Somebody turned the lights back on at Bagram Air Base; speculation rampant that Chinese military have taken it over, but Taliban denies

A widely circulated Twitter post dated September 2 purports to show the lights back on at Bagram Air Base outside Kabul.  You may recall that when U.S. forces evacuated the base without telling the Afghan forces they have been allied with, the last thing they did was stop the generators and turn out the lights.

The tweet speculates China has turned on the lights.  The UK Daily Mail cites unconfirmed reports that military planes have been seen landing there:

There have been multiple reports of military planes arriving at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, just hours after images emerged showing that power was restored to the base for the first time since US forces evacuated the stronghold in July.

Images circulating on social media appear to show the airbase's floodlights blazing in the distance, amid reports that several military planes have taken off and landed at the base in recent hours.

Several sources suggest that the aircraft are Chinese, given the Taliban are not thought to possess the expertise needed to power the base or maintain and fly several military aircraft. 


But the Business Standard, which appears to be an Indian publication, carries a denial from Taliban sources:

The Taliban have denied reports of the foreign troops' presence at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, reported local media.

Omar Mansor, a member of the cultural commission, said: "There are no foreign troops currently in Afghanistan, including Chinese", according to TOLOnews.

On Saturday night, Bagram residents had said that the lights of the base were seen, the first time since the US troops left the airfield.

However, Mansoor informed that the Taliban members had switched on lights there.

"The lights were switched on again at Bagram air force base. There were some voices heard at the base. A plane has also been seen there," TOLOnews quoted resident of Bagram district, Shamshad as saying.

Further doubt is cast on the reports of Chinese military activity there by a publication called The Drive:

[B]ased on satellite imagery The War Zone has reviewed of the base, it doesn't appear accurate. In fact, in our comparative analysis of Planet Scope imagery from Planet Labs, with one image as recent as today, October 3rd, 2021, there appears to be nothing new of any significance at the airfield and no transport aircraft of any type on its sprawling ramps. Our review included multiple images from recent days, as well. 

I have no idea how hard it would be for the Taliban to turn on the lights — or why they would want to do so.  I presume fuel is required for that, and that the landlocked Taliban might have other uses for whatever fuel remained at the base.

China is also denying the reports, according to the Daily Mail:

According to U.S. News & World Report, China has been considering sending military personnel and economic development officials to Bagram airbase, and has conducted a 'feasibility study' on the effect of such a plan as part of its 'Belt and Road Initiative'.

A move to occupy Bagram airbase would go towards strengthening relations with the Taliban and further embarrassing America. 

The report was denied by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson.

'What I can tell everyone is that that is a piece of purely false information,' Wang Wenbin told reporters last month. 

Whatever the real situation right now, it is clear that Bagram is a hugely valuable prize, given its strategic location.  With the U.S. no longer able to use it, the closest American  military installation is in Qatar, about three hours' flying time (or six hours round trip) from Kabul — making "over the horizon" air activity time-consuming and costly, and limiting the number of sorties that could be performed, since so much aircraft and pilot time is required for the trips.

My speculation is that China is in wide-ranging negotiations with the Taliban, seeking access to the rare earth deposits in Afghanistan and hoping to make the country an ally.  But China has its own Muslim minorities that it is ruthlessly, some say genocidally, suppressing, while the Taliban, for their part, need money and face a struggle to consolidate their own power in a country that is more a set of ethnic enclaves than an actual nation-state.

I believe that abandoning Bagram was a geopolitical blunder of the first magnitude.  We'll see how big the damage is as China unfolds its strategy and as the Taliban play their cards in their negotiations with the Chinese.

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