By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) – China will train Afghan troops on Chinese soil, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Beijing said, describing the military cooperation as an effort to fight al Qaeda and Islamic State militants bent on attacking China from its western neighbour.
Afghanistan has also requested that China provide Afghan security forces with combat helicopters, Ambassador Janan Mosazai told Reuters in an interview.
Beijing last month dismissed reports that Chinese troops would be stationed in its war-torn neighbour, after it agreed to help Afghanistan set up a “mountain brigade” in the rugged Wakhan Corridor linking the two countries.
“But yes, there will be some training required, obviously, and that will take place in China,” Mosazai said in the interview on Tuesday.
The Chinese military had promised to supply two fixed-wing transport aircraft for medical evacuation purposes, he added, and crews for the planes were already training in China.
“Those are in the pipeline, and we hope they will be delivered to Afghanistan, to our national security and defence forces, soon,” Mosazai said. “We have requested that they provide combat vehicles, combat helicopters, also air capabilities and reconnaissance.”
Mosazai said China’s response towards the request for the helicopters had been “positive”, and that Kabul wanted Beijing to provide the capabilities or the “grant assistance” so Afghanistan could purchase them.
China’s Defence Ministry did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
The provision of arms to Afghanistan marks a gradual evolution for Beijing, which had previously offered non-lethal assistance while promising to play a “huge” commercial role in the country’s economic development, a pledge complicated by the security situation there.
Mosazai did not elaborate on financial details or types of vehicles under consideration, but said the helicopters being sought were most likely to be older Russian or Soviet-made equipment, such as the MI-35.
China has stepped up “direct military assistance to Afghanistan”, including providing small arms and logistics and equipment support, since the two countries established a military dialogue in 2016, the ambassador said.
Beijing has confirmed its backing for the Afghan defence forces struggling against a Taliban insurgency that has taken swathes of territory in recent years, but it has offered few details.
The Afghan air force, trained and assisted by NATO advisers, has slowly gained strength, but remains too small to meet the needs of its security forces. The United States has planned to help replace Afghanistan’s aging fleet of Russian Mi-17 helicopters with U.S.-made UH-60 Black Hawks.
Last year, China opened its first overseas military base, in the Horn of Africa country of Djibouti. It has previously denied having plans for other overseas bases, but the United States expects it to build more, with Pakistan a possible location.
Mosazai reiterated that “there will not be any Chinese military personnel in Afghanistan, related to the mountain brigade or otherwise”.
The “context” for setting up the brigade – likely to be based in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan province – was to combat the return of al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters from the Middle East who aim to launch attacks in Central Asia and China, the ambassador said.
Among those militants are members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, he said, which Beijing blames for violence in its Xinjiang region bordering Afghanistan.
China worries that militancy in Afghanistan could spill over into Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur people, where human rights advocates say Beijing is implementing near martial law restrictions, including political re-education camps for potentially millions of Uighurs.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan in February said they had attacked networks of anti-China militants.
“Their primary targets are their countries of origin,” Mosazai said of militants presumed to be returning from fighting in Syria and Iraq, adding that Afghanistan had been clear with countries in the region, including China, about the “need to step up” support.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Alex Richardson)