Commentary: With the “retreat” on the night of July 1, the war in Afghanistan ended earlier than expected, and the simultaneous withdrawal of foreign armies definitively left the field open to the Taliban. China may be preparing to play a fundamental role in a region that has been a source of instability and conflict for decades
“My friend, I only want to talk about happy things!”. With this surprising line, US President Joe Biden (did) not respond to the question of a journalist who asked him in early July about the withdrawal of US and allied forces from Afghanistan – a withdrawal that was announced for September 11, but which began on the night of July 1 at Bagram Air Base and was practically completed in a matter of days.
The US President’s reluctance to talk about the Afghan war comes as no surprise: in 20 years, the United States has lost 2,440 soldiers in the most pointless conflict in recent history, while their allies have lost 1,100 soldiers – 53 of whom are Italian – in the armed confrontation with the Taliban, which has proved to be a failure. Like the Vietnamese Viet Cong, the Taliban have proved capable of defeating and humiliating the greatest economic and military power on the planet.
In 2001, after the tragedy of the Twin Towers, George W. Bush decided to launch an offensive against the Taliban who had dominated Afghanistan since 1996, at the end of the difficult post-war period that followed the defeat of the Soviets after a decade of war (1979-1989).
The Americans – demonstrating they did not know how to “interpret” history (that of others, but also their own, as Vietnam demonstrates) – in just two months managed to overthrow the Taliban government, accused of having offered a safe haven to Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda guerrillas, and to install a “friendly” government in Kabul. In the twenty years that followed, the Taliban – like the Vietnamese, and after them the Iraqis – showed the United States not only that the mere power of military means was not enough to defeat a strongly motivated adversary army with undeniable popular support based on total intolerance of the foreign presence, but also that the Western model of democracy could not be exported as if it were a normal consumer good.
Yet, before embarking on a costly and unsuccessful twenty-year conflict in Afghanistan, the United States could and should have studied the history of a country that had humiliated first the British and then the Soviet empires in three conflicts (from 1839 to 1919).
In 1842, after trying for three years to bring the turbulent Afghan tribes under control and after seeing their plenipotentiary, Sir Wiiliam Hay Macnaghten, murdered in cold blood during negotiations with the tribal chiefs, the Brits were forced to make a disastrous escape from Kabul, which has entered into the annals as the “death march”.
In 1979 the Soviet Red Army invaded the country to install the puppet government of the Communist Babrack Karmal in the capital, thus causing the rebellion of the Afghan Mujahidin, the ‘warriors of faith’, and 10 years later had to leave Afghanistan, after suffering the loss of 15,000 soldiers, a defeat that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With a short-sightedness that can only be explained by the ideological excesses of the ‘Cold War’, the Mujahidin and their allies, the Taliban (the students of Koranic schools) were equipped with ultra-modern weapons by the Americans themselves, anxious to help bring their Soviet adversaries to their knees, a move that turned out to be completely counterproductive because the Afghans not only showed no gratitude towards their ‘overseas allies’, but also turned those weapons against them when the right time came.
When George W. Bush embarked on the Afghan adventure, he failed to take into account not only the precedents of history, but also the stubborn resistance of an adversary that had always enjoyed the support of the population.
According to Carter Malkasian, advisor to the US government (who was evidently scarcely listened to), the obvious reason for the ineffectiveness of the American intervention is attributable, firstly, to the influence of Islam and, secondly, to the xenophobic hatred of the population towards foreign influence.
As written by Malkasian in his book The American War in Afghanistan. A History, “the mere presence of the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan urged men and women to defend their honor, their religion and their homes. It inspired young people to fight. It animated the Taliban. It destroyed the will of Afghan soldiers and police.
The toll of the American defeat in the longest war in the history of the United States is tragic: besides the losses of US soldiers and NATO allies, tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and civilians died, while over two million refugees poured across the border, mostly into Iran and Pakistan.
As the American analyst Robert Burns wrote, the Afghan conflict ‘has shown that it is possible to win battles and lose wars… The war has shown that it takes more than a powerful American army to turn the overthrow of a government, such as the Taliban’s fragile one, into a lasting success. It has also shown that winning requires, at the very least, an understanding of local politics, history and culture, all of which have been difficult for the Americans to acquire’.
With the ‘retreat’ on the night of July 1, the war in Afghanistan ended earlier than expected (President Biden had set the symbolic date of September 11 as the date for withdrawal) and the simultaneous withdrawal of foreign armies definitively left the field open to the Taliban, who now claim control of 50% of the territory and most of its borders.
The war will continue as a civil war, with the government troops still entrenched in the cities – we do not know for how long – and with the Taliban in full control of the rural areas and the mountains.
In this scenario, two new geopolitical players are appearing on the tormented region, namely Pakistan and China.
Under the vacant glance of the Americans, Pakistan has secretly (and very scarcely) supported the Taliban and their allies throughout the conflict – let us not forget that, before being killed, Bin Laden had taken up residence a few hundred meters from a Pakistani military academy – and will probably find a modus vivendi with the Islamists who also abound not only on its territory but also in its military institutions.
Under the banner of the traditional and well-established doctrine of “non-interference with the customs and habits” of its political counterparts, China has maintained contacts with the Taliban and therefore expects to gain a political dividend from the American defeat.
On July 28, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met a high-level Taliban delegation in Beijing, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, highlighting China’s willingness to recognize a future Taliban government if the guerrillas succeeded in occupying Kabul.
The reason for this willingness stems from concern about the possible support of Afghan Islamic extremists for the militant Uyghur Islamists who live in neighboring Xinjiang and are fighting with the Chinese central government for recognition of their ethnic and religious rights and are supported by the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’, whose militants in Pakistan killed nine Chinese engineers in a bomb attack at the beginning of June.
During the meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, the Taliban delegation assured that hostile actions against China would not be permitted from Afghan territory, stressing that the Uyghur problem was an “internal Chinese problem” in which the Afghans did not intend to interfere.
For his part, the Chinese Minister reiterated that China would not intervene in any way “in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs”.
Pakistan, whose Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Kureshi organized the meeting between the Taliban and the Chinese, looks favorably on a possible future agreement between China and the Taliban because it believes it would stabilize the entire region and encourage the return back home of the hundreds of Afghan refugees who crowd the Pakistani slums.
In an article published on July 19 entitled ‘Making enemies of the Taliban is not in China’s interest’, the editor of the influential Chinese State tabloid ‘Global Times‘, Hu Xijin, stressed that ‘both the Afghan government and the Taliban have expressed their friendly attitude towards China and this is good for China’. He also stressed that “we should not make enemies in a crucial moment. China knows its own interests and knows that the Taliban’s goodwill will enable us to positively influence the Afghan situation and maintain stability in Xinjiang.
Commenting on the meeting between the Taliban and China, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also spoke of a “positive event that can help stabilize the situation in the entire region”.
In short, with the unexpected US endorsement, China may be preparing to play a fundamental role in a region that has been a source of instability and conflict for decades, launching a process of pacification that will open up new prospects for the construction of the “Silk and Belt Road”, a new “Silk Road” destined to develop the economies of the entire Far East, shifting the future center of gravity of geopolitics from West to East.
Giancarlo Elia Valori