Afghanistan – Exit USA, Enter China


Reports that the Pakistan authorities have allowed Chinese military engineers to examine the wreck of one of the American Black Hawk helicopters used in the raid to kill Osama bin Laden have further soured relations between the US and Pakistan.

The news, first reported by the Financial Times out of Washington, emphasises yet again the close ties between the Chinese and Pakistan military, and China’s increasing involvement in the crisis in Afghanistan.

Chinese engineers were allowed to inspect the shell of the specially adapted Black Hawk which crashed on the outer wall of the Bin Laden compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad in Pakistan. It was carrying members of the US Seal team that killed the al-Qaeda leader. The aircraft clipped the wall and had to be abandoned, not before the Seals had blown it up.

The shell of the aircraft was comprehensively photographed, according to intelligence sources in Washington; a piece of its ‘stealth’ covering was taken away for further analysis. The Chinese are understood to be particularly interested in the tail mechanism and anything that could be salvaged from the cockpit displays and controls.

Although China is beginning to originate a number of lines in defence technology, it is still playing catch-up in vital areas such as the development of advanced military helicopters. A close-up view of the specially adapted Black Hawk is an unexpected windfall.

The episode comes as the Pakistan military have asked US special forces trainers to leave Pakistan and are trying to close down a US base used for launching drones in Pakistan.

US and allied intelligence in Afghanistan now fear that new Chinese-made shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, particularly the FN-6 ‘Crossbow’, are reaching the Taliban forces via Pakistan or Iran.

These new portable missiles weigh only 16 kilograms and it has been rumoured that one was used to destroy the Chinook helicopter in Wardak province on August 5, killing all 38 aboard, including some 26 Navy Seals. It was the worst loss of life in a single incident for the US military in the 10 years of the Afghan war.

Washington and the US command in Afghanistan have kept quiet about what actually brought the helicopter down. All they have said is that the Taliban team that fired on the helicopter was destroyed later, and allowed rumours to run that a specially enhanced rocket-propelled grenade was responsible. If it was an RPG round, however much enhanced, it would have needed a very lucky shot to bring down a large machine like a Chinook.

China’s new status as best friend of the Islamabad regime came to the fore when a high-powered Pakistan delegation led by the Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, head of the army Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and head of the ISI Intelligence Service Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha visited Kabul on April 16. One of the main topics was the security of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American and ISAF forces from combat operations at the end of 2014.

According to well placed international sources in Kabul, the Pakistan delegation suggested that the Afghans should ditch reliance on America and the West and now turn to China. This, apparently, was just too much for President Hamid Karzai who pointed out that the Americans at least provided generous aid and subsidies for Afghanistan, whereas the Chinese only tended to pay for what might profit them directly.

One of their biggest investments is in the open cast copper mining project at Mes Aynak in Logar province. Work has been delayed as archaeologists remove precious remains from a 7th century Buddhist monastery on the site. From next year China will pay Kabul $350 million a year for copper from Mes Aynak for 20 and possibly 30 years. The Chinese have demanded that Kabul provides the money to build the road and rail links carrying the ore into China.

This is likely to be just the beginning of China’s grab for natural resources. It is now emerging that Afghanistan has one of the heaviest concentrations of rare earth minerals – key material for current advanced technology – on the planet. Given the relative silence about this in western media, it all suggests that while President Obama and his allies prepare to quit, China now sees Afghanistan as vital strategic ground.


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