Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


America’s Reputation Buried in the Graveyard of Empires

BEIJING, China – Another name has been chiseled on the tombstone of the “graveyard of empires.”

From the swords of Alexander the Great, the British empire, the Russians before and after Lenin, and the U.S. as the newest member of the Great Game, military powers have seen the Afghan sand swallow their ambitions. “Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1818.

Some commentators have said the abandonment of Afghanistan is the worst crisis facing the West since the Suez Canal crisis. They are wrong. This is much worse. The Suez crisis was about two fading empires, Britain and France, not appreciating or admitting their diminished post-war roles before the U.S. stepped in to restore perspective. Afghanistan is about betrayal, defeat, and an increased terror threat.

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it is sobering to remember that the U.S. went into Afghanistan to topple Al Qaeda and thereby reduce the terror threat. The United States leaves in 2021 allowing the Taliban, a terror group, to take over. At the very least, it is difficult to comprehend.

The West in Asia is discredited. North Korea and China can be expected to take advantage. It would be remiss of military planners in South Korea and Japan not to formulate a new defense strategy, one more firmly based on their own capabilities, in the light of the flight from Kabul.

America’s defeat by the Taliban will also bolster a whole host of terror groups from Hezbollah to Al Qaeda.

The Chinese saw it coming. Little commented on in the West, the Chinese hosted the Taliban in Tianjin at the end of July as Western military officials kept on talking about a timescale of months before Kabul was endangered. The Chinese realized in July that the Taliban were going to win within a matter of days or weeks. This is why Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, met Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s political chief, in Tianjin, around 60 miles east of Beijing, at the end of July. Just before this meeting, the Chinese had hosted Wendy Sherman, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, also in Tianjin. When they met the Taliban a few days later it was an indicator that they were taking the Taliban seriously. It was also a snub to the U.S., putting the Taliban envoy on par with Sherman.

Wang, as the occasion demanded, exchanged niceties with the Taliban. Beijing expected it to “play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan,” according to a readout of the meeting from the foreign ministry.

What this really means is that China will help the Taliban in aid and investment through the conduit of Pakistan. In return, the Taliban must not interfere in China’s restive region of Xinjiang, where Muslims are in the majority and up to a million are imprisoned by Beijing.

There is money to be made and plenty of deals to be done.

The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s plan, in part, is to establish trade routes from the East to Europe that cannot be targeted by U.S. sanctions, and it needs to get into Afghanistan to better access the Central Asian republics. Beijing is constructing a major road through the Wakhan Corridor—the strip of mountainous territory connecting Xinjiang in China to Afghanistan. This will provide a key route for its Belt and Road Initiative to Pakistan and Central Asia. These routes are essential for Beijing to pursue its goals of increased trade with the region. Crucially, Afghanistan’s natural resources, especially rare earth elements, essential for its computer and telecoms industry, can be mined and transported.

Laughable as it sounds now, Kabul had shunned participation in the initiative to avoid getting on the wrong side of Washington.

China’s approach is based both on commerce as well as security. It hopes to rebuild Afghanistan’s infrastructure indirectly. In terms of Afghanistan, China has been described as Pakistan’s ATM. This approach also gives China a hands-off deniability.

Beijing hopes to avoid the harsh lessons of history. Afghanistan is a country where history is marked in tombstones and China doesn’t want to be one of them.