On August 21, 2017, President Donald Trump presented his administration’s Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia, which rests on three pillars:
“First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made — especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need, and the trust they have earned, to fight and to win.”
“Second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.”
“Third and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.”
The mission, however, remains roughly the same as the one pursued since 2001.
As Trump explained in 2017, “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.”
The three relatively new elements are: return to a conditions-based exit strategy abandoned by the Obama administration; hold Pakistan to greater accountability for the “harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. servicemembers and officials;” and “to further develop its [U.S.] strategic partnership with India.”
Nothing in the president’s remarks represents a significant departure from past policy, and one keyword was absent: China.
The Chinese are orchestrating a major geopolitical shift in South Asia — one which, if not addressed, could produce an outcome in Afghanistan not “worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.”
China is far out-performing the United States in applying the three instruments of power – diplomatic, economic, and military – which the President considers critical to the success of his strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia.
China’s future plans for South Asia may become clearer at the 18th Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, to be held June 9 — 10 in Qingdao and chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The SCO accounts for 60 percent of the Eurasian landmass, nearly half of the world’s population and over 20 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And China is seeking more.
In comments specifically related to South Asia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said: “During the summit, leaders of the SCO member states will analyze the global and regional security situation, explore specific measures to strengthen security cooperation and review several cooperation documents.”
Those efforts include: the China-hosted trilateral strategic dialogue between China, Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity and Pakistan (APAPPS), and Afghanistan’s agreement to start connectivity and economic cooperation projects with China.
The potential geopolitical significance of the Qingdao summit cannot be understated.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend and have private meetings with President Xi. Afghanistan will also attend the summit and has applied for membership in the SCO.
The U.S. is in dire need of a plan to transition from an Afghanistan-centric policy to one that addresses broader and more pressing South Asian issues, in particular, Chinese regional hegemony.
China is now attempting to extend its international influence beyond the South China Sea by linking to a similar framework for dominance in the northern Indian Ocean. If permitted to complete the link, China could be in an unassailable position to exert authority over roughly one-half of the global GDP.
From a politico-military standpoint, two approaches, operating in parallel, are required:
First, a traditional containment policy applying diplomacy and augmented naval and air power projection to counter Chinese attempts to box-in U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf area and outflank the U.S. naval base at Diego Garcia.
Second, to maintain a balance of power by using strategic disruption, not of China directly, but its plans to dominate the region. Such tactics involve managing and, when necessary, exploiting the inherent conflicts in South Asia including state-to-state disputes, the Sunni-Shia divide and ethnic separatism.
It is late, but there may still be time to defeat Chinese ambitions “on the beaches.”
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert. He is a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa.