Will China Pull U.S. Out of Afghanistan Quagmire?

Shiping Tang, Ting Zhao, Hongyu Gu & Di Liu

On September7th, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced that he would cancel the negotiation with the Taliban originally scheduled on the very next day in Camp David, which marked the failure of peace talks between the Pentagon and the Taliban. The suspension of peace talks is at odds with Trump’s previous commitment to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. After the announcement, the spokesman of the Taliban said that the Taliban forces would strengthen its offense against the Afghan government forces and American troops. The security situation of Afghanistan started to deteriorate further. The United States waged the war against Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban regime after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. In the past nearly two decades, at least 2,400 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Afghanistan has been caught in turmoil. With the increasing power of Taliban forces in recent years, the U.S. government started to negotiate with the Taliban. The two sides have held nine rounds of negotiations since the end of last year and reached a draft deal. Under the draft deal, the United States will withdraw 5,000 troops from five military bases in Afghanistan within 135 days, and the Taliban has promised that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for extremist groups after the American troops withdraw. However, although the two sides reached a draft deal, the Taliban forces have been continuously waging small-scale attacks targeted American soldiers, the Afghan forces and even Afghan civilians, which raged Washington to call off the peace talk.

Moreover, the continuously deteriorating security situation has made Pentagon postpone timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In the early time, U.S. Lieutenant General Scott Miller warned that if U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan rapidly, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists would occupy Afghanistan quickly and Afghanistan will again be a base for terrorists who want to attack as many of American people and American national interest as they possibly can. Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani also admitted that rapid U.S. troops withdrawal would lead to total collapse of Afghan National Army and life of the Kabul government would not be able to exceed half year, because awful situation in Afghanistan couldn’t leave support from U.S. troops and its NATO allies. In the end of 2017, a large batch of terrorists escaped to South and Southeast Asia including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia after Islamic State was defeated by U.S.-led international coalition in the Middle East, and Afghanistan again became an important destination where these terrorists hid. Faced with increasingly exasperated Afghanistan situation, Trump government has changed its timetable to withdraw from Afghanistan and believed that U.S. troops can’t withdraw from Afghanistan within a short term and it will stay until complete victory against terrorism in Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan worse off after 18 years of war on terrorism and spent more than 1 trillion dollars from American taxpayers, which is nearly equivalent to GDP of a Russia. Then can U.S. taxpayers win the victory in the War on terrorism in Afghanistan by spending another 18 years and 1 trillion dollars?

In terms of geographical distance, U.S. is farther away from Afghanistan than China. It takes over 20-30 hours to fly for 6,929 miles from Washington D.C. to Kabul, transit shipment in multiple cities like New Delhi, Dubai or Istanbul needed. Interestingly, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists in Afghanistan have always taken U.S. and its national interests as primary attack target, rather than China and its national interests, which bordering Afghanistan. Reports of news media have also verified this point. China and its national interests have rarely been regarded as attack target of terrorists in Afghanistan. It’s noteworthy that even though primary attack target of these terrorists is U.S. Beijing seems to be more worried than Washington that terrorists in Afghanistan territory will turn their attack target into China. More and more evidences have proved that some terrorists in Afghanistan have no good feeling about China, and China may become their attack target in the near future. It is therefore, both Washington and Beijing can find same topics to maintain their respective national interests over Afghanistan issues. Washington needs to get out of Afghanistan quagmire and prevent Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to threaten to attack U.S. and its national interests; Beijing needs a peaceful and stable Afghanistan neighbor and prevent Afghanistan from becoming an unstable factor affecting the western of China. Hence, will China pull U.S. out of Afghanistan quagmire?

Beijing has a high willingness to cooperate, depending on the example of the relationship between the U.S and its neighbors. U.S. has two neighboring countries: a rich, stable and friendly Canada which conforms to U.S. national interests and a poor, unstable and uncooperative Mexico, which become largest nightmares of U.S. The Trump government even plans to build a physical fence/barriers to interdict illegal smugglers and drugs. It’s obvious that owning rich, stable and friendly neighbors is the dream of all countries worth pursuing. From the perspective of China, China has 14 continental neighboring countries, the figure is about 7 times of U.S., and so China has a complicated international environment than U.S. China longs for stable and harmonious surrounding international environment, not hoping to be surrounded by neighbors which continuously generate refugees and drugs. After the cold war, Beijing has solved territory and refugee issues with most neighboring countries based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and in this way China has recovered peaceful and stable relationships with most neighboring countries. In 2013, China proposed the Belt and Road Initiative and hoped that surrounding regions could become a rich and prosper region. China tries its best to prevent these countries from being in poorness and chaos for a long time, because this will affect peace and development in China. From surrounding environment of China, 13 continental neighboring countries are basically under continuous development except for Afghanistan. Therefore, a poor, unstable and uncooperative Afghanistan will only generate various issues like refugees and drugs towards neighboring countries. Therefore, Beijing also hopes that Afghanistan can become a rich, stable and friendly neighboring country and is willing to help it to reach the goal, but not on the contrary. Since 1955 when China established diplomatic relation with Afghanistan, Beijing has provided various aids for Afghanistan and especially after the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001, the Chinese government has enlarged supporting degree for Afghanistan, and these aids include all aspects like medical care, good and infrastructure and Beijing has made endless efforts to socio-economic development of Afghanistan.

As mentioned above, Afghanistan is an important neighboring country of China. Beijing hopes that Afghanistan can be a rich, stable and friendly neighboring country to China, and Washington also hopes to save expenditures of taxpayers and withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan quagmire to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming an base of terrorist groups to attack U.S. and its national interests. From this point, Beijing and Washington have common national interests over Afghanistan issues, that’s to say, preventing Afghanistan from becoming an unstable factor affecting national interests of China and U.S. It needs to point out that the past 18-year history has proved that recovering peace and stability in Afghanistan is not within the foreseeable future only by depending on U.S. and its NATO allies. Then if China joins in Afghanistan talk, can it provide the world with a different Chinese Scheme? From the perspective of Afghanistan, China doesn’t stand on any side as a bystander of the War in Afghanistan, so it can win preliminary trust from all kinds of influential powers in Afghanistan. Therefore, it is possible to establish a peaceful dialogue mechanism just like “six-party talks”of the Korean Peninsula, which is a key step to realize peace and stability of Afghanistan. Next, neighbouring countries can be prevented from solving Afghanistan issues at their own discretion only when more stakeholders are invited to participate in peaceful progress of Afghanistan.

Last but not least, are the elites in Washington ready to invite Beijing to join the peace process in Afghanistan? This is the key issue that needs more consideration.

Shiping Tang, Scholar, Kunming Institute for advanced Information Studies, P. R. China; Ting Zhao, Scholar, Yunnan University, P. R. China; Hongyu Gu, Scholar, Kunming University of Science and Technology, P. R. China; Di Liu, Scholar, Yunnan Vocational College of Land and Resources, P. R. China