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What Does China Gain from Washington’s Afghanistan Debacle?

Oct 02, 2021

During the various Presidential, Pentagon, and State Department briefings, officials appeared unprepared in anticipation of the August 31st deadline for the U.S. military to withdraw from Afghanistan. 

American officials often repeated that they needed to ‘cooperate’ with the Taliban because the U.S. military lacked the capacity and capabilities to expand control of the Kabul airport and develop a corridor for fleeing Americans and Afghans. 

The U.S. inability to smoothly evacuate Americans and Afghans, pull out dangerous and expensive military hardware, and protect the Kabul airport from suicide bombings and rocket attacks, created a media environment in which the U.S. seemed helpless. 

President Biden, alongside his administration and military leadership, bears responsibility for a situation that appears out of control to the average American, while Chinese officials called the evacuation ‘humiliating.’ 

It’s important to remember, though, that China did not oppose the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Afghan Taliban in 2001. Then Chinese President Jiang Zemin supported the war to prevent Al Qaeda spilling over into China’s Xinjiang province through the now-famous Wakhan corridor. Nonetheless, Beijing now cooperates with the new Taliban regime, even praising their military tactics and comparing them to Mao Zedong’s ‘people’s war’ strategy. The Taliban, like Mao Zedong’s troops, gained support from the rural population to fight on toward big cities. 

This year, Chinese Foreign Minister and Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi met with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, in north China's Tianjin, on July 28, 2021, where Wang urged the Taliban to isolate itself from terrorist groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement because of their support for ‘Xinjiang independence’ movements. 

Cooperation with the Taliban signals that Beijing hopes to avoid external provocations intended to rile up Uighur militants within China’s borders. However, questions remain as to how the new Afghan government will control it’s 70,000 guerilla fighters, as well as the porous landscape it governs over to ensure that terrorists do not spread within its border and abroad. 

Whatever happens, today’s Taliban is more capable in its messaging, better equipped, and increasingly multi-ethnic. They’ve also managed to gain more credibility and legitimacy via negotiations and diplomatic relations with China, Russia, and Pakistan, who helped underwrite the Taliban’s negotiations with Afghanistan’s tribes. Despite Iran’s turbulent history with the Taliban, the two might be able to work together to isolate the U.S. from the Middle East, while promoting regional stability. The Taliban have the potential to become a pluralist Sunni Islamist government playing a significant regional role in a post-U.S. Middle East. 

Afghanistan also provides China with a path to Iran and Turkey that avoids the Pacific Ocean, where the U.S. and its allies remain. It also allows China to circumvent Central Asian countries where Russia retains influence. A new Afghan route would allow Beijing’s BRI to become more self-sufficient. China might also build a pipeline bringing Iranian oil to China, via northern Afghanistan, perhaps continuing on a north-south corridor linking St. Petersburg via Afghanistan to Iran’s Chabahar port lying across the strait from Oman. 

Beijing can also build connections through the narrow and risky Wakhan corridor, which is also an interest for Beijing because of security concerns. These routes through the high-altitude corridor could allow for additional passes from the landlocked central Asian nations to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. 

Afghanistan certainly resembles America’s military failures in Indochina, specifically, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, at least symbolically. The question remains – will the American empire bounce back from Afghanistan like it did after a decade of carnage and an eventual embarrassing retreat from Indochina? 

American foreign policy contributed to many of the lasting Middle Eastern instabilities present today, through countless CIA-installed regimes, first propped up and then toppled as U.S. interests changed throughout the region. Saddam Hussein received support from Washington in his wars against Iran’s Islamic Republic after the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah, before the U.S. punished Hussein for his invasion of Kuwait with two Gulf Wars in 1990 and 2003. 

President George W. Bush attacked Afghanistan to prevent Al Qaeda from operating under the Taliban regime, and President Obama continued the war with more troops while simultaneously utilizing the intelligence services to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria. 

Lastly, Obama also used NATO to attack and topple Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, leading to war and chaos that spilled over to neighboring countries as a result of military inflows. 

The Afghanistan disaster, although Biden refers to it as a success, is the final act of decades of U.S. adventurism to destabilize the Middle East through aggressive military intervention. 

Afghanistan symbolically represents not only the failures of one President, general, or policymaker, but the failure of an entire foreign policy apparatus, belief, and ideology. 

The fact that more than $80 billion in military equipment was left behind to a bloated and incompetent Afghani military that immediately surrendered to Taliban is questionable. How will the abandonment of such valuable weapons affect the future of the military industrial complex, global weapons dealings, and military contracting jobs? Is it possible that the U.S. spent more than $1 trillion in Afghanistan and who profited most? Why wasn’t an audit of serial numbers done to assess the real value of all the weapons, and will Chinese and Russian specialists immediately flood Afghanistan to learn more about U.S. military technology and how to reverse engineer it? These questions only magnify America’s failure to keep Afghanistan and its immediate region safe from future wars and conflicts. 

Between 2001 and 2021 the U.S. spent at least $1 trillion in Afghanistan, with 946 billion going to the U.S. military, 83 billion to the Afghan military, 10 billion on drug interdiction operations, 15 billion on U.S. agency operations within Afghanistan, and 21 billion for counterterrorism operations, the bolstering of national economies, and assistance to the development of a legal system. That being said, 2 percent of the U.S. spending between 2001 and 2021 went to the Afghan people for improving living standards. The United States failed to significantly clean water, promote sanitation, build schools, expand infrastructure, spread digital connectivity, provide agricultural equipment, or improve public nutrition. 

The main opportunity for Beijing is whether or not the BRI and a Chinese presence in Afghanistan can provide any of these points. If so, the rewards, in the forms of returns on investment, diplomatic ties, strategic significance, and regional political stability could be lasting. The BRI should absolutely attempt to serve the Afghan people, raise their living standards, and address the economic and social mess that Washington left behind.

The downside is that Beijing now needs to deal with Afghanistan since the Americans are no longer there to maintain some level of stability. The Taliban are an Islamist extremist group capable of degenerating back into their old ways of harboring groups like al-Qaida, which could indirectly or directly support Islamist extremist groups in China. 

The security situation in Afghanistan needs to stabilize, since even before the fall of the U.S.-supported regime China was unable to kickstart funded copper mining projects due to security threats. Beijing is also unwilling to send troops abroad for peacekeeping missions in places like Afghanistan. Beijing will need to encourage the Taliban to develop an inclusive and representative government to ensure lasting peace so that other minority groups do not coalesce to overthrow the new government. Beijing should also encourage the new government to avoid hostile agreements or diplomatic negotiations with Western powers that seek to disadvantage Beijing in Afghanistan, while simultaneously supporting moderate social policies, human rights initiatives, and programs for the protection of women and children that the Taliban view as reasonable within Afghan norms. 

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