The China-U.S. relation became the key game that would affect the main international pattern. But the focal point of its strategic adjustment is not on the East China Sea or the South China Sea, not even on Taiwan Strait, but far away on Afghanistan, where Tianshan Mountains are. President Biden has announced the U.S. troops will completely withdraw from Afghanistan on Sep. 11 this year, the 20th anniversary of the 9.11 terrorist attack, to end the longest war in American history. He said, “we have to shore up American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing. From an increasingly assertive China.”
The war in Afghanistan was a battle the U.S. had to fight as it was necessary to eliminate Bin Laden. There was no other option. The U.S. has completed its mission and declared with blood-stained action: anyone or any organization in any place that harms the Americans will be punished. The U.S. was determined to sacrifice more soldiers to take revenge on and punish those who did the evil things. Therefore, whether the U.S. strategy on Afghanistan was a success cannot be determined by the cost of war, but the warning it has given to the future U.S. challengers and how it could lower the opportunity cost of future wars should also be taken into consideration.
If the Chinese government thinks the U.S. is the biggest foreign threat, then it withdrawing troops from the western border of China should be a relief for the CCP. But the state media seemed unusually worried about the situation in Afghanistan. Xinhua News Agency commented the “variables in Afghanistan would increase after the U.S. troops withdrawal.” China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian even clearly indicated the U.S. linking the troops’ withdrawal with dealing with challenges posed by China was “sinister and with a cold-war mentality.” He said the U.S. should be responsible and ensure a stable transition in Afghanistan and prevent terrorist forces from “taking advantage of potential chaos to fester.” He stressed that fighting terrorism serves the common interests of China and the U.S., and China is willing to cooperate with the U.S. and other parties concerned to play a constructive role.
The Chinese government is clear on what it wants: “Sir! Don’t leave!” The U.S. soldiers have been acted as the human wall in the past 20 years, and the Chinese government was only too happy to take the free ride and benefit from it. To explain the ins and outs of this sentence clearly, I have to mention a larger theoretical narrative, a larger strategic plan.
It is well-known that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.” The British and Russian empires have both learned their lessons. The ten-year war in Afghanistan was even one of the factors that brought down the Russian empire. If the U.S. continues its deep involvement in Afghanistan, it will also face a drastic reduction in profits. The reason is simple: The centuries of warlord regimes and civil wars in Afghanistan reflect the pains of the Islamic civilization’s own interpretation process and the fierce conflicts among various factions within it. The high price paid by the three empires here also reflects the clash of civilizations. Islam, the youngest and most radical of the three religions of Abraham’s descendants, has had challenged the even more ancient Judaism and Christianity. But in the eyes of Muslims, the descendants of the three religions are “people of the holy book,” different from the other people who are either pagan or non-believers.
The Muslim community “Ummah” established by the Prophet Muhammad was based on universal values. It transcends geographical and ethnic factors and will inevitably challenge the national states and national boundaries. When Muhammad died, he did not leave any succession plan for his power. How his successor (“caliph”) was produced, and whether the power was limited to the religious authority or the combination of politics and religion had triggered many debates, which led to the multiple divisions of the Muslim world. Later, the 300-year territory of the caliphate empire expanded and became Eurasian Empire after leaving the Arabian Peninsula. It had even created an authoritarian conservative tradition that differs from a free republic. It is the interpretation of “jihad” (the holy war): some believe it is only a constant battle between one’s inner world and the evil temptation, but others interpret it as the repeated conquest of the non-Muslim world.
It is not difficult to understand that when the Soviet Union’s red army invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Muslims all over the world went to Afghanistan to form a “jihadist militia” and fought against the non-believing Soviet social-imperialism. Bin Laden was one of the jihadists who gave up his wealthy life in Saudi Arabia, brought a huge amount of money, and joined the war. The U.S. and China joined forces in Pakistan to support the jihadist militia and eventually fought off the Soviet red army. In this ten-year war, the Soviet Army had lost the lives of 15,000 soldiers, and 35,000 soldiers had been injured. All of this for nothing.
After the collapse of the Soviet atheist red empire, the jihadist militia in Afghanistan became leaderless and fell into the anarchy of warlords and melee. The U.S. had also lost interest and stopped supplying for them. Due to the double relations of oil and Israel, the U.S. got more involved with the Middle East, which caused the Iraq war in 1991. President Clinton strongly promoted globalization led by neoliberalism during the 90s. The U.S., a capitalist country, had become the next attacking target for the jihadist, and the 9.11 attack and the 20-year war in Afghanistan were the outcomes.
Benjamin Barber, a political scientist, has presciently summed up this part of history as “Jihad vs. McWorld.” McWorld is, of course, “McDonald,” representing the U.S. culture like Microsoft. Another political scientist Huntington has instead seen the “Clash of Civilizations” and predicted the western civilization would be facing the challenge of “Confucianism-Green religion non-holy alliance.” But after the 9.11 event, the U.S., Russia, and China formed an anti-terror alliance. Because of the threat from Chechnya and Xinjiang respectively, Russia and China were more than willing to get on the anti-terror chariot of the western countries.
However, 20 years have passed, and China’s “social imperialism” has become a sign of the rising of atheism and materialism. The expansion of the One Belt One Road initiative in the Muslim world in Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, the out-of-control COVID-19 virus, the “crime against humanity” towards Uyghur and other Muslims in Xinjiang (declared by the U.S. and EU as “genocide”), has already caused unrest within the Muslim world. But the U.S. army stationing in Afghanistan was standing between the CCP’s Xinjiang anti-terror movement and Taliban terrorist organization, which had taken the attention off the CCP. Being an important ally of the free Muslims, the U.S. has more resources and room to take care of its relationship with the Islamic Ummah. The withdrawal of the U.S. troops is to get more room to readjust domestic and foreign policies (including China policy.)
The CCP thought it could handle Afghanistan and the Muslim world with ease but will soon regret that the U.S. has left. For the U.S., if two hedgehogs want to hug each other, then they’d better not be trapped in the middle.
(Dr. Xia Ming, Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York.)
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