The Chinese military is conducting joint operations with the Pakistanis and Afghan security forces along the Chinese border, according to recent reports. The targets are jihadist elements, particularly a budding presence of Islamic State and other like-minded groups operating in Afghanistan. China’s goal is to curb terrorist threats that may emanate from Afghanistan and be directed against China’s Xinjiang Province.
The Pentagon is fully aware of China’s presence in Afghanistan. But this isn’t good news. Fact is, the 15-year war in Central Asia isn’t going well the United States. China’s ascent in Afghanistan simply underscores the extent of America’s troubles there. Our loss is China’s gain.
China’s western border is threatened by jihadist terrorism, just as America is threatened. So it makes sense that Americans and the Chinese would align to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Chinese are conducting these limited counterterrorism missions with the Pakistanis, against American interests. Improving cooperation between China and Pakistan means increasing tensions with India, which has been in unceasing conflict with Pakistan for much of the past 50 years.
By operating in tandem with Afghan security forces, the Chinese further pull Afghanistan away from Washington’s wobbling political orbit and closer to Beijing. This will allow the Chinese to secure their economic interests in Afghanistan, at America’s expense.
In the early days of the war in Afghanistan, the United States sought allies to assist in defeating the terrorist scourge—not only al Qaeda, but also the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, to name only a few. China, despite an increasingly restive Uighur Muslim population concentrated in far-off Xinjiang, consistently refused to provide any kind of support to the U.S. war effort in Central Asia. The Chinese, perhaps not unreasonably, had no interest in contributing large sums of money and resources on the Bush Administration’s quixotic attempt to turn Kabul into the Paris of the Hindu-Kush.
Instead, China sat back and watched the carnage unfold. They let the Americans over-commit to its hubristic mission in Afghanistan. Even though the United States was able to push al Qaeda and the Taliban out of key strategic areas of Afghanistan, it failed to destroy either. Instead, both groups fled to neighboring Pakistan, where they relied on ethno-religious ties with local tribes (mostly the Pashtun) to protect them.
Around 2010, China made its first deal . . . with the Taliban! Chinese foreign policy is a bit more utilitarian and mercantilistic than America’s tends to be. The Chinese do things based on hard-headed calculations of ends-and-means. For Chinese policymakers, the first goal is to sustain their country’s meteoric rise. If they cannot, people will protest and the Chinese Communist Party will lose its grip on power. Thus, acquiring scores of natural resources is essential.
Turns out, Afghanistan—despite being a rocky, mountainous country split by tribalism and ruled in the hinterlands by warlords—is chock full of valuable natural resources. It may not possess oil, but, it does possess copper and other rare minerals that a country like China desperately needs.
China recently gained approval from the Taliban to begin extracting from the country’s largest copper mine, Mes Aynak. This is the start of major Chinese investment in Afghanistan’s natural resources. The fact that the Chinese went to the Taliban (who control the mine) is telling, too. Make no mistake: it is widely assumed that the Taliban will retake Afghanistan—if not entirely, then at least partially—once U.S. and NATO forces leave. The Chinese, Russians, and Pakistanis have been preparing accordingly: making deals, operating alongside of, and buttressing the growing Taliban power in the periphery of Afghanistan.
But the Chinese have also taken it upon themselves to begin training Afghan security forces and working more closely with the Afghan national government in Kabul. While regional experts, such as Franz Stefan-Grady, say greater Chinese involvement in Afghanistan is a good thing for the country’s stabilization, I suspect that this is less about the greater good and more about pragmatism.
China wants to gain a monopoly over any natural resources in Afghanistan. Beijing also wants to ensure the chaos in Afghanistan does not spill over into China. So the Chinese will support any group that will assist them in their efforts for greater commerce and greater security.
The fact that the Chinese are working with Afghan security forces along their border does not negate their willingness to work with the Taliban at the Mes Aynak copper mine (and elsewhere). If the experts are thinking that China will do anything truly substantive to combat the Taliban, they are dead wrong.
Truth is, China has been a consistent free rider in Afghanistan. It has benefited commercially from the country while investing little in actually stabilizing it. Instead China has left that expensive and seemingly impossible task to the United States.
During last year’s presidential election, Donald Trump excoriated the George W. Bush Administration for not having taken Iraq’s oil to pay for the Iraq War. He similarly lambasted the Obama Administration for allowing ISIS to exploit Iraqi oil for its war effort. He believed that if America was to go to war in the Mideast or Central Asia (in Afghanistan’s case)—sacrificing so much toil and treasure—it should have been understood that America would take the oil until the war debt was repaid. He vowed to do something similar should he have to involve the United States in another costly war in the Muslim world during his presidency.
Well, there is already a costly war going on—in Afghanistan. The Trump Administration should consider seizing the copper mines (and other resource rich areas) in the name of the United States. The goal should be to develop those resources until the nearly $1 trillion war debt from the war in Afghanistan is paid down. Or, the United States should simply sell access to those assets and recoup its financial losses that way. Why should the Chinese benefit from our sacrifice in the mountains of Afghanistan?
If the Chinese wanted their share, they should have committed to the war effort. We have spent 15 years attempting to “stabilize” Afghanistan—yet the threat remains. In fact, it has intensified over the past eight years. With Pakistan, Russia, and now China all piling on (not to mention ISIS inserting itself in Afghanistan recently), America needs to recoup some of its losses.
The Trump Administration shouldn’t allow China, of all places, to profit from our war in Afghanistan. If any foreign power is going to profit from those resources, it should be America.