There are only two issues that matter in Afghanistan: (1) U.S. strategy is not only ineffective and wasteful but also obsolete because (2) China is planning a leveraged buyout of South Asia.
According to the latest report by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Afghan government controls only 56 percent of the nation’s districts, which represents the second-lowest level — and the Taliban’s highest level — since SIGAR began receiving district control data from the U.S. military in November 2015.
The Long War Journal claims that the U.S. military gives an overly optimistic analysis “to obscure the full extent of insurgent control,” the actual number of districts under Taliban control being 59 percent.
There are other disturbing SIGAR findings.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ mismanagement of a $60 million power transmission project resulted in a system that is not permanently connected to a power source, has not been fully tested, and may not be safe to operate.
An Afghan presidential aide told SIGAR that political pressure to spend or lose funds, a common practice in the U.S. federal bureaucracy, often produced ill-conceived or unneeded programs and projects.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), responsible for non-military spending in Afghanistan, does not ensure the diversion of U.S. financial support away from areas long under the control of the Taliban or other insurgent groups.
Unlike the U.S. strategy, which is narrowly focused to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a launch pad for terror attacks, China has a comprehensive regional approach, using diplomatic, informational, military and economic levers.
A key component of that strategy is to remove U.S. influence from South Asia starting with the American presence in Afghanistan in order to establish China as the dominant regional economic power as part of its broader Belt and Road Initiative. That soft power approach will be buttressed by the Chinese military — primarily naval — to outflank U.S. and India forces in the northern Indian Ocean, linking the region to its planned control of the South China Sea.
The principal method China uses to advance its interests is the “debt trap.” China offers generous development aid in the form of loans and, when the recipient nation defaults, Beijing then obtains long term leases on vital ports or control of domestic markets and natural resources.
Pakistan, for example, owes China $19 billion in loans for an investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and, through that project, China has obtained a 40-year lease of Pakistan’s strategic port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. It has been reported that Pakistan will soon get $2-3 billion in new loans from Chinese banks to compensate for its dwindling foreign currency reserves and budget deficits. It is now believed that China will parlay Pakistan’s financial dependence into a number of naval facilities on Pakistan’s southern coast. A similar debt trap was the basis of the Chinese 99-year lease of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, which has fueled speculation that it will support Chinese naval operations. (RELATED: China Is Accelerating Its Plan For A Military Base In Pakistan)
China is already Afghanistan’s biggest investor. In 2007 it took a $3 billion, 30-year lease for the Aynak copper mine. China and Pakistan have offered to extend CPEC to Afghanistan. Some have concluded that the CPEC invitation is a prelude to positioning China as a mediator to end the Afghan conflict. It is logical. The Taliban are dependent on Pakistan and Pakistan is dependent on China. Only war-weary Afghanistan needs to be convinced.
Not surprisingly, there are an increasing number of articles appearing in the Afghan media supporting closer ties with China. Spogmai Radio, funded by China’s international propaganda outlet, broadcasts news with an anti-U.S. bent. In just the past week, Beijing hosted a conference between Afghan and Chinese journalists to discuss ways to use the media to boost Afghan-Chinese ties.
It should be clear that current U.S. policy in Afghanistan is being overtaken by events, that geopolitical conditions are changing and require a more comprehensive approach.
Maintaining a regional balance of power, where no nation state, especially China, achieves hegemony would not necessarily preclude a U.S. presence, but would involve burden shifting some of the quagmire to others.
Execution of such a strategy would demand, not only applying traditional diplomatic and military leverage of a containment policy, but also managing and sometimes exploiting instability against our adversaries.
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.