US Troops Afghanistan
Baz Ratner/Reuters US troops in Afghanistan, June 2011

This is second in the series on the flux in the global scene by the seasoned diplomat, an expert on Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific…Third on Myanmar will follow.

The “hidden agenda” of the war on terror in Afghanistan has been an open secret. The first inkling of its geopolitical character came when it transpired that even after installing a pro-US regime in Kabul in 2002-2003, Pentagon was in no mood to vacate its Central Asian bases. Finally, the bloody Islamist uprising in Andijan in Fergana Valley in May 2005 prompted Russia and China to orchestrate an SCO consensus seeking the expulsion of the US from those bases.

However, in public discussions, Russia and China have been reticent about that topic. Moscow occasionally broke its silence in recent years to voice disquiet that the US was transferring Islamic State fighters from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. Russia brought this up before the UN Security Council. But China largely kept mum.

Thus, a commentary in the CGTN in November 2020 titled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would require an end to interference in China’s affairs came as a bit of surprise.

It concluded with great prescience: “The Taliban hopes to see Biden respect the [Doha] deal… but it still leaves the question about the US real objectives in Afghanistan. And it’s clear … that in order for the U.S. to see its way out of Afghanistan, it has to first see its way out of China’s affairs, and hopefully, Biden will also commit to doing just that.”

As Biden prepares a soft landing for his controversial decision to keep the US forces in Afghanistan even beyond the May 1 deadline stipulated in the Doha pact, Beijing has reason to be worried. In remarks on Thursday, Biden did not rule out the possibility of US troops staying in Afghanistan through the end of the year. Biden said, “It’s not my intention to stay there for a long time. We will leave. The question is when we leave.” When asked specifically if US troops will still be in Afghanistan next year, he parried, ”I can’t picture that being the case.” Biden could have been categorical, but he preferred to be metaphorical.

Meanwhile, reports are galore that a powerful body of opinion in the Beltway, including lawmakers, opposes a closure to the “forever war” in Afghanistan. Various spurious arguments are being advanced — that US should conclusively vanquish the terrorist elements and ensure Afghanistan’s security and stability first; shore up the “gains” of the war such as women’s rights; ensure that no terror group ever again operates out of Afghanistan; prevent occurrence of a civil war, and so on.

Some of the NATO allies appear to empathise with these spurious arguments in Washington. 

To be sure, China senses a red herring, given the backdrop of the US campaign  on Xinjiang rising to a crescendo lately.

The Chinese MFA Spokesperson Hua Chunying began her regular press conference on Friday by showing the video of an event called “Genocide in Xinjiang?” that included clips of certain remarks by retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, at the Ron Paul Institute in Washington on August 2018 who spoke “on the threefold purposes of the US presence in Afghanistan, one of which is to contain China.” 

In Wilkerson’s assessment, one main reason behind the US presence in Afghanistan has been that “the CIA would want to destabilise China… (and) the best way to do it would be to foment unrest in Xinjiang.” Hua asked, “Doesn’t it feel like a déjà vu?” She cited Iraq, Syria and Hong Kong and underscored that “the so-called Uighur issue in Xinjiang is just a strategic conspiracy with an attempt to disrupt China from within and contain China.” 

The Chinese state media have given wide publicity to Hua’s remarks. Indeed, Xinjiang is a major logistics centre for China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the gateway to Central and West Asia, as well as to European markets.

The US is deeply hostile to the BRI and it is apparent that Washington’s campaign on Xinjiang is part of the Pentagon’s “Pivot to Asia,” along with naval threats in the South China Sea and support for separatist movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet.   

The CIA has a long history of “weaponising” Islamist groups.

It has for long sought to recruit and train Uighur mercenaries and Chechens from Russia’s Caucasus region, planning to use them as a future terror force in China, Central Asia and Russia. Both groups were integrated into the US’ regime-change operation in Syria and these battle-hardened fanatics formed the backbone of the Islamic State and Al-Qaida. 

Much of all this took place under President Barack Obama’s watch. Vice-President Biden, no doubt, had first-hand knowledge of the US’ long-term project to destabilise China and Russia — and why Afghanistan remains an irreplaceable hub in  the Pentagon’s regional strategy.

How far China’s hardening stance vis-a-vis the prospect of a long-term US military presence along Xinjiang’s border  is going to impact the Afghan peace process remains to be seen. To be sure, Beijing’s security concerns will register strongly on Pakistan’s stance vis-a-vis the Afghan peace process. Put differently, a new template is appearing in the complex Afghan peace process, which can be potentially consequential.

Iran is also intensely conscious of the dangers of a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan. The laser-guided missile attack on an Afghan military helicopter killing several military personnel in Wardak last week, reportedly by pro-Iranian militia, can be seen as a timely warning to the US military.

Clearly, the Biden administration’s refusal to give a firm commitment on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan can only complicate matters. The Taliban has taken exception to Biden’s move to defer the troop withdrawal. Biden’s lame excuse that logistical difficulties come in the way of troop withdrawal preys upon credulity.

Nonetheless, Biden seems confident that none of the major regional states — China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran — wants to bell the cat and confront the US. Biden can afford to be complacent so long as no body bags arrive from the Afghan killing fields.

Having said that, key regional countries, including Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran,  have a broad consensus on the Afghan peace process. They all want a political settlement of the Afghan war and also recognise the Taliban as a political entity.

Indeed, Moscow has given a tepid reaction to Biden’s deferment plan, leaving things to Washington and the Taliban. Russia counts on Pakistan to do the right thing and is deepening its cooperation with the latter’s “very active and constructive efforts.” China of course has a robust alliance with Pakistan.

Washington is pulling all stops to reach a deal exclusively with Pakistan and Taliban devolving upon the creation of an interim government in Kabul. Two top British commanders came to Rawalpindi in the space of a fortnight this month to discuss Afghanistan with the Pakistani COAS Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, including the chief of the Strategic Command General Sir Patrick Nicholas Yardley Monrad Sanders, who handles Britain’s covert and overt operations abroad.

London traditionally acted as the vanguard of US military and intelligence operations on the territories of the erstwhile British Empire. Biden had a call with UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Friday where they, inter alia, “agreed to work closely together on shared foreign policy priorities, including China and Iran.”


Posted in his blog on March 27, 2021 by M. K. BHADRAKUMAR

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years. He introduces about himself thus:  “Roughly half of the 3 decades of my diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. I write mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific…”

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One Comment

  1. NEWS2VIEW says:

    This article poses somewhat of a false dichotomy. The logic flows as follows: The CIA has had a history of making bad calls (true). China, Russia and Iran resent U.S. troops on their back step (true). The U.S. has no conceivable reason to stay in Afghanistan (false).

    In our woke era, the focus is on being internally “right” vs. externally pragmatic about the world we live in. The “right call” is to leave this forever war in Afghanistan. The pragmatic call is to understand that if the U.S. surrenders its leverage, it will embolden everyone to do as they see fit in their particular sphere of influence, wherein formerly a concern for U.S. reaction held the line against further unraveling.

    I foresee the announcement that Biden will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, without even a residual presence under which humanitarian operations and intel gathering can continue, to be akin to shooting ourselves in the foot. President Biden is old and, unlike his predecessor — whose mercurial behavior kept everyone guessing, both friend and foe — Biden is understood for what he is: A front man who has trouble without his cue-cards, who struggles to complete his sentences and thoughts, who avoids press conferences where random questions may catch him off guard (a U-turn from his predecessor) and a leader, who despite the support of his majority party, has largely governed through the lazy approach: executive orders. The Biden we have in the White House today may be non-threatening to Americans, unlike his predecessor, but he is also non-threatening to our adversaries. Perhaps nothing illustrated this better than the level of disrespect a Chinese delegation demonstrated toward Anthony Blinken. It is clear already, at this early stage in the Biden administration, that China does not take us seriously. At this juncture, President Biden has signaled his willingness to think like “Joe Q. Citizen” — concerned with the untenable length of our involvement in Afghanistan — but less like a president (willing to weigh not only U.S. strategic interest and long-term security but the fragile nature of peace elsewhere in the world).

    What this sets up, potentially, is a signal for bad actors to make their move — a conflagration not seen since the last Century’s world wars. Must history be doomed to repeat because we surrendered an Afghanistan base that is of strategic value in keeping threats in Iran, China and Russia from materializing?

    I hope I am wrong but God forbid I am right: Biden has telegraphed a weak message to leaders abroad who do not align with our interests. One of the earliest indicators of this “weakness” (perceived at any rate) is the border crisis. Caravans began to form in November shortly after Biden won election — with migrants interviewed on the journey who claimed “Biden told us to come” (they later arrived with T-shirts saying “Biden let us in”). While the situation at the Southern border may seem to be completely and wholly unrelated to Biden’s announcement to withdraw from Afghanistan, it is nonetheless a component of the overall ineptitude (weakness) of the current administration. For example, the Biden administration claims that the numbers of migrants we are seeing at the Southern border does not represent a surge, let alone a “crisis” — but already the numbers of people in just the few short months of this year exceed what was seen over similar periods in prior years. While countries around the world are vested, due to the pandemic, in securing their borders, the Biden administration seems powerless in the face not merely of people traveling on foot in search of a better life — but in the midst of pandemic.

    To Americans, the Southern border represents a humanitarian crisis. To hostile onlookers abroad, however, it is an indication that the Biden administration has lost the fortitude and capacity (stomach) to perform the basic functions of government, of which border security during a time of global pandemic is a legitimate responsibility (neither migrant well-being, nor U.S. public health are served by Biden administration denials). The rubber hits the road not only because we are in the midst of a pandemic but because individuals on terrorist watch lists have been apprehended at this same border. Rather than the appearance of suspected terrorists on our Southern border serving as a wake-up call to the Biden administration, press releases about these events issued by Customs and Border Patrol have been removed shortly after they are posted online, no doubt because the Biden administration does not want want evidence in circulation that his administration is in over its head!

    This is not about slamming the Biden that Americans and our allies knew during the Obama years and prior during his Senate career (although, in fairness, Biden was on the wrong side of the Iraq war and numerous other foreign policy issues over the years). The greater problem is that our adversaries are opportunists. While we Americans breathe a sigh of relief that “Evil Orange Man” is no longer in the Oval Office, our adversaries deal in realities we prefer to downplay and ignore. President Biden is the oldest living president in office. His election has served to project a harmless, grandfatherly counterpoint to his predecessor. While this may put Americans’ minds at ease after an overly-dramatic and scandal-plagued Trump presidency, it sends an “all clear” message to global adversaries! Do we appreciate that as of this very day — April 14, 2021 — that Biden’s announcement about the impending wholesale withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has flung the door open to MORE — not less! — international provocations? By accommodating what others want — i.e. China — he doesn’t make them less likely to act against U.S. interests, he makes them more empowered to begin testing where the limits of American foreign policy actually lie.

    The Biden administration should not be surprised if they suddenly find themselves faced not only with the successful transit of terrorists across our Southern border but a conflagration. If one gets outside of the myopic American media bubble, what is at stake is all too obvious. The risk now is that: Russia executes on threats against Ukraine. China executes on threats against Hong Kong and Taiwan. Iran executes on threats against Israel. North Korea moves on South Korea.

    To be clear: I was never a Robert Kagan neocon, nor am I a rebranded “liberal interventionist”. I was against the original Gulf War, having understood that it would destabilize the region. (And it did: Bin Laden credited that war for radicalizing him.) I was against the baseless invasion of Iraq and stood alone among almost everyone I encountered post-9/11 in seeing through the faulty intelligence in which the Bush administration attempted to link the terrorist events of 9/11 to Iraq. To this day, I deeply sympathize with the desire to end these costly “forever wars”. Nonetheless, I am also a realist: The world we live in is not comprised of what we wish for. It is comprised of what it is — a place in which the surrender of U.S. strategic advantage as an appeasement to China may destabilize the global order more than it serves to acknowledge our mistakes in entering these forever wars the first place! The historic pattern is that we enter wars for dubious reasons, achieve only a modest amount of success, then throw away decades worth of taxpayer money and the lives of our troops who have served in these war zones by “pulling the plug” so to speak (once we get sufficiently fed up or tapped out). Too often, a vacuum forms upon our poorly-conceived exit, with the ensuing void filled by worse. It is said that history often repeats. I would rather see a residual presence in Afghanistan, than another world war.