China and the US in Afghanistan

It’s good to put yourself into the shoes of others from time to time. For a while now, I’ve been trying to imagine the conversations that the Central Committee of the Chinese Committee Party doubtless hold from time to time about the various overseas adventures (!) of the US military.
I’m guessing they were intrigued but not, in the circumstances, very surprised by Pres. G.W. Bush’s original decision to invade Afghanistan in October 2001. That invasion brought the US military into a country that shares a short and extremely inhospitable border with China. So the arrival of the US military there– and in various of the other Central Asian Stans that share longer borders with China– must have caused the CCP planners some concern. But the US campaign was wholly focused on Islamist opponents of one variety or another; and it did significantly distract the attention of US military planners from the confrontations they had previously been gaming over in the South China Sea and other areas where China would be the direct target…
(Hainan incident, anyone? That had been GWB’s debut involvement in international affairs, remember.)
So after October 2001, I’m guessing it was “watchful waiting” for the guys in the CCP as they watched the US military maneuvering around the inhospitable mountains of Central Asia.
Then, 18 months later, came the US invasion of Iraq. I’m imagining the guys in the CCP being delirious with delight, toasting Rumsfeld in copious mao-tai or whatever, rubbing their eyes in amazement at just how amazingly stupid the leadership of the US could be!
And then, over the six years that followed, they watched quietly as Washington poured vast amounts of treasure and blood into Iraq in a campaign that very soon started to seriously degrade both the US military and the US economy.
Finally, after the November 2006 elections, Bob Gates’s realism started to pull the US ship of state slowly around from continuing too strongly with that folly.
But then, there was (and still is) the US campaign in Afghanistan.
Now, I’m thinking that the guys in the CCP are having serious second and third thoughts about that. Oh yes, how fabulous (from their POV) to see Washington continuing to degrade the American military and economy even more– over yet another completely un-“winnable” military campaign in a distant-from-the-US Asian country. But there is this other thing the CCP guys very strongly (and probably quite realistically) believe in, which is the deep inter-dependence of the US and China in world affairs.
There’s a portion of the US-China relationship that’s fairly zero-sum-gamey. But there is another portion, which I– and I think they– believe is bigger, which is pretty win-winny (though still not without some elements of competitiveness: sibling rivalry, if you will.)
Win-winning-ness is most evident in the economic relations between the two countries. But it is also present in the need they both share to find a way– preferably, of course, a way that is based neither on confrontation nor on oppression– to deal with various strong currents in the Muslim ummah.
So how long can Beijing go on just watching as the US beats itself to a bloody pulp in Afghanistan? And/or, at what point will the guys in Beijing choose to step in and, first, “offer” their help; or, at a later point, perhaps even start to insist that Washington take it?
Might we be reaching the first of those two points just now?
… From time to time I try to check up on what various Chinese sources are saying about the US’s various military adventures. Which is another way of saying that in between those times, I don’t pay the topic nearly enough attention.
But this week, helpful JWN commenter JohnH directed me to this recent piece in Asia Times, written by a retired, senior Indian diplomat… And that piece then sent me to this important article, authored, as the AT piece says, by deputy general of the China Council for National Security Policy Studies, Li Qinggong, and published by Xinhua in English on September 28.
Li writes,

    Afghanistan’s political and social turmoil has been aggravated by different intentions of the participating nations that constitute the coalition forces.
    In the short term, the fragile Afghan regime is finding it difficult to tame its restive domestic situation. Still, a prescription could help bring the country out of the mess if key players adopt a peaceful and reconciliatory approach in their push for the end of the war.
    The United States should first put an end to the war. The anti-terror war, which the former US administration of George W Bush launched in 2001, has turned out to be the source of ceaseless turbulence and violence in the past years.
    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.

And here’s where it gets even more interesting:

    Support from the international community is needed to help Afghanistan make a substantive move toward peace. The international community can take advantage of the ever-mounting anti-war calls within the US to prompt the Obama administration to end the war and withdraw US troops. Germany, France and Britain have planned an international conference this year to discuss the gradual withdrawal of Afghanistan military deployment. International pressures may offer Obama another excuse to withdraw US troops. The UN Security Council should carry the baton from the three European nations to convene a conference on the Afghanistan issue and try to reach a consensus among its five permanent Security Council members and draft a roadmap and timetable for resolution of the thorny issue. In the process, a ticklish issue is whether parties concerned can accept the Taliban as a key player in Afghanistan and how to dispose of the Al Qaeda armed forces, an issue that has a key bearing on the outcome of any international conference on the Afghanistan issue.
    Surely, an international peacekeeping mission is needed in the absence of US troops. With the aid of international peacekeepers, the Afghanistan government and its security forces can be expected to exercise effective control over domestic unrest and maintain peace and security.

So far, this still looks like a very preliminary trial balloon. But it is a trial balloon that this evidently well-connected figure has now gone ahead and floated, in the government’s own English-language media.
It’s one we should all think about.
… Longtime JWN readers will be well aware that one argument I’ve made repeatedly over recent years is that the western nations who constitute NATO are just about the worst instrument one could image for trying to “pacify” Afghanistan; and that if the help of non-Afghan outsiders is needed for this task– as it seems to be– then having the UN play the lead role would be far more effective than imagining that “the west” can do this job alone. (Or, perhaps, at all.)
Just one final note. There’s an ardent young American “COIN”- admirer called Andrew Exum who’s gained some publicity in the past couple of years for the blog he “cheekily” decided to call “Abu Muqawama” (Father of the Resistance). Recently, Exum and his blog got hired by a “liberal hawkish” new think-tank in Washington called the Center for a New American Security, which is famous mainly for the fact that its previous head, Michele Flournoy, is now the Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy. (Several other previous CNAS people have also gone into the Obama administration. Not, altogether, good news: I have a deep wariness about liberal hawks.)
So anyway, yesterday the breathless young Exum reported on his blog that around the halls of CNAS,

    there is a pretty lively debate among the scholars and staff who work here about whether or not we should continue a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan when we might instead be focusing on preserving our energies for rising powers. Obviously enough, those of us who work on Afghanistan and counterinsurgency feel one way (more or less), while those who work on China and the rest of Asia feel another way (again, more or less… )

This strikes me as an incredibly naive– but also revealing– view. “Rising powers” obviously refers to China. But what still-extant “energies” is he talking about preserving? Energies for fighting China sometime in the future? Can he really mean that?
Also, is he telling us that the people at CNAS who “work on” China are working mainly on thining about plans for a future military confrontation with it? If so, that is very worrying indeed. (But not surprising, all in all, from such a hotbed of liberal hawks.)
But here’s where Exum’s naivete lies. Rather than the US fighting China any time soon (or ever), my judgment is that at some point within the next 4-5 years, the US government will be begging China and the rest of the international community to help it to find a way out of Afghanistan.
Unusually enough, I agree more on this point with Robert Kaplan than I do with Andrew Exum. Kaplan wrote in the NYT yesterday,

    if we stay in Afghanistan and eventually succeed, other countries will benefit more than we will. China, India and Russia are all Asian powers, geographically proximate to Afghanistan and better able, therefore, to garner practical advantages from any stability our armed forces would make possible.

Actually, at this point, whether the US stays in Afghanistan or leaves, and whether it “succeeds” there (whatever that means) or doesn’t, then the sheer indisputable fact of the costs the US has paid on account of its two military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past eight years (both initiated by GWB) means that all the elements of US national power have been considerably degraded over the past eight years, while important elements of the national power of China and Russia– I’m not so sure about India– have meanwhile continued on a path of growth.
I guess ever since I did the little bit of research that led to this August 2008 blog post on the sheer size and scope of China’s investments in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve had this idea that one of the main effects of George W. Bush’s two big military (mis-)adventures in distant countries has been to make those countries safe for Chinese mercantilism.
Now there’s irony for you, eh?

6 thoughts on “China and the US in Afghanistan

  1. Titus

    I have to agree, I always have been annoyed by the US spending treasure and lives in far lands while other beneficiaries are busy outsourcing and exporting their way to prosperity, and thought that the non nonsense approach is to link military help from China and India to market access. People is something they have plenty of.
    Comes without saying that they should be on same side of the fence regarding the Al Qaeda and radical Islam threat>
    http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/10/08/china.uyghur.threat/index.html
    (CNN) — A high-ranking al Qaeda leader has called on China’s minority Uyghurs to prepare for a holy war against the Chinese government.
    “There is no way for salvation and to lift this oppression and tyranny unless you … seriously prepare for jihad in the name of God and carry your weapons against the ruthless brutal invader thugs,” Abu Yahia Al-Libi said Wednesday in a video on an Islamist Web site. He delivered his message in Arabic.

  2. JohnH

    If I were the Chinese leadership, I would be alternately shocked, delighted and frightened by the magnitude of the US self-destructive tendencies.
    Then, I would feel astonished and humbled by the realization that the CCP may represent the only remaining adult supervision available to the US leadership.
    Finally, I agree, I would start to pursue ways to gently pursue adult supervision in ways that would benefit both countries, easing the US off its pedestal instead of allowing the US to take the world down with it.

  3. Titus

    “I’m glad we’ve found something we can sincerely agree on.”
    Maybe I am mellowing with age but I am sincerely agreeing with quite a few posts lately, including the Olympics fiasco, the Nazi paraphrenalia collector, the Nobel prize, and the Afghanistan dilemma in general.
    Keep it up, smart minds think alike :).

  4. Helena

    JohnH, you capture my thoughts precisely. One of my reference points in all this is the transition that occurred in a broad swathe of the world that included the Middle East, between 1956 and 1970– from British hegemony to US hegemony, with the US easing Britain off its pedestal there.
    I think the stakes are both higher and more truly global this time round. There’s a lot to be concerned about regarding the “Communist” (Ha!) part of China’s governance structure. But i have huge respect for the CCP’s deepseated realism, understanding of their own limits, and apparent understanding that the nature of effective power in world politics has shifted radically from hard power, arms racing etc to a much more networked form of soft/economic power.

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