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.
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