China plans to fund a new military base for Afghan forces in that country’s remote Badakhshan Province, according to Moscow-based Ferghana News Agency. Badakhshan, which includes Afghanistan’s ‘panhandle’, borders Tajikistan, Pakistan, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and China’s own Xinjiang province, with its restive 10-million-strong Uyghur minority.
Chinese funding for the planned base would include ‘material and technical expenses for this base – weaponry, uniforms for soldiers, military equipment and everything else necessary for its functioning,’ Ferghana News Agency reported, based on an interview with General Dawlat Waziri of Afghanistan’s defence ministry.
The new military facility appears to be geared towards targeting members of Uyghur separatist groups like the Turkistan Islamic Movement.
‘The Chinese side fears that the Chinese Uyghurs, who are among the terrorists now, can cross the territory of China through Afghanistan and make problems for the Chinese authorities,’ Ferghana News quoted an anonymous Afghan defence ministry official as saying.
China in Afghanistan
News of China’s support for the base comes soon after Beijing hosted Afghan and Pakistani foreign ministers, Salahuddin Rabbani and Khawaja Asif, at a trilateral meet on December 26.
In a joint statement released later, the three countries committed themselves to a peace process that was ‘Afghan-led, Afghan-owned’ and called on ‘the Afghan Taliban to join the peace process at an early date.’
That the same day, China’s defence minister Chang Wanquan met his Afghan counterpart Tariq Shah Bahrami. An official statement from Beijing said Chang sought to ‘deepen military relations and strengthen cooperation in anti-terrorism and security’.
China has typically seen Afghanistan through the prism of Xinjiang. On a 2014 visit to Kabul, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi focused on getting the Afghans to deny Uyghur separatists sanctuary.
In February 2017, journalist Franz J. Marty found ‘overwhelming evidence’ that Chinese troops had ‘undertaken joint patrols with their Afghan (and possibly also Tajik) counterparts on Afghan soil in the Little Pamir, a high plateau near the Afghan-Chinese border.’
There have been similar denials from further west. In November, Syria scoffed at reports that China had sent troops to help hunt down Uyghur militants fighting alongside anti-Assad rebels. However, Syria’s ambassador to Beijing had earlier warned that up to 5,000 Chinese Uyghurs had joined various rebel factions including ISIS. Separately, on January 7, an apparent car bomb killed 23 people in Idlib, Syria, at a base used by Uyghur fighters.
Separatist violence is not new to Xinjiang. Riots in 2009 may have killed 200 people. In 2013, a lone attacker in an automobile ran over pedestrians at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing five and injuring many more. There have been more violent incidents since, including a notorious knife attack in Kunming that killed 29 and wounded at least 100.
While China has blamed separatist violence in Xinjiang on outside influences, its own policies haven’t helped. By all accounts, Xinjiang already resembles a dystopian surveillance state, where the local population is kept under close watch and many basic customs like growing beards are proscribed. Chinese authorities have even banned baby names like ‘Muhammad’ and ‘Arafat’.
Still, with Syria’s war petering out, Beijing will worry about Uyghur fighters returning to Xinjiang from the Middle East’s battlefields. That alone would be good reason to help the Afghans intercept them in Badakhshan.