China to take over Bagram airfield?

(AP Photos/Massoud Hossaini)

One of the biggest mistakes among the many that were made during the United States troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was the surrender of the airfield at Bagram long before we were ready to get our people out of the country. The way it was done, with a commander literally handing over the keys to an Afghan military official in the middle of the night who had no idea what was happening, was embarrassing. But even worse was the fact that it deprived us of a highly defensible position with functional runways, leaving us with nothing but the commercial airport outside of Kabul to evacuate our people. And we all saw how that worked out.

Now Bagram is back in the news again, but not for any better reason than the last time we were discussing it. Some new tenants are looking at moving in and taking over the operations at the airfield. And those tenants would be the government of China. Why would Chia be interested in Bagram as part of their new, friendly relationship with the Taliban? The better question might be, why wouldn’t they be interested? (US News)

China is considering deploying military personnel and economic development officials to Bagram airfield, perhaps the single-most prominent symbol of the 20-year U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

The Chinese military is currently conducting a feasibility study about the effect of sending workers, soldiers and other staff related to its foreign economic investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative in the coming years to Bagram, according to a source briefed on the study by Chinese military officials, who spoke to U.S. News on the condition of anonymity.

A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday issued a carefully crafted denial of plans for an imminent takeover of the military airfield roughly an hour from Kabul, first established by the Soviets during their own occupation in Afghanistan and which at the height of the U.S. military presence there was its busiest in the world.

The response to this news from GOP Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was appropriately somber.

China is denying this, of course, but it’s a very careful sort of denial. They are denying that there is any “imminent” action in the works, which appears to be true because it would be a couple of years before they could put any serious plans in motion. And even then, it wouldn’t be a “takeover” of the airfield. They would simply be “sending personnel and supplies at the invitation of the government in Kabul.”

China will no doubt describe this arrangement as nothing more than an “infrastructure investment in Afghanistan,” as they have with many of their other military expansions in recent decades. But the underlying reality is that they will be calling the shots at Bagram and funneling some cash and other foreign aid to the Taliban to keep everyone quiet and happy. In exchange, China will gain a valuable military asset to expand its presence in the region and do so without firing a shot.

China and the Taliban probably seem to be exceedingly unlikely bedfellows at first glance. The Chinese Communist Party is virulently anti-religious, while the Taliban is one of the most extreme, radical Islamic sects in the world. And China’s relationship with the Islamic faith hasn’t been particularly smooth in recent years, particularly when you consider the ongoing genocide against the Uighurs. But traditionally, the CCP has been willing to turn a blind eye to what sort of religious activities are taking place in other countries. They’re only trying to stamp it out back home. As long as their military and economic needs are being met as they expand their geopolitical influence, people can apparently worship whoever they choose.

Seeing China take over the airfield at Bagram, particularly with all of the history behind that base, is embarrassing and presents some horrible optics, but it won’t be a strategic loss for the United States. After all, we already willingly gave up the airfield and it belongs to the Taliban now. The loss was already incurred well before this news came to light. But it’s still enough to make you grind your teeth, isn’t it?