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What Now, Afghanistan?

Jul 21, 2021
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

Early July saw the United States step up its withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. As a result of the withdrawal, Afghanistan will predictably see another round political tension, and the neighboring region will see new turbulence. While always playing a constructive role in Afghanistan issues, China will have to prepare for bad weather.

Discussions about why America has failed in Afghanistan have stayed in global media reports for at least 10 years. A decade ago, Charles Freeman, a veteran diplomat who had spent many years in the Middle East, argued in his book “America’s Misadventure in the Middle East” that the U.S. could never accomplish a mission that’s not clearly defined. If the U.S. had defined the mission as just destroying al-Qaida and capturing or killing Osama Bin Laden, things might have been quite different, but the U.S. unfortunately redefined the mission as reconstructing Afghanistan’s political system after destroying al-Qaida’s safe harbor in the country.

Freeman’s book is frequently mentioned now that the U.S. is stepping up its withdrawal. He might be right, but not to the bottom of the point. America’s failure in Afghanistan actually should be fundamentally attributed to a kind of militarist mentality. For many years, American decision-makers and academics have held a strong belief that the U.S. can do anything it wants with its military supremacy. But Afghanistan has put the lie to this. It is a case of U.S. failure but not the only one.

Americans believe it can get rid of al-Qaida and terrorist organizations surgically with its military might. But this is an obvious misuse of military power. Terrorism, as represented by al-Qaida and ISIS, is fundamentally a non-conventional threat with some features of a conventional threat, such as being guided by a kind of ideology, military force and power structure. As the U.S., together with its allies, has dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops to fight al-Qaida, it mainly focused on the conventional aspects of terrorist organizations instead of the non-conventional ones. To put it another way, the U.S. had been addressing non-conventional threats with measures designed to address conventional threats.

Therefore, while it is true that the U.S. can destroy terrorist organizations and physical infrastructure, it has failed to address non-conventional aspects or the non-physical part of terrorism. A strong military might deter and destroy conventional threat but not necessarily non-conventional ones. Unfortunately, quite a number of Americans still regard the strength of the U.S. military as a kind of religion.

It is not easy to get rid of the disease of overemphasis on military means, but it is also impossible to restructure a country politically with military means alone. For most of its years in Afghanistan, the U.S. has spent its resources fighting the Taliban. American decision-makers might have believed they could reconstruct Afghanistan so long as they could make the Taliban disappear. This kind of mentality has kept the U.S. from bridging the gaps between different political forces to maintain unity in Afghanistan. Events on the ground revealed how its theory had failed.

All in all, America’s failure in Afghanistan fundamentally lies in its militarist approach in addressing issues. But the military does not always work, and America was actually doomed from the start.

While America’s over-militarized approach has created rather than solved problems, its withdrawal from Afghanistan is irresponsible, since Afghan domestic tensions could foreseeably escalate and continue. As global media coverage indicates, the Taliban, which had been cornered for about 20 years, is launching fierce military campaigns in order to get back what it has lost in two decades. And it seems that Afghan security forces have been far from capable of resisting the offenses of the Taliban.

The Afghan government has been boasting that it will continuously get U.S. military assistance even after the withdrawal. But it seems that such assistance will be very modest, as the U.S. does not want to anger the Taliban. It wants to keep Americans still in the neighborhood free of attacks. See-saw military confrontations could run long between government troops and the Taliban.

What is even worse, domestic tensions will always be fertile soil for the growth of terrorism. Although the Taliban has promised the U.S. that it would not allow ISIS to exist in the territories it controlled, the promise could be shaky so long as the security situation gets worse. The Taliban might be able to control its own soldiers, but it is not able to keep ISIS out of Afghanistan. ISIS and its predecessor, al-Qaida, used to plant their roots in Afghanistan, and external elements from Iraq and Syria could easily find old roots in the country.

There are also implications for regional geopolitical competition. In addition to the competition between India and Pakistan, Iran and Turkey could join in that. Iran, as a close neighbor hosting 2 million Afghan refugees, will seek its due influence. Turkey could become another active player in Afghanistan. No evidence shows that geopolitical gains in Iraq, Syria, north Africa, the eastern Mediterranean or Arabian Peninsula in recent years can satisfy Recep Erdogan’s appetite, and Afghanistan could be another target.

Afghanistan could be another piece of cake that could bring competition to neighboring actors. And the competition could worsen the situation.

China has been a victim of tensions in Afghanistan. Northwestern China will be the immediate area  affected by the spillover of security problems in Afghanistan, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship element of the Belt and Road Initiative, could also be affected by the worsening situation.

Despite challenges, the implications should be modest as China has learned to survive in turbulent weather in recent decades. While keeping a close watch on the border, China has taken reasonable measures to get rid of the roots of extremist ideologies at home, and domestic and external links have been cut off or at least weakened. As for the CPEC, China and Pakistan together have sufficient resources to maintain security.

China has long played a constructive role in Afghan issues, including security, politics and economic reconstruction. It offered political support for America’s fight against terrorism in Afghanistan in the post-911 period, shared intelligence with the U.S. and supported the U.S.-led political transition. As a major economic partner, China contributed more to Afghanistan’s economy than any of its partners.

It is least likely that China will get involved in domestic issues in Afghanistan, as other major external actors have done. China will adhere to the fundamental “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” principle, which is the embodiment of its signature foreign policy principle of non-interference. China in the last decade has participated in and initiated dialogues, as well, among various parties relevant to Afghanistan security.

In the new context, China will hopefully mediate disputes more. In an early June trilateral foreign ministerial meeting with China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi clearly expressed that China, together with other parties, will push forward the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan, promote inter-Afghan negotiations and welcome the Taliban back to the political mainstream.

It is China’s belief that only the reconciliation of different factions will secure lasting peace. China will push and persuade parties to reach consensus regarding Afghanistan’s political reconstruction. Any other approach will not improve the situation.

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