Within months of their defeat, during the summer of 2002, the Taliban began infiltrating back into Afghanistan from their safe havens in Pakistan. Despite the presence of U.S. and NATO troops for sixteen years and billions of dollars in investment, the Taliban control or influence at least fifty percent of Afghanistan.
The same fundamental question remains. Do troop levels, counterinsurgency or nation building determine whether or not the United States achieves its goals in Afghanistan?
The answer is “no” because the strategic conditions prevent those means from being successful.
The conventional wisdom in Washington DC and Islamabad states that the U.S. cannot win in Afghanistan without the assistance of Pakistan, which is part of the rationale for continuing a policy, which, at best, can only produce a perpetual stalemate. That is because Pakistan does not want the U.S. to achieve its goals, a stable, independent, democratic and terrorist-free Afghanistan.
While publicly supporting U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan secretly provides safe haven and, de facto, sponsors a Taliban educational, training and financial infrastructure to conduct a proxy war against Afghanistan in order to preserve it as a client state.
Pakistan controls the operational tempo of the war through its Taliban and Haqqani Network proxies and maintains a stranglehold on the supply of U.S. troops in landlocked Afghanistan. In other words, no matter what means the U.S. employs in fighting the war in Afghanistan, the strategic conditions give Pakistan the ability to regulate the level of success, leaving the U.S. with a dismal choice between stalemate and ignominious withdrawal.
Case in point — committed Islamist, Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, and known as the “godfather of the Taliban,” said in an Urdu language interview just before his death in 2015: “One day, history will say that the ISI drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan with the help of USA and another sentence will be recorded that says the ISI drove the USA out of Afghanistan with the help of the USA.”
When you distill it down, the main argument for the United States not to leave Afghanistan is that something bad will “fill the vacuum,” whether that be terrorists or nearby nations hostile to our interests. But is that argument valid? Would not the terrorists have an impact on those nearby nations and don’t those nearby nations have a greater interest in the stability of Afghanistan than the United States? And, if so, would not shifting the burden of stability in Afghanistan to others be in our national interest rather than playing the role of local policeman?
If, in reality, defeating the Taliban and creating stability in Afghanistan are not at the heart of American regional interests, then what is?
The answer is China and its strategy, which Chinese President Xi Jinping calls “The Project of the Century.”
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development plan and a program of infrastructure projects, proposed by Chinese Government that focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries through land-based and maritime routes. The area targeted by Beijing represents two-thirds of the world’s population and one-half of the global Gross Domestic Product. The linchpin of the Belt and Road Initiative is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the backbone of which is a transportation route that connects China to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. It is why China’s ally, Pakistan, has been so diligently working against American success in Afghanistan.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a comprehensive China-centered economic, financial and political network with far-reaching cascading consequences affecting American national interests.
The Belt and Road Initiative is, in essence, soft power projection with an underlying hard power component. It is not just resource acquisition or utilization of China’s industrial over-capacity, but its projects are specifically designed to ensure both economic and political dominance.
As China expands geopolitically, the Chinese military, in particular its navy, will expand concurrently to protect China’s growing global economic empire, as did the British in an earlier era. The Chinese plan is to gain access to a number of harbors and airports to create a web of military facilities.
The first successful implementation of this plan was the 2017 operational inauguration of a Chinese military base in Djibouti, which arose from the Chinese purchase of commercial harbor access. Djibouti, not only provides a base of operations to protect China’s interests in Africa, but it is located at a strategic choke point, the entrance to the Red Sea and the sea route to the Suez Canal.
China obtained a 40-year lease from its ally Pakistan to operate the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar and is expanding the airport to handle heavy airlift capabilities. China and Pakistan have held meetings concerning the establishment of a Chinese military base on the nearby Jiwani peninsula, located near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, another strategic choke point. In addition, after Sri Lanka defaulted on its loan, China obtained a 99-year lease to operate the port of Harbantota, which may also be the prelude to yet another Chinese naval base. China’s “String of Pearls” naval facilities could outflank the U.S. Naval base in Diego Garcia and box-in the U.S. base in Djibouti and American military facilities in the Persian Gulf.
Current U.S. nation building and counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan will do little to address this emerging threat. As China seeks to expand its presence in South Asia and Pakistan pursues its intent to maintain Afghanistan as a client state, they will concomitantly expose vulnerabilities that can be exploited. Rather than the exhaustive, expensive and inconclusive policies of nation building and counterinsurgency, the U.S. should embrace a strategy that would disrupt the plans of our adversaries, whether they be nation states or terrorist groups. It would require a joint strike force of intelligence and cyber warfare assets, special operations units and the capability to project air and naval power for counterterrorism, counter-proliferation and counter-hegemony.
The military is not designed to build things, but to break things.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.