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China to fill the Vacuum in Afghanistan with US Departure?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Hussein Sayed

Afghanistan has always been in the “too hard” box.  However, China is succeeding where others have failed, and to our distinct strategic disadvantage. 


Alexander the Great, who along with many others, attempted to subdue Afghanistan and failed said: “May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of Afghans.”

Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires, effectively thwarted and eventually drove from their lands many would be conquerors, Alexander, the Persians, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, the British, the Russians and now the USA.  China may well be the first in history to dominate, or at least, get the Afghans to cooperated to China’s significant advantage as the USA summarily withdraws after 20 years of expending vast treasure in lives lost and those wounded and severely altered as well as three-trillion USD wasted.

China has been rather quietly to the western observer, positive and potentially lucrative and strategically advantageous relationships with the Afghans for years.  What is China seeking and how are they working to achieve their goals?

China’s aims are nearly parallel and complementary.  China allied with Pakistan, never a loyal ally of the US, wants the abandoned southern bases vacated by the Americans as well as access to Indian Ocean warm water ports in Pakistan. With the US leaving particularly Bagram Air Field as well Kabul International and Kandahar Air Field, the nearest US air support facility devolves to 1,300 miles distant Qatar or a carrier group in the Indian Ocean or Persian Gulf. The US is then militarily far removed from the China mainland and the quickly evolving and changing Indian sub-continent. 


Afghan mineral wealth is vast, considerable, strategic and a long-standing goal of China. As with most of the involvement of the US in Afghanistan, American citizens, as well as our politicians, diplomats and most of or military leadership have ignored what China is now on the cusp of controlling.  China is also negotiating and expanding the infrastructure necessary for transport of resources and military hegemony by development of the Belt Road Initiative and related road, rail and air initiatives across central Asia. 

Afghanistan’s estimated $ 1 to $3 Trillion in mineral wealth includes their famous rare semi-precious gems in abundance, copper, iron, gold (potentially several $100 billion), uranium, rare earth elements and the critical lithium so vital to batteries for alternative energy sources.  Afghan sources of lithium may well be the largest in the world.  China already controls 73% of the world’s production vs. 12% for the US.   Add to this extensive, already known natural gas and petroleum deposits for which China negotiated production arrangements with the Afghan Government beginning in 2011 with production beginning in 2012. 

Why were all these natural resources heretofore ignored by the US?  They were not.  The Washington, D.C. establishment as well as we troops on the ground knew well of these specified and partially explored riches.  Efforts were made by previous US administrations to work with the Kabul government for the mutual benefit of both the Afghans and the US.  The issue was, as it continues to be in Iraq, securing the production sites and transportation capability to mine, refine and transport these riches.  The security situation was simply too difficult to permit exploitation of the resources.


How is China succeeding where others have failed in this endeavor?  First, with the departure of the US and NATO forces a major impediment to China’s operation in Afghanistan is not only eliminated, but the ability of China to operate in and transport plunder from Afghanistan is greatly enhanced.  Second, China is cagey sufficiently to better and more accepting than were US officials to understand the tribal warlord nature of the significantly decentralized governance of Afghanistan that is tribal, local and controlled by dictatorial warlords who can be optioned and bought off by cunning and ruthless Chinese methods.  Remember, the Chinese are the decedents of the most successful conquers of Afghanistan who ruled this land for 500 years by use of the horrendously aggressive and brutal methods.  

I have walked the ground of the city Balkh, northwest of Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan where Genghis Kahn and his sons in 1220, brutally murdered the entire population of over one-million souls and absolutely leveled the city.  The Chinese will do whatever is needed to bribe, steal or eliminate any Afghans who stand in the way of their agenda. 

With the US leaving, the Taliban and their allies, Al Qaida, are in ascendency and gaining ever more control of Afghan territory.  As a result of this resurgence, the disrespected, largely incompetent, and highly corrupt central Afghan government largely only in partial control of Kabul, leaves Afghanistan ripe for piece-meal conquest by bribes, intimidation or force by the well-organized and single-minded Chinese. 


How and why have we ended here?  One only needs to hear the recent opinions of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former National Security Advisor, Gen. H.R. McMaster to validate our reason for our strategic failure after 20 years of mis-guided efforts in Afghanistan.  Panetta admitted: “I think the bottom line is that we did not ever develop a comprehensive and tight mission for what we were going to do in Afghanistan.” 

Sagely and right on target, McMaster added:  

I agree with the secretary that we never had a sustained and sustainable, reasoned approach to Afghanistan. I think our experience there is little understood… I don’t think we’ve ever really integrated all elements of national power and efforts of like-minded partners to accomplish well-defined and commonly understood objectives and goals in Afghanistan.

These two accurate strategic assessments lead one to ask, “Why did not these two, along with their similarly empowered government and military predecessors, with significant national power and influence as to the strategy for Afghanistan not take the necessary actions?” 

We should leave the quagmire of Afghanistan because we have failed.  However, the way we are leaving without a residual plan by the Biden administration continues the long-demonstrated completely incompetent manner in which we have handled the Afghanistan campaign to our strategic disadvantage. 


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