With the United States of America finally signing the peace agreement on 29th Feb 2020 in Doha, Qatar, things have taken a 180 degree turn, quite literally. Let’s lay bare some facts and analyse.
After WWII, bipolarity quickly became the order of the world. On one side, there was a democratic and liberal USA. On the other, stood the then, ideologically communist Soviet Union. In the game of one-upmanship, both sides used all the possible diplomatic, economic and military resources, some even beyond their commands, to beat one another. In this game of world powers, Afghanistan became one of the battlefields where both the big powers tried to beat the other, in a proxy war. However, the quick initial gains, turned too hot each time, that it became impossible to hold on to Afghanistan, for long.
In 1979, Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The strategic location of Afghanistan would have allowed the Soviet Union to expand its communist ideology. Also, the country was a step towards the availability of warm water in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Had this been materialized, it would have unlocked the umpteenth number of strategic and economic opportunities for the Soviet Union. However, as a Cold War was underway, the US could not afford to let this happen.
The United States wanted to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan at all costs. To make this possible, United States facilitated the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. They were provided military training, logistics and whatnot. This plan of the US worked out well. The Soviets got drained both economically and logistically, so much so that they had to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. America thumped its chest as it was its victory, albeit an indirect one. The Soviets on the other hand did not only come back humiliated from Afghanistan, but it was closely followed with the dismemberment of the Soviet Union itself in Dec 1991. The defeat of the Soviet Union heralded the advent of the United States as the sole superpower of the world.
Now, after the horrific 911 incident, the whole world went into a deep shock. The United States unanimously declared the so called ‘War on Terror’ and almost every country, without even raising an eyebrow, simply backed the US call. The then, Taliban government in Afghanistan, didn’t heed to US warnings and refused to handover the main suspect Osama Bin Laden, whom they called the guest of the Afghans. Soon, the US was in Afghanistan to capture Osama Bin Laden. However, the US was then unable to pull out of Afghanistan for the next 20 years.
Around 2300 US military personnel have since been killed in Afghanistan. Additionally over 20,000 soldiers were left wounded in the US mission in Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq where the US could retrieve some of the spendings of the Iraq War, through oil revenues in exchange for developments, it gets nothing in Afghanistan. The economic losses incurred by the US in the war on terror in Afghanistan have also been enormous. According to US government’s own figures, the war in Afghanistan cost the US over $ 1 trillion.
United States is not alone when it comes to the colossal losses borne by it. Many friendly countries like India also stare at the same fate. Not just diplomatic stakes, India’s 20 yrs plus $3 billion worth of investments in projects like roads, dams, trade infrastructure etc stand to get reversed.
Now, the US troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan on the pretext to fulfill Biden’s electoral manifesto and his promise to bring back American troops on getting elected to power. The US as such, post Osama bin Laden’s elimination, didn’t have any specific plans for its continued stay in Afghanistan. The geographic understanding of the area and the war training against the Soviets helped the Taliban linger the war to their advantage. Today, if one looks at the 20 years spent by the US in Afghanistan, while it would be rare to find a positive for the US, the losses for the US are far too many.
Where was China all this while?
While the US and Russia, erstwhile Soviet Union, suffered losses both in men and material, there was one country that was busy doing completely different things. During these 40 years, China was investing in its education, lifting its poor out of poverty, and galloping towards economic prosperity. China achieved what no other country was able to do in the entire human history. China lifted over 700 million people out of poverty in just 30 years with its complete focus on its people. Chinese President, Deng Xiaoping, remodeled the economy of China on liberal standards. First Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were established in Shenzhen Province of China in 1979. Also, China kept itself away from external conflicts during all this time. As a corollary, China has today become the world’s second-largest economy with a GDP of $16.64 trillion in 2021.
Similarly, the gap between the US and China, being the world’s top two economies concerning the size of the economy, is fast receding. Economic experts have expressed that China continuing on the current trend has the potential to beat the US as the world’s largest economy within a few years. China did all this and other successes when the mighty two, Russia and the US, were losing men and material in Afghanistan.
Now, under pressure over the cost of staying put in Afghanistan, though not overtly stated, the US has given a clear-cut schedule as per which the US troops will leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. With the date drawing, China has already started to become more and more active in Afghanistan. The proverbial cats and the monkey story fits here well, with the monkey getting the whole pie. Afghanistan is nothing less than a gold mine for China. It can prove to be a political, economic and strategic relief and advantage for China.
On the other hand, China with one foot already in the wedge via the Belt and Road Initiative is cajoling the Taliban and extending friendly overtures to help them govern the nation. On part of the Taliban, the response to the Chinese overtures has also been warm with open arms. Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen in a recent interview to a Chinese broadcaster has expressed the pleasure of the Taliban with China investing in the reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
This is an unprecedented gain for China with minimal effort wherein it gets to enjoy the plunders of war without actually going to war. China holds its Belt and Road Initiative very dear to itself. China believes that its economic, strategic and political success greatly hinges on the Belt and Road Initiative. Afghanistan is at a pivotal location in this gigantic plan. The deterioration in the security situation and the threat of millions of dollars worth projects going down the drain was the biggest Chinese concern.
Taliban’s spokesperson goes on to add said that the Taliban will protect the workers and projects initiated by China. Upbeat with the developments China is planning to make Afghanistan part of the CPEC. Similarly, China is also lining up projects for setting up Roads and Highways, 5G networks and many other development programs that need to be implemented in Afghanistan.
China has already shown an inclination to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) project we talked about, into Afghanistan. A number of Chinese firms are reportedly poised to pump in some USD 400 million into a coal-fired electricity generation plant in the country.
The leverage gained by China by investing in Afghanistan will certainly help China in utilizing the untapped resources of not only Afghanistan but also entire central Asia. Ranking at 62nd position in the world, Afghanistan holds 1.75 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.
Afghanistan also contains minerals and stones worth billions of dollars such as Gold, Aluminum, Silver, etc. The entry into Afghanistan will also allow China to interact with the energy-rich central Asian countries. According to research, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan collectively holds 50 billion barrels of oil and 12. 5 trillion cubic meters of gas reserves. For the rising population and growing energy needs of China, Afghanistan is nothing less than a jackpot for China.
China will also be able to benefit from it in its internal matters. The Chinese western Province of Xinjiang has become a major headache for China. Firstly, it is causing bad press for China at the international level as China is alleged to have committed human rights violations in its Xinjiang province. Secondly, the separatist Uighurs in the Xinjiang province are also causing China sleepless nights.
With the Taliban having aired assurances publicly of not getting involved in Xinjiang, the Chinese worries can best be put to rest. Secure borders and friendly relations with the Taliban and Afghanistan will help China better manage their internal matters.
Moreover, China will not have to worry about the Strait of Malacca as an existential crisis from the US. Now, China will be able to have a safe and short route via road from China to Afghanistan and then into Pakistan and the Arabian Sea. The list of benefits of Afghanistan for China is wide-ranging. However, China gets the cake without any sweat.