In Afghanistan’s Logar Province, just south of Kabul, the geopolitical future of Asia is becoming apparent: American troops are providing security for a Chinese state-owned company to exploit the Aynak copper reserves, which are worth tens of billions of dollars. While some of America’s NATO allies want to do as little as possible in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, China has its eyes on some of world’s last untapped deposits of copper, iron, gold, uranium and precious gems, and is willing to take big risks in one of the most violent countries to secure them.
In Afghanistan, American and Chinese interests converge. By exploiting Afghanistan’s metal and mineral reserves, China can provide thousands of Afghans with jobs, thus generating tax revenues to help stabilize a tottering Kabul government. Just as America has a vision of a modestly stable Afghanistan that will no longer be a haven for extremists, China has a vision of Afghanistan as a secure conduit for roads and energy pipelines that will bring natural resources from the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. So if America defeats Al Qaeda and the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban, China’s geopolitical position will be enhanced.
This is not a paradox, since China need not be our future adversary. Indeed, combining forces with China in Afghanistan might even improve the relationship between Washington and Beijing. The problem is that while America is sacrificing its blood and treasure, the Chinese will reap the benefits. The whole direction of America’s military and diplomatic effort is toward an exit strategy, whereas the Chinese hope to stay and profit.
But what if America decides to leave, or to drastically reduce its footprint to a counterterrorism strategy focused mainly on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border? Then another scenario might play out. Kandahar and other areas will most likely fall to the Taliban, creating a truly lawless realm that wrecks China’s plans for an energy and commodities passageway through South Asia. It would also, of course, be a momentous moral victory achieved by radical Muslims who, having first defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, will then have triumphed over another superpower.
And the calculations get more complicated still: a withdrawal of any kind from Afghanistan before a stable government is in place would also hurt India, a critical if undeclared American ally, and increasingly a rival of China. Were the Taliban to retake Afghanistan, India would face a radical Islamistan stretching from its border with Pakistan deep into Central Asia. With the Taliban triumphant on Pakistan’s western border, jihadists there could direct their energies to the eastern border with India.
India would defeat Pakistan in a war, conventional or nuclear. But having to do so, or simply needing to face down a significantly greater jihadist threat next door, would divert India’s national energies away from further developing its economy and its navy, a development China would quietly welcome.
Bottom line: China will find a way to benefit no matter what the United States does in Afghanistan. But it probably benefits more if we stay and add troops to the fight. The same goes for Russia. Because of continuing unrest in the Islamic southern tier of the former Soviet Union, Moscow has an interest in America stabilizing Afghanistan (though it would take a certain psychological pleasure from a humiliating American withdrawal).
In nuts-and-bolts terms, if we stay in Afghanistan and eventually succeed, other countries will benefit more than we will. China, India and Russia are all Asian powers, geographically proximate to Afghanistan and better able, therefore, to garner practical advantages from any stability our armed forces would make possible.
Everyone keeps saying that America is not an empire, but our military finds itself in the sort of situation that was mighty familiar to empires like that of ancient Rome and 19th-century Britain: struggling in a far-off corner of the world to exact revenge, to put down the fires of rebellion, and to restore civilized order. Meanwhile, other rising and resurgent powers wait patiently in the wings, free-riding on the public good we offer. This is exactly how an empire declines, by allowing others to take advantage of its own exertions.
Of course, one could make an excellent case that an ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan is precisely what would lead to our decline, by demoralizing our military, signaling to our friends worldwide that we cannot be counted on and demonstrating that our enemies have greater resolve than we do. That is why we have no choice in Afghanistan but to add troops and continue to fight.
But as much as we hone our counterinsurgency skills and develop assets for the “long war,” history would suggest that over time we can more easily preserve our standing in the world by using naval and air power from a distance when intervening abroad. Afghanistan should be the very last place where we are a land-based meddler, caught up in internal Islamic conflict, helping the strategic ambitions of the Chinese and others.
Robert D. Kaplan, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a correspondent for The Atlantic.