Afghan withdrawal may complicate matters for China
President George W. Bush made waves in Washington this month when he became the latest critic of President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying “the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad.” While it’s no surprise that the author of the doomed nation-building forever-war would be against ending it, the most unexpected critic has come from one of Afghanistan’s neighbors: China.
Earlier in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that the “United States, which created the Afghan issue in the first place, should act responsibly to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan.” The U.S. should not, he added, “simply shift the burden onto others and withdraw from the country with the mess left behind unattended.” Minister Yi reveals much in that last statement.
He unintentionally reveals that China has been a benefactor of America’s long Afghan war. China shares a 47-mile border with Afghanistan. It’s not unreasonable that they would have security concerns with the potential for terrorists to cross the border and expand their operations to China. Yet Beijing has been only too happy in years gone by to take the benefits to their security as a result of the job American troops have performed in keeping a lid on the violence.
In a rare admission, Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) semiofficial mouthpiece, recently conceded that “China cannot unilaterally fill the strategic Afghan security vacuum left by the withdrawal of NATO.” Beijing’s “gravest concern,” concluded in a report by the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN), is an area comprising of five former Soviet republics and Afghanistan.
Chinese authorities, the AAN authors wrote, consider this region as “‘the forward position to launch separatist activities against China, to infiltrate into Xinjiang’ — the region in China’s far west that has historically been dominated by Muslim ethnic groups — and ‘the frontline to split China.’”
Now that Beijing will soon be responsible for its own border security, CCP leaders are scrambling to find practical solutions, trying to befriend both sides of the Afghan conflict. China “clearly knows what its national interests are” the Global Times stated earlier this month and that China should not “reject the goodwill from the Taliban, which is of great significance to our exerting influence in Afghanistan and maintaining stability in Xinjiang.”
While it is reasonable for nations to protect their national interests, it has been no small irony that our military operation in Afghanistan for the better part of at least 15 years has been more in service to China’s interests than our own. Though the change is long overdue, that situation is now going to be corrected.
Far from being evidence that our withdrawal is a mistake, the advancing of the Taliban and the shaky performance of the Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) are proof that America’s objectives in Afghanistan have long been unattainable and should have ended long ago. Flatly stated, it is neither in America’s interests to aid China’s border security nor to perpetuate an unwinnable military occupation.
As I have covered in some detail, it was always a myth that our national security has been safeguarded by having troops on the ground in Afghanistan. We were attacked in 2001 not because a few al-Qaeda operatives hid in Afghan caves, but because we failed to take them out when we had the chance.
The official 9/11 Commission Report exposed that in May 1999, CIA assets in Afghanistan reported to their superiors in Washington that they had identified “bin Laden’s location in and around Kandahar over the course of five days and nights.” The report further explained that “the reporting was very detailed.”
Yet senior officials in both the CIA and Pentagon refused to authorize the strikeout of an overabundance of caution. A CIA official at the scene expressed anger at “having a chance to get [bin Laden] three times in 36 hours and foregoing the chance each time.” Regardless of who was or wasn’t ruling Afghanistan in 1999, the September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States would never have happened had those leaders authorized the strike in May 1999.
Our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities today have improved dramatically in the past 20 years, and our global ability to launch strikes against direct threats to our security are unrivaled. Our uniformed and civilian leaders would no longer hesitate to take out a clearly identified threat.
We did not need to have troops on the ground in 1999 to prevent 9/11 and we won’t need troops on the ground to keep our country safe from any future threats. However messy the ongoing security situation might be on the ground in Afghanistan, this withdrawal is long overdue and is overwhelmingly in America’s national interest — regardless of what China may say.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.