The Washington Times Weekly

China, Russia vie for Afghan resources

- BY GUY TAYLOR

China is eying Afghanista­n’s natural gas and precious metal deposits. Russia and Iran are cultivatin­g ties with both the Afghan govefrnmen­t 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 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 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,” said Mr. Kagan. “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 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.

 ?? ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Afghans will not see many Americans on the streets of Kabul after Sept. 11, but other foreign faces will likely take their place. China and Russia are expanding their efforts to undermine U.S. influence in the region.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Afghans will not see many Americans on the streets of Kabul after Sept. 11, but other foreign faces will likely take their place. China and Russia are expanding their efforts to undermine U.S. influence in the region.

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