Images of the collapse of the Afghan government in Kabul bring back painful memories of a similar collapse in the wake of a similar U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. The comparisons with Vietnam, however, go beyond American humiliation and defeat — and the abandonment of those whom American power was supposed to protect. If history is any guide, we can expect America’s retreat also to boost the opportunities for our superpower rival. In 1975 that was the Soviet Union; today it’s Communist China.
The United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam allowed the Soviet Union to expand its influence around the world, not only in Southeast Asia but in Africa and the Middle East — including, ironically, Afghanistan. Those who worry rightly about a resurgence of al-Qaeda and terrorist groups in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan should have an additional worry: that Washington’s influence will be replaced by that of Beijing, which will rock the balance of power in Central and South Asia but also across the Middle East.
The Chinese government has already made advances to the Taliban, and the Taliban’s response has been cautiously encouraging to it. On July 28, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi held a high-level meeting with nine Taliban representatives, including the group’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. This wasn’t the terrorist group’s first visit to Beijing, but the seniority of Chinese attendees was unprecedented, as was the publicity attending the meeting. Foreign Minister Wang publicly recognized the Taliban as a legitimate political force in Afghanistan, China is “a friendly country,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said, “and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan. . . . If [the Chinese] have investments, of course we will ensure their safety.” The Taliban had already said they were not going to raise difficulties over China’s brutal treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority.
The overriding issue for the new Taliban government won’t be whether to stand up for fellow Muslims. It will be whether the Taliban gain Chinese investment as a way to secure their power. As for Beijing, China’s interest in Afghanistan fits nicely in the One Belt One Road Initiative, its broader strategic plan for Central and South Asia. Beijing’s construction projects have already made Pakistan virtually a Chinese colony; the next logical step will be to make Kabul a hub in China’s massive $250 billion global infrastructure and investment plan. Beijing has been offering its help with construction of the Peshawar–Kabul motorway, which would connect Pakistan to Afghanistan. Beijing is also building a major road through the Wakhan Corridor, which connects China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang to Afghanistan. These new thoroughfares should enable Beijing to pursue its goals of increased trade with the region but also of getting hold of Afghanistan’s strategic natural resources. According to a United States Geological Survey report from 2010, Afghanistan may possess nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of extractable rare-earth metals — all waiting for Chinese engineers and companies to exploit.
But the real Afghan prize for Beijing will be Bagram Air Base. Just as the Communist victory in Vietnam opened the door to Soviet takeover of the huge naval base the U.S. had built at Cam Ranh Bay — it soon became the Soviet navy’s largest base outside the Warsaw Pact — so Bagram represents a strategic opportunity that Beijing will find hard to resist.
Forty miles north of Kabul, the Bagram installation covers 30 square miles. It has a 12,000-foot runway that can accommodate any aircraft in the Chinese military arsenal. Bagram is, however, far more than an air base: For two decades, it’s been the headquarters of the U.S.–NATO war effort, including intelligence-gathering. Only 283 miles from Islamabad and 437 miles from Kashmir, Bagram is a watchtower and a platform for projecting power against India and across the region. Baghdad (1,919 miles), Tehran (1,006 miles), and Dubai (1,046 miles) will be only an hour or two away for China’s most advanced stealth aircraft, the J-20, operating at cruising speed. Bagram’s complex of airfields could also become a major hub in Beijing’s plans for an airborne version of its One Belt One Road Initiative, linking airports around the region — even as U.S. influence shrivels.
If we are going to make sure that future history books don’t cite the fall of Kabul in 2021 as the landmark date in China’s rise as the dominant superpower in Central and South Asia, policy-makers need to develop a bold plan to rebuild U.S. influence and power and to reassure allies such as India, Saudi Arabia, and Israel that we aren’t handing the keys to the region to Beijing.
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