- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2021

China is eying Afghanistan’s natural gas and precious metal deposits. Russia and Iran are cultivating ties with both the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents, with the goal of wielding influence no matter who ends up in control of Kabul.

President Biden’s decision to proceed with a full U.S. withdrawal by Sept. 11 has set into motion a strategic scramble among regional powers including China, Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and Turkey. All are poised to try to benefit from the inevitable vacuum that the American and NATO pullout will leave in its wake.

The White House expresses hope that it can play a role in shaping Afghanistan’s political future and that regional powers will support a lasting peace deal, but critics say Mr. Biden has either grossly misjudged reality or is simply ignoring Russian and Iranian collusion in Afghanistan, let alone China’s grand strategic ambitions for the region.

Hopes for a smooth transition after the U.S. pullout have dimmed. Mr. Biden’s own generals told Congress this week that the job of fighting terrorist groups with a foothold in Afghanistan, including the Islamic State group and al Qaeda, will be harder once U.S. forces are gone.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the Biden administration aims to spend some $300 million this fiscal year on Afghan civilian aid, but a major U.S.- and U.N.-backed multinational “peace summit” for Afghanistan set to start in Turkey on Saturday was abruptly postponed because of reports that the Taliban were balking at attending.

Afghanistan was the central prize in the 19th century “Great Game” battle of empires, and some say it looks like it will be reprising that role in the coming years.

Few in Washington from either political party took notice in June when China inked a special 25-year strategic partnership with Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the west. Over the past decade, Beijing has also pushed billions of dollars in infrastructure loans to Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan to the south and the east.

Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., said Mr. Biden’s decision on a full U.S. troop withdrawal “reflects American political reality but has very little to do with the on-the-ground reality of Afghanistan and the region.”

“Has anybody in the administration really thought through how this decision is tied to a greater U.S. grand strategy in relation to China or even Russia?” Mr. Haqqani asked during an interview.

“No one’s paid any attention to what China’s plans are for Afghanistan,” said Mr. Haqqani, who heads the South and Central Asia program at the Hudson Institute in Washington. “Chinese mining companies have been hovering around Kabul for mining contracts for a while now.”

‘Fundamental disconnects’

Frederick W. Kagan, who heads the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “There are some fundamental disconnects in the way President Biden and his team are talking about the region and the way the region actually is now.”

“There is more than a trace in the language of their presentation that Afghanistan’s neighbors all have an interest in preventing a Taliban takeover and that terrorists don’t use Afghanistan as a safe haven,” Mr. Kagan said. “I really have a problem with conducting strategy or foreign policy in the subjunctive.”

When American forces first arrived in Afghanistan almost 20 years ago, China was viewed as a secondary competitor to the U.S., with a far smaller economy and military.

“It has since become really an adversary and identifies us as an adversary,” Mr. Kagan said. “They’ve bought up promising parcels of mineral-bearing land in Afghanistan and have not provided aid or assistance to the Afghan government in any meaningful way. There is no reason to think that they have been scrupulous in ensuring that their investments and activities have not assisted the Taliban in the areas where they have been operating.”

Reports say the Pentagon and regional commanders have warned the White House that China and Russia are expanding their efforts to undermine U.S. influence in the region. Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Road trade routes that China’s communist leaders are trying to rebuild. Russia, meanwhile, has cultivated ties with both the Kabul government and the Taliban and considers it a strategic imperative that Afghanistan not come under the sway of a hostile foreign power.

Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who as commander of U.S. Central Command oversees the Pentagon’s mission in Afghanistan, testified to the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that efforts by Beijing and Moscow to “subvert the rules-based international order and gain strategic influence in the Middle East” have “accelerated in the past year.”

“The Middle East remains key terrain, and I believe China and Russia will continue to expand their efforts to improve their position in the region and diminish U.S. standing wherever possible,” the general said.

Some see a paradox emerging: Most of Afghanistan’s neighbors want Western troops out of the country, but they may regret the result if Afghanistan collapses into chaos again.

“There’s an irony here that on the one hand Iran, Russia and China, they would be very happy to see U.S. forces leave, just because they don’t want that U.S. influence in their backyard,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, said in a conference call with reporters last week. “However, at the same time, these countries do have an interest in a more stable Afghanistan.

“I think that these rivals of the U.S. are of two minds,” he said. “On the one hand, for strategic reasons, they’d like to see this U.S. footprint out of there sooner rather than later, but at the same time, I think they recognize that having those foreign forces there does prevent Afghanistan from deteriorating in ways that could impact their interests.”

Others point to major unknowns surrounding the question of how Russia, Pakistan, Iran or China will respond should the U.S. withdrawal trigger a full-blown security meltdown or Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

China may actually be a net loser in terms of Taliban ascendancy, although I don’t think a Taliban takeover of Kabul is a foregone conclusion,” Mr. Haqqani said.

He said fears of potential Taliban collusion with Chinese Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic group facing harsh government persecution inside China, may inspire Beijing to throw its weight behind the current government in Kabul, which is trying to stave off a Taliban takeover.

“If America does not keep its equities in Afghanistan, then the anti-Taliban force in there could end up being a Chinese protege, not an American one, and that would represent a major grand strategy loss over time for Washington, considering that nearby Pakistan is already lost to China in some ways,” Mr. Haqqani said.

“In global power competition,” he said, “you want more and more countries on your side, not on the side of your rival.”

But Michael Rubin, another American Enterprise Institute analyst, said the dynamic of the post-U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan is likely to undercut the ambitions of regional powers, including China.

“The big picture is that Afghanistan will likely revert to its pre-2001 order, with different neighboring states each sponsoring warlords along their borders to act as a buffer for their own influences,” Mr. Rubin said in an email exchange.

He dismissed the notion that China is poised to exploit Afghanistan’s natural resources. Beijing, he said, has already “largely blown its opportunity in Afghanistan.”

“Sure, they are interested in Afghan commodities, but they bribed their way to contracts and didn’t deliver, and so it’s unlikely that things will change now,” he said. “Instead, China is much more likely to approach Afghanistan through Pakistan, which is pretty much a Chinese fiefdom now.”

Wild cards

Mr. Rubin said Turkey and India will be “wild cards” in Afghanistan. Turkey has played a “double game” in recent years of praising the U.S.-NATO mission while making it clear to Afghans that Ankara’s position could shift easily once the Americans leave, he said.

“When I walk or drive around Kabul,” he said, “I see billboards put up by Turkey promoting a joint Islamic vision. … Afghans recognize that Turkey is more on the side of radical Islamist groups and perhaps even the Taliban than they are of NATO.”

Mr. Rubin said Moscow is also trying to “have it both ways.” Although the Kremlin has made headlines by bringing together Afghan, Taliban and international representatives for talks in Moscow, the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin “has every reason to worry about the spread of the Taliban’s messaging, especially given the rise of Russia’s own Muslim population.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized Mr. Biden’s withdrawal announcement, but only because it was “a clear violation” of President Trump’s promise to have all American forces out of Afghanistan by May 1.

“What is concerning in this context is that the armed conflict in Afghanistan might escalate in the near future, which in turn might undermine efforts to start direct intra-Afghan negotiations,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Others argue that once U.S. forces leave, the Putin government is unlikely to cooperate with U.S. military initiatives against extremists in the region, including any American or NATO strikes against the Taliban, al Qaeda or other terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials have said a reorganization of U.S. counterterrorism capabilities in the region will help ensure that extremists can’t plot more terrorist attacks from Afghan soil, but critics say U.S. strike capabilities are likely to be limited by Russian meddling in nations whose support may be required for such strikes.

The idea that American counterterrorism assets and military capabilities can be shifted to bases in the former Soviet republics on Afghanistan’s periphery is “one of the biggest and most obvious disconnects” of American strategic thinking about the Afghanistan withdrawal, Mr. Kagan said.

“The Russians have a large military presence in Tajikistan, they have tremendous influence and sway and periodic military positions in Kyrgyzstan,” he said. Both the Russians and the Turks are “competing for influence in Uzbekistan and that the Russians, the Turks and the Iranians are competing for influence in Turkmenistan.”

“Those are all the front-line states from which the U.S. could theoretically base to conduct future operations against al Qaeda or [the Islamic State group] in Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s not going to happen because none of those states are going to allow us that if the Russians tell them not to, which means that any posture we have in that region is going to be entirely hostage to what Putin feels like letting us do.”

• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

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