The vacuum left by the coming de facto humiliating retreat of the U.S. military from Afghanistan at the hands of Pakistan and its Taliban proxy will likely be initially filled by a coalition of ascendant Taliban and a complement of China-Pakistan-compliant Afghan politicians.
The $1 trillion U.S. investment in Afghanistan will disappear like sand against the wind or resemble the rusting hulks of Soviet armor in the boneyard outside Kabul.
Dead and maimed U.S. troops will be briefly honored in a token-like fashion by promotable senior officers and incompetent politicians who, at every opportunity, squandered any chance of a successful outcome by “muddling along” on automatic pilot in a conflict they never understood or cared enough to try.
Afghanistan will be left to the stewardship of China and its ally Pakistan, who undoubtedly will make good strategic use of their new client state.
China seeks global domination. One vehicle to achieve it is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a collection of infrastructure projects and a network of commercial agreements designed to link the entire world directly to the Chinese economy through inter-connected land-based and maritime routes.
U.S. presence has always been an obstacle to Chinese ambitions to incorporate Afghanistan into BRI as well as a number of other China-centric economic & military pacts, so, together with Pakistan, Beijing could dominate South Asia.
Afghanistan will be integrated into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the linchpin of BRI composed of resource exploitation projects, e.g. Afghanistan’s estimated $3 trillion in mineral wealth, linked to a major transportation network that connects China to the Pakistani ports of Gwadar and Karachi on the Arabian Sea.
The guarantor of that soft power approach is the hard power of Chinese military expansion.
China plans to establish a naval base on the Jiwani peninsula, just west of Gwadar and within easy reach of the strategically important Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. That military facility will complement China’s already operational naval base in Djibouti located at another strategic chokepoint, the entrance to the Suez Canal.
Control of the Arabian Sea and the critical maritime lanes of the northern Indian Ocean would provide the final link between Chinese military bases in the South China Sea and Africa.
China has welcomed Saudi Arabian investments in Pakistan, including a $10 billion-dollar oil refinery complex in Gwadar, the China-Pakistan corridor strategic port, and a $6 billion loan, to bolster Pakistan’s falling foreign currency reserves as Islamabad subsidizes the killing of U.S. troops through its support of the Taliban.
Remarkably, Saudi Arabia, America’s nominal ally, is now essentially underwriting China’s and Pakistan’s missile development programs within the framework of a joint agreement that “underscores a willingness to ignore Washington’s interests and policies” from the beginning of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power.
No doubt Saudi Arabia views an investment in CPEC and defense collaboration with China and Pakistan within the context of its conflict with Iran, but it largely ignores the cascading geopolitical consequences for the U.S., especially in regard to China’s ambition to dominate South Asia.
What is most disturbing about this scenario is not just American surrender in Afghanistan, albeit painful, but the probability that we have no coherent regional strategy to deal with its inevitable consequences. Even if the United States is not willing to save Afghanistan, we should at least be interested in saving ourselves.
Lawrence Sellin (@LawrenceSellin), Ph.D., is a retired U.S. 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.