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Will China Fall Into the Afghanistan Trap?

China Afghanistan
Image: Screenshot from Chinese State TV.

Although the narrative of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires is a bit overdone – and tends to ignore imperial success stories like that of  Darius I of Persia or Alexander the Great in antiquity – there is more than a little truth to it. In modern times, British, Soviet and now American efforts to bring the country into their respective geopolitical orbits have met with decisive, and humiliating, defeat. And in the Soviet case at least, that defeat contributed directly to the fall of the empire itself.

But what about today? And, specifically, what about the People’s Republic of China – an empire in all but name? Will China provide the next headstone in the graveyard of empires?

Now, that seems like an odd question, especially on the morning after the Taliban’s triumphant entry into Kabul, with US forces still on the ground facilitating an evacuation of the last remaining Americans and several thousand of their Afghan allies. Why would China – with the benefit of having witnessed both the Soviets and Americans first get bogged down in a geopolitical quagmire, then suffer defeat, and then finally beat an ignominious retreat – ever allow itself to fall into what one official Chinese newspaper recently called the “Afghan trap”?

Three sets of reasons come readily to mind.

First, should Afghanistan’s troubles – which are far from overspill over into the wider region, they may well threaten the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a major infrastructure project into which Beijing has poured tens of billions of dollars. This is crucially important to China in both economic and geopolitical terms. But the fate of CPEC has increasingly come into question, as terrorist attacks, likely perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban, have resulted in the deaths of growing numbers of Chinese workers. There are even concerns that the victory of the Afghan Taliban might embolden anti-government Islamist actors – not just with Tehrik-i-Taliban, but Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and other groups as well – to try to topple the Islamic Republic of Pakistan itself. Either way, if violence and instability begin to pose serious threats to CPEC, and if Islamabad is unwilling or unable to stabilize the security environment, it is not difficult to imagine Beijing taking matters into its own hands.

And then there are the domestic security implications of the Taliban victory. China has long been, and remains, concerned that elements of the Taliban – and perhaps the Islamic State, which also has a presence in Afghanistan – are supporting Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province. This is anathema to Beijing, which is firmly committed to preventing groups like the Islamic Movement of East Turkestan from turning Xinjiang into a hotbed of Islamist “extremism, terrorism, and separatism”. If the new Taliban government in Kabul is unwilling or unable to prevent forces within its borders from lending support to Islamist groups in China it is once again not too difficult to imagine Beijing taking matters into its own hands.

Finally, the Taliban victory might have broader geopolitical implications for central Asia – implications that might force it to take action in Afghanistan. To begin with, the Taliban’s victory will necessarily have a destabilizing effect on neighboring Central Asian states. Tajikistan is already experiencing the tremors that might well augur a regional geopolitical earthquake and has been forced to call on Russia and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a post-Soviet, Russian-dominated military alliance – to provide assistance in dealing with security challenges emerging from neighboring Afghanistan. Should this tremor in fact augur more general unrest in Central Asia, China might be required to devote more – perhaps considerably more – military resources to the region. For should any of these states fall to Taliban-aligned movements emboldened by the fall of the Afghan national government and the “defeat” of the United States, China’s bid for regional dominance – not to mention its BRI investments – will be placed in serious jeopardy. Simply put, now that Kabul has fallen, China is likely to be drawn ever more deeply into an increasingly unstable Central Asia. And if the states in the region can’t or won’t provide the stability China requires – or if it looks as if Russia might try to provide that stability or if India might exploit it to advance its own geopolitical interests – then it is not difficult to imagine China taking a more firm hand in matters.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that China will inevitably become ensnared in the Afghan Trap. Beijing is likely to try to avoid it by providing the new regime economic assistance or inviting it to participate in the Belt-and-road initiative. Indeed, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a top-level Taliban delegation in Tianjin last month, promising economic support and investment for Afghanistan’s reconstruction in return for an agreement that the new regime would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base to support Uyghur militants. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an economic and security grouping comprising China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and four Central Asian states, met a few weeks back to begin planning for a post-US Afghanistan.

Despite these glimmers of hope, however, the nagging question remains: Now that the US is no longer shouldering the burden of stabilizing Afghanistan, will China be forced to assume that burden? And if it does, will it furnish the next headstone in the graveyard of empires?

Andrew Latham is a professor of International Relations at Macalester College specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars.

Written By

Andrew Latham is a professor of International Relations at Macalester College specializing in the politics of international conflict and security. He teaches courses on international security, Chinese foreign policy, war and peace in the Middle East, Regional Security in the Indo-Pacific Region, and the World Wars.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Rick

    August 17, 2021 at 12:24 pm

    The “Graveyard Of Empires” has been prattled from the sidelines since the leaders of the communist coup in Afghanistan invited the Soviets in to help them subjugate the Afghans they had just forced into communist rule. It’s about as true and as widely accepted by the uninformed as the equally proclaimed line that Trump was a Russian agent and the Russia Dossier has verified intelligence agency evidence that proves that. In both cases, the reality is that the opposite is true.

    The Mongols as one example controlled Afghanistan for almost 500 years before they allegedly went to that empire graveyard. That’s twice the time the US has existed. It would be taking modern day England back to the Middle Ages and the divine right of kings, long before the English Bill of Rights and elected government.

    The British controlled Afghanistan for about a century, fighting and winning three brief wars during that time. The last one took all of 11 weeks to route the Afghans – at a time the Afghans chose to revolt because the British military was bled white from the Great War that had just ended.

    The British – like the Mongols, like the Persians, etc – never settled in or occupied Afghanistan. British immigrated to colonies like Canada – not Afghanistan.

    Empires have conquered and controlled Afghanistan not for its wealth and resources, but because of it’s strategic value. In the case of the British Empire, Afghanistan was a piece of real estate that presented an obstacle and defense to the Russian Empire attempting to seize The Jewel In The Crown – India. There is a reason it was called The Great Game.

    That is why the Brits, once again and for the final time, kicked the Afghans’ asses decisively in war – and then promptly gave them their sovereignty and left. Lenin and the communists had destroyed the Russian Empire the year of the last revolt, and by doing that had eliminated any need to retain Afghanistan as a strategic defense of their colony, India.

    If the Afghans had simply waited another year or two, they could have watched the Brits go home without getting their asses kicked a third time.

    The majority of writers look at Afghanistan as though those empires looked at it like it was another India or Canada – a country to conquer and settle to the economic benefit of the home nation. Afghanistan was never seen as that – it was nothing more than a strategically important patch of rock and dirt conquered and controlled for military and security purposes.

    The US went into Afghanistan for the same reasons: there was a threat to the US set up in Afghanistan. The US – and their Coalition partners – would never have left Afghanistan if hajji terrorists were still training and launching terror attacks out of the mountains of Afghanistan.

    The US would have never gone to Afghanistan to nation build, support and carry out NGO initiatives and democracy projects, without 9/11. In fact, for the four years prior to 9/11, the Afghan government was pleading with the UN for a peacekeeping force to help them deal with the multinational hajji force that were intent on conquering Afghanistan and making it the center of the new Caliphate.

    Nobody: not the US, Canada, England, etc cared or gave the Afghan’s requests any notice – they did not see a threat to their countries if Afghanistan fell under the rule of the world’s hajjis traveling to Afghanistan and setting up the new Caliphate. Apparently now they think the threat is minimal enough to leave the country, after a war where they spent most of their time, their treasure, and their soldiers’ blood on projects that had absolutely nothing to do with finding and wiping out the hajji terrorists.

    The only “Afghanistan Trap” is when countries change from a military objective of closing with and destroying the enemy, to instead squandering their military forces and money on NGO initiatives and “democracy projects”, along with Rules of Engagement that seem as though they were written to help the enemy.

    Communist China, having no need to look like compassionate, caring politicians to subjects back at home, is not going to fall into that trap.

  2. Barry

    August 17, 2021 at 5:28 pm

    Very well written and thought provoking. As you aptly note near the post’s end: China isn’t squeamish on using force and don’t care about world opinions. Thus they could well turn this to more advantage than anything; especially the rich veins of as yet unmixed rare earths, etc. in Afghanistan.
    Last, to the agreement of China providing monies for the Taliban agreeing not to be a base for Islamic terror acts in China: I don’t see them really caring if other “even are gored” by the possible resurgence of a main base of operations for global terror in Afghanistan. A country who ran over its own citizens with tanks and imprisons thousands surely won’t mind having an (unintentional) proxy for hurting China’s competitors and enemies.
    As a veteran I just want our troops home safe and next time the chicken hawks in DC want a war let’s see them gear up and go downrange and/or send their children to fight and die.

  3. Chris Cha

    August 18, 2021 at 10:35 am

    Will China fall into the Afghanistan trap? Let me answer this way. If terrorists had flown planes into Beijing, China would have leveled every city in Afghanistan, made slaves out of every surviving man, woman, and child and those slaves would be mining rare earth metals for China even today. And, the world would be outraged by now, but China would just give them the finger. Does that answer your question?

  4. Jack Kennedy

    August 27, 2021 at 4:04 am

    China will show the Taliban/isis/etc mooks whose the boss …. The goatherders are going to get a real lesson on how it’s done …. As they suffer thru every day of it …. Allah akbar don’t mean sheet in Chinese …. Good luck, ragheads……. to bad the Real Americans weren’t allowed to teach you civility …..

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