Will the New Silk Roads, a.k.a. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ever manage to cross the Hindu Kush?
Temerity is the name of the game. Even though strategically located astride the Ancient Silk Road, and virtually contiguous to the US$50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a key BRI node – Afghanistan is still mired in war.
It’s easy to forget that way back in 2011 – even before President Xi Jinping announced BRI, in Kazakhstan and Indonesia, in 2013 – the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touted her own Silk Road, in Chennai. No wonder the State Dept.’s vision bit Hindu Kush dust – because it assumed war-torn Afghanistan as the plan’s lynchpin.
The state of play in Afghanistan in 2017 is even more depressing. Dysfunctional does not even begin to describe the administration that emerged out of the fractious 2014 presidential election and which passes for a government.
Since 2002 Washington has spent a mind-boggling US$780 billion on its (unfinished) Operation Enduring Freedom. It has absolutely nothing to show for it – apart from over 100,000 dead Afghans.
President Obama’s much-touted 2009 nation-building-cum-counterinsurgency surge was, predictably, a disaster. Aside from reframing the global war on terror (GWOT) as Overseas Contingent Operations (OCO) it achieved nothing. There was no “clear, hold, and build”; the Taliban are back virtually everywhere.
Washington has spent around US$110 billion in Afghan “reconstruction.” Adjusted for inflation that’s roughly equivalent to the full cost of the Marshall Plan. Yet no gleaming Afghan Frankfurt sprang up around the Ghazni minaret; over US$70 billion went to the Afghan military and police; and waste and corruption were always pervasive. Afghanistan’s GDP last year was still a paltry US$17 billion, or US$525 per capita.
The new Afghan “policy” under the Trump administration has consisted in dropping an MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) in the east, to no effect, coupled with the Pentagon demanding more troops. Enduring Freedom forever, indeed.
Wanna go mining? Ask the Taliban
It should not come as a surprise that, under the radar and without most Atlanticist circles even noticing, Chinese government researchers recently met with foreigners in Beijing for a discussion billed as “Afghanistan Reconnected”.
Sun Yuxi, the first Chinese ambassador to Kabul after the Taliban were bombed out of power in late 2001, correctly summed up the stakes as follows: “If the way and connectivity through Afghanistan is not open, it would be like an important vein being blocked on the Belt and Road, which leads to many diseases to this organ.”
How to reconnect/ reconstruct/ rebuild Afghanistan is the substance of sleepless nights in places such as the Beijing-based Centre for China & Globalization think tank.
Everyone knows about the projections Afghanistan may be sitting on at least US$1 trillion in mineral wealth from copper, gold, iron ore, uranium and precious stones. But how to safely extract it?
Beijing’s security dilemma about protecting its investments is spectacularly illustrated by the ongoing Mes Aynak copper mine saga. The Chinese Metallurgical Group Corp bought the mine – 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul – in 2008. Theirs was the largest foreign investment project in Afghanistan. It took the Taliban another eight years to pledge its resolve not to attack it.
Meanwhile, on the railway front – which is key to BRI – in September 2016 the first ever freight train from China arrived in Haratan, in Afghanistan, via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The trade flow is still negligible, though, so no regular service for now.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by Russia and China, is finally stepping in. At its latest summit, while warning about the security “deterioration”, the SCO pledged to be directly engaged in finding an “all-Asian” solution for Afghanistan, with both India and Pakistan, now full SCO members, on board.
The “Syraq” connection
Afghanistan is a close neighbor to the Xinjiang autonomous region – and some of its most inaccessible parts host the odd member of the Uyghur separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is closely linked to al-Qaeda (while being dismissed by Islamic State).
To compound the problem, any possible New Silk Road eventually traversing the Hindu Kush must consider the direct connection with what’s happening with the phony caliphate in “Syraq”.
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is moving inexorably towards the Iraq border. At the same time, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units have reached the Syrian border in Al-Waleed. Between them we happen to find US forces – which are occupying al-Tanaf in Syria. Damascus and Baghdad have agreed, however, to close the al-Tanaf crossing from the Iraqi side of the border. This means the US forces have nowhere to go, except back to Jordan.
Bets can be made that the Pentagon won’t take this lightly. The Ministry of Defense in Moscow is convinced these US forces will use High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to eventually prevent the meeting of the Iraqi units and the Syrian army, whose mission is to pursue Daesh remnants inside Syrian territory.
This “Syraq” meeting of the armies is so important because it heralds in effect the realignment of a key nexus in the New Silk Roads: Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut.
It is a categorical imperative for Beijing to expand BRI across the Levant, linking China to the Mediterranean overland just like the Ancient Silk Road did. And yet that clashes frontally with the crucial fact admitted on record by Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn himself: that the Obama administration made a “willful decision” to let Islamic State fester, with the objective of arriving at a “Sunnistan” across “Syraq” as a means to accelerate regime change in Damascus. Translation: let ISIS break up the BRI in the Levant.
There’s no question influential sectors of the US deep state have not abandoned the project. At the same time President Trump has declared unwavering war on ISIS. The fundamental question is whether the “House of Saud policy” – striking against Damascus and its supporters in Iran – will prevail in Washington.
When the Taliban went after Afghan warlords across Pashtun lands in the mid-1990s, the local population supported them because they brought safety to roads and villages. They were widely regarded as angels fallen from heaven to help the Prophet against his enemies in Mecca.
In my travels across “Talibanistan,” some of them documented at Asia Times, I found the Taliban to be stone-cold pious and moralistic, enveloped in a sort of heavily-weighted obscurity, virtually inaccessible.
But the main actors in this renewed Great Game in the Hindu Kush are far from being the Taliban. It’s all about the jihadi diaspora after the collapse of the caliphate in “Syraq”.
ISIS is already shipping out jihadis in retreat in both Iraq and Syria to the Hindu Kush. At the same time, it is actively enrolling scores of Pashtuns with lots of cash and weapons – a workforce including tens of thousands of potential suicide bombers.
Besides Afghans, a new batch of recruits includes Chechens, Uzbeks and Uyghurs, all of them quite capable of blending in with the scenery in a mountainous region inaccessible even to the Pentagon’s MOABs.
It’s no wonder secularized Afghans in Kabul already fear that Afghanistan is the new citadel of a re-morphed caliphate. Against the self-declared Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), it’s up to the SCO – primarily China, Russia, India, Pakistan – to come up with a rescue brigade. Otherwise Eurasian integration will be in mortal danger all across the intersection of Central and South Asia.