Now officially in its ninth year since the invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. should have little reason to recount, in Chalmers Johnson’s words, the Sorrows of Empire. By now everyone on the planet knows by heart the tragic tale. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan without a clear understanding of its goals and after eight years remains as torn as ever over defining them. It was hoped that the incoming Obama administration and its new AfPak strategy would finally end the drift toward quagmire, but that hope is fading fast. Last week, AfPak architect Bruce Riedel revealed in the Financial Times that “Pretty much six months has since gone by without a rigorous implementation of what was agreed to and that has only made a bad situation worse.”
As Washington’s paralysis deepens and Afghanistan slips further into chaos, the U.S. faces a crisis of credibility. Can Washington shift its focus to nation-building and help the Afghan people restore their ravaged nation to health? Or should the U.S. continue to pursue what seems at this point an opium dream; hunting an elusive Al Qaeda, who are “believed” to be hiding in Pakistan? Last week one major player on the world scene made their opinion known, but nobody in the U.S. was listening.
Amidst the deafening internal debate in Washington, a startling event occurred. On Monday September 28, in the Chinese government owned English language newspaper China Daily, an article titled, “Afghan peace needs a map,” by Li Qinggong, deputy secretary-general of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, stated flatly that the time had come for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan.
“To promote much-needed reconciliation among the parties concerned, the US should end its military action. The war has neither brought the Islamic nation peace and security as the Bush administration originally promised, nor brought any tangible benefits to the US itself. On the contrary, the legitimacy of the US military action has been under increasing doubt.”
A Chinese challenge to the war’s legitimacy is of no minor consequence. The Chinese have their own well established agenda regarding the growth of Al Qaeda extremism on their southern border. A July report in China Daily claimed that for the first time in its 82 year history, the 2.3 million-strong People’s Liberation Army has drawn up separate regulations for its anti-terrorism operations. The Chinese view extremists and separatists as terrorists and employed harsh military force on Muslim Uyghur separatists in their own Xinjiang province last July. What should be a wakeup call to Washington is the willingness of an official Chinese newspaper to interfere in what would normally be viewed as an internal U.S. government struggle, at a decisive and vulnerable moment in its evolution of the administration’s AfPak policy.
Of shocking interest was Li Qinggong’s desire to separate the U.S. military from its own commander and chief, who “Since taking office,… has been under pressure from the Pentagon for military reinforcements in Afghanistan.,” advising him that, “The calls of war opponents over that of supporters will give the young US president the best chance to extricate himself from the Pentagon’s pressure.”
Coming at a critical moment when U.S. economic power is in decline and China’s on the rise, Li Qinggong’s message should be taken as a serious sign that if Washington is not willing to decide the limits of its empire, the Chinese are. China’s involvement in Afghanistan is nothing new, but until now they have kept their ambitions largely to themselves. Although denied by Beijing, the Chinese played a supporting role in pushing the Soviets to invade in December 1979 by arming and training Islamist extremists in Xinjiang province. According to a British Round Table of April 1981, (No. 282) “earlier in 1979 China had already tried to set up a Muslim Republic of Pamir on the Afghanistan territory of Badakhshan and the Wakhan corridor.”
In the last few years China has emerged as a major player in both Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s economy. In 2007, China’s Metallurgical group won a $3.5 billion bid to develop Afghanistan’s Aynak copper field in Logar province. In Pakistan, China’s development of the strategic port of Gwadar on the Makran coast has been described as Pakistan’s flagship infrastructure project.
But should the Chinese decide that the time has come to draw a line on American involvement in Afghanistan and flex their growing influence in the region, the war that the U.S. has been fighting for the last eight years will seem merely as child’s play to what is to come.