoubtedly, they are eavesdropping on internal communications.
We are sure some training and other security cooperation activities are part of their mission, but we are confident the PLA is in residence for security purposes that have to do with Chinese interests, not Afghan.