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Sabtu, 28 Agustus 2021

Biden’s messy Afghanistan moment could become China’s long-term nightmare - Sydney Morning Herald

President Biden may well condemn the bombers who wreaked havoc at Kabul airport and claim the US “will not forgive. We will not forget”. But much of the blame is sheeted home to Biden himself. Why did he leave Afghanistan now?

Many who have committed to the US effort in Afghanistan are justified to ask this question with a deep sense of angst, and none more so than the brave and admirable souls who have sacrificed in its name. Yet, this tragedy was long in the making, and the long-term repercussions might prove more of a problem for Xi Jinping than Joe Biden.

China’s Xi Jinping might be the leader with the biggest headache following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China’s Xi Jinping might be the leader with the biggest headache following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.Credit:AP

“There will be no victory in this war, illusory or otherwise.” These prescient words foretold the future of the US effort in Afghanistan. They were written by the former head of station for the CIA in Islamabad, Robert L. Grenier in his 2015 book 88 Days to Kandahar.

Grenier was the architect of the initial and successful US invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001.

Grenier’s plan is the reason the US quickly ousted the Taliban from power and evicted al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Grenier warned at the time that if the US sought to occupy the country and change Afghanistan’s political culture to a democracy from a tribal-based society, especially given the Taliban are part of the majority Pashtuns, a costly and tragic failure would ensue.

And now we have the proof. The loss of life is tragic. The length of the US commitment was folly. The scenes of abandoned Afghan allies deplorable. The message to other US allies alarming.

Wounded Afghans lie in hospital after the deadly explosions outside the airport in Kabul.

Wounded Afghans lie in hospital after the deadly explosions outside the airport in Kabul. Credit:AP

Even before the Kabul airport bombings, commentators and countries unsympathetic to the US didn’t bother to disguise their glee at the US’ dilemma. In particular, the Global Times of China, often described as a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, advised Taiwan to note that the US was not a reliable ally.

However, for those who wring their hands in disbelief at Biden’s action, and others who would gloat at the outcome, there is an important message – the war in Afghanistan has been in the US strategic rear-vision mirror for several years. Strategically, the US has moved on from a conflict of minor importance, to the strategic priority of addressing China.

While China is ostensibly rejoicing at the US withdrawal, especially the US embarrassment at the ensuing chaos, and the anxiety the withdrawal causes US allies, the withdrawal is actually of great concern to China’s leaders. They see three key disadvantages for Beijing – the US is no longer the enemy being fought by Afghans; the US is no longer underwriting security in Afghanistan that allowed China some freedom of action there; and Beijing will suspect, perhaps rightly, that the US is fomenting in Afghanistan anti-Chinese sentiment and trouble in Xinjiang. This is why China has scrambled to engage with the Taliban at the most senior levels.

For the US, Beijing’s angst is very useful. A top priority for China is territorial integrity and insurgent/independence movements are a constant fear. China’s west is particularly vulnerable, not just because of Afghanistan, but also its neighbours are potential threats to China’s internal stability. To have a significant distraction for Beijing in China’s west can only assist the US in its adversarial competitiveness with China in the western Pacific.

This is zero sum for China and the US. The greater China’s security problems in Xinjiang, the better for the US in the Pacific.

President Biden’s call, poorly and tragically managed and executed as it has been, rationalises the spread and expenditure of US military capability so it can focus more on the existential threat posed by China, and neatly removes the US from an unnecessary conflict with an Islamic adversary.

China fears insurrection in Xinjiang.

China fears insurrection in Xinjiang.Credit:AP

The second point is crucial to the real strategic benefit for the US – it can now direct the ire of Afghanistan’s extremists against China and its persecution of Uighur people of Xinjiang. Now that it is not in the futile business of occupying a hostile land, the US is no doubt dusting off the playbook that brought it so much success against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

In addition to the continued and increased attention of the West on the plight of the Uighurs, we can expect the US to resurrect its Mujahadeen ties, fan religious zealotry among Afghan groups and direct it against China in support of the oppressed and restive Uighurs.

China fears encirclement, and it has just gained a potentially significant adversary on a vulnerable border.

The Kabul airport bombings demonstrate that Sunni Muslim extremists in Afghanistan are highly active, capable and beyond the control of the Taliban. With the departure of the US, and with clandestine support from the US, it won’t be long before these groups turn their attention to the plight of the Uighurs. This is China’s nightmare.

In 2021, this is the new “Great Game” centred on Afghanistan.

Henry Kissinger wrote in his book, On China, that the Chinese are masters of the game of Wei Qi, a complex boardgame of strategy where victory is gained through encirclement rather than a decisive battle. It seems the Americans are also keen students of that game.

David Livingstone is a former Australian diplomat and an international security and strategy specialist.

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2021-08-28 19:00:00Z
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