America’s Afghanistan fatigue is facilitating the rise of China

“Our failure to properly handle Germany and Japan earlier in the 20th Century cost us and the world most dearly. We must not make the same mistake with China.” – Steve Forbes

Steve Forbes’ sentiment has received much lip-service from politicians in Washington – in Presidential debates, on cable news and on the floor of Congress. Yet when it comes to Afghanistan and Central Asia, our leaders remain willfully ignorant of the effect of an absolute withdrawal on our attempts to contain China.

Let me be clear: Central Asia is to China what Eastern Europe was to Russia. It is the first step. So why then, are we handing it to China?

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Since the moment the dust settled in New York, Arlington and Shankesville, we have been bombarded with images of the struggle to tame an untamable land - to avenge the loss of our loved ones, and regain our security.

We’ve sacrificed many more lives – 57,000 Americans dead or wounded – and $1.4 trillion in search of some justice that we can call victory. We wanted triumphant images, like those of Dunkirk and Iwo Jima. Instead we got a large bill and a steady stream of hearses to Arlington.

So now, like a widow longing for an end to her grief, Americans are calling for an end, and the politicians that represent them are calling for a ‘zero option’ in Central Asia.

Yet obscured by these tragic images is a positive reality that is emerging from the dust of a decade of conflict. It’s a reality in which the people of Central Asia are swapping bombs for buildings and poppies for pomegranates. It’s a reality in which double-digit growth is permanently transforming the lives of the local people (and with it the recruitment prospects for groups such as al-Qaeda). It’s a reality in which a superpower has emerged from its slumber to unleash the potential of a downtrodden region.

That superpower is China.

Because while the U.S. is mourning yesterday’s defeat, China is building tomorrow’s success. And what a success it is.

Over the past two decades, China has increased trade with Central Asia 100-fold, to $46 billion. That is over $700 per citizen, per year, in a region where one-quarter live on less than 2 dollars per day.

Unhampered by an emotional attachment to events in Afghanistan, China is seizing the opportunity created by our intervention – deriving benefits for their own people and those of Central Asia.

In an odd twist of fate, it is China that is “throwing open the doors of commerce and knocking off all its shackles”. It is China that is using free markets and free commerce to free people. It is China that has brought the American Dream to Central Asia, while America stands on the sidelines.

From my travels in Central Asia, I have seen that American products are still the most coveted of possessions for people in the region, and that American technology and expertise are the most coveted of tools for companies in the region. What’s lacking is not the opportunity or ability to compete, but the will to do so.

China is winning in Central Asia because they’re the only team on the field.

Jaded by a decade of conflict, we are ready to walk away from the positive realities that we have created, simply because it is not the victory that we envisioned.

Rather than yielding to the populism of pessimism, our leaders should promote a strategy for a lasting engagement in Central Asia. A peaceful engagement – a regional network of commerce and trade – powered by America’s world-leading technology and expertise.

This strategy exists. It is called the New Silk Road Initiative. It was unveiled by the Obama administration in 2011, shortly before it fell by the wayside.

The Initiative would carpet the region in infrastructure; reviving a historical Eurasian trading hub with modern American technology. It would lay the foundations for a peaceful American engagement in a strategically critical region. It would create a buffer against the rapid rise of China. It would ensure that we share in the spoils created by the sacrifices of American soldiers and American taxpayers.

That would be the ultimate victory. The ultimate justice. America was there to wage the war.  Now is the time to seize the peace.

Botting (abotting@fabiani-co.com) is a Washington, DC-based adviser to a range of governments and commercial entities in Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia.

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