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The problem with Afghanistan and need for long(er) term planning

NewsThe problem with Afghanistan and need for long(er) term planning

A Taliban-infused Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will support China’s BRI and its dominance in the extractives with the promise of riches.


Rumours are running rampant regarding a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, before the end of the Donald Trump administration. This has inspired a frenzy of opinion pieces from think-tanks, policymakers, and practitioners alike in assessing and predicting outcomes. It is in these times of change and speculation that we take a page out of China’s playbook and plan for the future.

Whether the Trump administration initiates a proper full withdrawal, or simply yet another reduction in forces, is significant. Yet, this has been a goal for the United States since the first Obama administration. This is nothing new, as Americans have a short tolerance for lengthy wars and interventions—especially twenty-year engagements. The price of blood to treasure is simply too high as a likely Biden administration will understand, and America’s four-year presidential election cycle and relatively short and overlapping Congressional election cycles encourage new administrations to seek programmes which yield maximum impact in the shortest amount of time.

Two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was serving in the US government on a political appointment through the Bush administration. Depending on circumstances, a President appoints between 4,000 and 7,000 appointees in the government, all of whom are expected to “get results” and bypass the bureaucracy if and when necessary. I ended up at the Pentagon, where I was appointed as an economic advisor to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA).

One of the projects that I managed was a comprehensive geophysical mapping survey from 2005-2007. Current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had been serving as the GoIRA Finance Minister at the time, and he had helped to pull together the financing of the initiative. The US Naval Research Laboratory and NASA flew aircraft with high-technology sensors and our interagency US Government and GoIRA team triangulated data with multiple sources including NASA satellite data, Russian maps, and US Geological Survey ground surveys. It is probably one of the most comprehensive mapping projects ever performed in history.

From a US government perspective, the millions of dollars in investment in the programme were seen as a small price to pay for the projected returns that would include a valuation of Afghanistan’s natural resources and the inspiration for investment in the extractives industry sector. Our way of thinking was that building the sector as a viable and sustainable economic development incentive would help the overall objectives to stabilise Afghanistan and enable investment by building upon the country’s natural resources. Ultimately, the results of the programme had been surprising—it is estimated that the natural resources of Afghanistan are upwards of $1 trillion (2011 estimate). So who is the customer base and how can Afghanistan build a future?

In the world of great power competition, let us consider alternative futures and imagine who the new key stakeholders will be. China is a resource-hungry power that is seemingly unstoppable in its quest for dominating key sectors, including the extractives industry. Resources are needed to boost China’s growth and to roll out its relentless march to create the new Marshall Plan 2.0—the ubiquitous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—the Chinese version of a trade regime towards a new world order against which the West has failed to offer a counter-alternative.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has developed a highly effective and profitable grand strategy: let the Americans and their coalitions “of the willing” spend their blood and money intervening in resource-rich countries, and when they tire and withdraw, we will take the treasure at a low cost. China’s engagement with Afghanistan in recent years reflects this clever strategy. In 2006, China started making inroads in Afghanistan’s economy as they supported exploration of minerals. Chinese state-owned Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) “won the bid” on the very Aynak Copper Deposit that we had surveyed and assisted the GoIRA with on developing a fair market tender process. Alas, the Chinese outmaneuvered the other bidders through what some have charged as “unorthodox methods” and now hold the rights to the concession for a $3.5bn price tag. And who do you think was quick to win the bid for the “undiscovered” oil and gas resources in Afghanistan’s Amu Darya basin blocks that our USGS team had assessed? You guessed it: in 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation won the bid for three Amu Darya basin exploratory blocks in Afghanistan.

So what is the appeal of Afghanistan to China besides the obvious geopolitical reasons? It is all in the value chain and a pipeline of resource wealth. As far as resource-rich countries go, Afghanistan is relatively easy to lock in contracts for the development of minerals, oil, natural gas, or anything for that matter. The trick is managing the value chain, where several links are missing or broken. Sure, you can win a concession for Aynak copper, set up a mining structure and hire experts and labour, but how are you going to get the resources developed and transported to the market? In a land-locked country where security is a problem, railroads and roads are scarce, and economic value chains are, by default, severely under-developed, what are the options? This is where China’s Belt & Road Initiative and its rapidly increasing ties with Iran and Pakistan come in. China would presumably include Afghanistan in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that would then connect to Kandahar via a new railway. The idea is that railroads would provide the necessary supply routes needed to get the resources in and out of Afghanistan. It would be included in the New Silk Road.

So how would China solve the security situation in Afghanistan? By 2017, China was already entertaining Taliban leaders in Beijing and has now promoted itself as an alternative peace broker between the GoIRA and the Taliban—if and when America runs for the exit. China in many ways favours a Taliban-influenced Afghan government. It is China’s way of doing business in developing countries that has become a winning model—and some developing countries are quite happy that China does not require “liberal democratic conditions” upon its client states. Human rights abuses? No problem. Corrupt trade practices? No problem. A Taliban-infused GoIRA will support China’s BRI and its dominance in the extractives with the promise of riches. And it will empower the Taliban in a new GoIRA that would revert to the “old ways” of life, and create its own base of wealth from rents. With that said, China will require that its new client state also not interfere in its internal affairs. This would require a Taliban-infused Afghan government to also look the other way when it comes to China’s abuses of its Uyghur Muslim population.

America and its liberal democratic allies such as India need to hold steady whilst also developing a new blueprint with the current GoIRA—a government that has made enormous strides in economic, social and security development. Yes, twenty years is a long time for an intervention that never seems to end, especially for those of us who have witnessed the violent side of the war. But China surely has a plan, and the Taliban will surely be a keen partner to its plan. Our blood, their treasure.

Craig Tiedman is the Director of Policy & Research at the Henry Jackson Society.  He also served as a US Department of Defense advisor to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and NASA’s Lead to India. @CraigTiedman


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