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Is the United States letting it slip in Afghanistan?

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As U.S. combat brigades are reshuffled and a troop increase is envisaged for Afghanistan, U.S. military and strategic planners should be wary of China’s meteoric rise in the region. China is already doing what it does best; diplomatic engagement coupled with financial guarantees is what makes China highly attractive in the eyes of developing countries.

For Afghanistan, it’s about money on the table; it’s about infrastructural development; it’s about sovereignty. China, somehow, appears to be offering it all.

{mosads}So, the question is: Will the 16 hard-fought years for U.S. forces in Afghanistan actually account for nothing? Well, it all depends on how the Trump administration goes about its Afghanistan policy in the near future. Fiery rhetoric just doesn’t help all the time, every time. A meeting in Beijing on Dec. 26 should have set panic alarms ringing in and around Washington, but the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral dialogue doesn’t appear to have raised many eyebrows.


Apparently, Beijing’s meeting was about helping Afghanistan and Pakistan break the ice with regard to their bilateral relationship, but there’s no denying that China would be eager to incorporate Afghanistan in its “Belt & Road Initiative” (BRI). After Tuesday’s meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated: “So China and Pakistan are willing to look at with Afghanistan, on the basis of win-win, mutually beneficial principles, using an appropriate means to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.”

How convenient would it be for China to get a major chunk of the pie for which American forces have been fighting since 2001? What a masterstroke would it turn out to be? And it doesn’t appear delusional either: Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Salahuddin Rabbani, remarked after the trilateral meeting that China is “a forever and reliable partner of Afghanistan.” He added: “Afghanistan is ready to actively participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, and enhance cooperation with China in such areas as interconnectivity, infrastructure and energy.”

China’s foreign minister said earlier in the week that China, in 2018, would push for a “political solution” for the Afghanistan issue. What might prove damning enough for America’s Afghan policy is that the trilateral meeting in Beijing didn’t just discuss diplomacy and infrastructure development; counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan — once considered to be the sole prerogative of the United States — were discussed, too.

The joint communiqué reads: “The three sides agreed to strengthen counterterrorism coordination and cooperation in an effort to combat all terrorist organizations and individuals without any discrimination. The three sides will communicate and consult on developing of the Memorandum of Understanding on Counter-Terrorism Cooperation.”

It is noteworthy that previous counterterrorism discussions and peace initiatives in Afghanistan were carried out under the auspices of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), which involves the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, after the Beijing meeting, it appears to have been limited to a three-sided (China-Afghanistan-Pakistan) counter-terror cooperation.

Again, China is actively engaged in what is does best. The United States, on the other hand, needs to recognize that Afghanistan has almost reached its tipping point. With parliamentary elections in Afghanistan just round the corner, and China pouring in all the money, President Trump and his administration need to perceive and come to terms with the fast-changing geopolitical realities in Afghanistan. Also, there’s much to update in terms of U.S. counter-terror operations in the region.

When Vice President Mike Pence paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan last week, he seemed confident about a military victory. “I believe victory is closer than ever before,” Pence said. However, his statement at the Bagram Airfield that the United States has “put the Taliban on the offensive” needs further dissection: A guerrilla doesn’t strategize as per the “offense-defense” warfare pattern; guerrillas, such as the Taliban, either strike hard or go into hiding and bide their time.

From here onwards, the more the United States engages the Taliban and the Haqqani network militarily, the more it will pave the way for other actors like China to make further inroads in the region.

The best (and perhaps the safest) bet for the United States is to rely on psychological operations (psy-ops) in Afghanistan. The United States has invested a lot there; now, it’s up to the Trump administration to either let that all slip, or combine cogent counterterror operations with comprehensive, meaningful diplomacy to avoid making a military pullout extremely difficult at a later stage.  

The president and his administration must let the brains do the talking. Being open about what the government is going to do, or intends doing in the future, won’t help. It’s important to be shrewd. It’s important to be diplomatic. It’s important to learn the art of subduing the enemy from within, with ease.

If President Trump is to learn all of this, he must first avoid being jingoistic in his statements. The U.S. future in Afghanistan hangs in the balance.

Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst for the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times and RealClearDefense, among others.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan–Pakistan relations Afghanistan–United States relations China–Pakistan relations Donald Trump Mike Pence Taliban

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