Afghanistan: Enter the Dragon
When Osama Bin Laden carried out the 9/11 attacks, one of his goals was to tie down the US in unwinnable wars that would sap the blood, treasure and will of the United States. He succeeded, but not exactly in the way he had perhaps envisioned. Instead, if there is one clear winner of the war on terror, it looks to be China.
First, the obvious: the ink had barely dried on the Doha accords when article after article in the western media began warning that as soon as the US withdrew, China would be the next great power to try its hand in Afghanistan. Some even held out hope that it too would be sucked into the quagmire that had consumed two superpowers. Now that prediction, if one could call it that, rested on two assumptions: first, that China’s involvement would be primarily military, like those of the USSR and USA, and second that the US withdrawal would see a long drawn out civil war between the Taliban and the Ghani regime that would destabilize the region and inevitably suck in China as well.
The second assumption has now been laid to rest and as for the first, while China is definitely set to enter Afghanistan it will do so not with bombs, but with blueprints and with an eye to exploiting Afghanistan’s mineral and rare earth resources. Sensing the changing winds, Beijing had established contacts with the Taliban years ago, which culminated in an official meeting between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Mullah Baradar in Tianjin in July this year. Now, Zabiullah Mujahid has openly announced that China is their ‘main partner because [they] are willing to invest’ and that China represents [the Taliban’s] ticket to markets around the world.’ Granted, Beijing has concerns about the effects of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and a lot can still go wrong but overall, the gains for China far outweigh the possible losses.
But that’s only a small part of the picture: during the endless debates on Afghanistan, you must have heard the $1 trillion figure being quoted numerous times as the total cost to the United States of its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan. Consider now, that this is only a mere fraction of what the overall cost of the war on terror has been which, according to a report by Brown University’s Cost of War project, runs to at least $8 trillion. Now, one can certainly quibble over the fact that a good amount of this was funnelled back to the US in the form of defense and construction contracts, but that money went to a select few corporations and shareholders and did not trickle down to the American public. Essentially, money that was desperately needed to rebuild the USA’s crumbling infrastructure and social security programs was instead used to bomb countries to rubble and operate black sites across the world, while China spent its growing resources lifting millions of its citizens out of poverty and investing in cutting-edge technologies with an eye to curtailing any future action against Beijing by the United States.
Sensing the changing winds, Beijing had established contacts with the Taliban years ago, which culminated in an official meeting between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Mullah Baradar in Tianjin in July this year.
Even the modernization of the Chinese army has much to do with the USA’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, accompanied as it was by the ‘shock and awe’ footage of Iraqi forces being decimated by American airpower. Watching with concern from Beijing, Chinese military planners embarked on a decades-long quest to modernize their own forces and exploit the vulnerabilities exposed by the USA’s made-for-television war. If today we see fleets of Chinese drones and advancements in AI, it is thanks to the naked display of American power which, while meant to intimidate potential rivals, ended up instructing them.
Another lesson China drew from the Iraq war is to not, under any circumstances, become drawn into costly and open-ended counter insurgency operations in other countries, a lesson that has been reinforced by the American debacle in Afghanistan and which further reduces the likelihood of China getting into any kind of similar situation in Afghanistan.
And finally, there is the immense reputational damage that the US has incurred in the past two decades. Not only have their interventions, cynically portrayed as being for the cause of freedom and democracy, weakened the democratic argument itself (another win for China and its ‘alternate’ system), the US has also shown itself to be a fickle and overly demanding ally who will cut and run, leaving erstwhile clients in the lurch. Certainly, this is the triumphal line Chinese media, analysts and leaders alike are taking, with not so subtle references to Taiwan.
America remains a superpower, albeit with a bloody nose and a weakened argument, and the past has shown us that it is more than capable of course-correcting and bouncing back, and so it remains an open question as to who will truly emerge on top in the ongoing US-China battle for global influence. What is certain however, is that had there been no ‘war on terror,’ we wouldn’t even be asking the question.
- Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News. Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro