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Afghanistan, another asset for China

The Chinese giant is focusing on the country's mineral deposits, while the United States announced the withdrawal of its troops from Afghan territory
Afganistán, otra baza para China

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China has turned its attention and interest to Afghanistan.

Almost a year after the signing of the Doha agreements, the Biden administration has announced the definitive withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, setting a deadline, with all the symbolism that this entails, of 11 September this year, which will inevitably mean the withdrawal of the rest of the international forces from the country.

President Biden is merely honouring what was signed by his predecessor Donald Trump almost a year and a half later than agreed. Even so, in the first moments of his mandate, the current US president showed some reluctance to implement the agreement. However, after weighing up the pros and cons, he seems to have come to the same conclusion as the reviled Trump: it is time to end the longest war the United States has ever fought. 

While at first glance, and being pragmatic, the decision appears to be both right and irremediable, if one delves deeper into the implications, one is likely to find aspects that indicate that, at the very least, this may not be the right time.

AFP/KARIM JAAFAR - Khalilzad, Baradar y sus equipos llevaban negociando casi dos años
AFP/KARIM JAAFAR - AFP/KARIM JAAFAR - Khalilzad, Baradar and their teams had been negotiating for almost two years.

It is a truism to admit that any agreement with the Taliban implied the departure of foreign troops, but after twenty years of presence in the country one might expect that the groundwork would have been laid to maintain a degree of influence in the country without the need for the deployment of forces of any kind. And yet, even though it was known that this moment would come, the impression one gets is one of a certain "improvisation" not in the departure, but in the day after. If we take an objective approach, from the very moment the war (not just this one, but any other) began, those in charge of designing the political strategy, with the objectives of the war on the horizon, were supposed to have begun to prepare for the exit from occupied territory with long-term planning, based on foresight and the design of desirable and possible scenarios. But once again, as was the case in Iraq after the invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it seems that virtually the same mistakes have been made and the US is once again proving to be a very bad occupying power.

PHOTO/DOUG MILLS/ THE NEW YORK TIMES via AP  -   El presidente Joe Biden habla ante una sesión conjunta del Congreso el miércoles 28 de abril de 2021, en la Cámara de Representantes del Capitolio de Estados Unidos en Washington, junto con la vicepresidenta Kamala Harris y la presidenta de la Cámara de Representantes, Nancy Pelosi, de California
PHOTO/DOUG MILLS/ THE NEW YORK TIMES via AP  -  President Joe Biden speaks to a joint session of Congress Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif.
20 years of war

The first question is why the US attacked and invaded Afghanistan.

This time it was not the "threat" of the presence of weapons of mass destruction or the existence of a tyrannical radical Islamic government that after years of civil war had imposed a regime of terror throughout the country. Moreover, the Taliban a priori only posed a threat within their own borders and to the population not akin to their concept of Islam. None of the countries in the region felt threatened by their presence beyond the border problems with Pakistan.

Nor is its involvement in the 9/11 attacks clear beyond its sympathies or religious overlap with the Al-Qaeda organisation. 

But the "mortal sin" that determined the US intervention and led to subsequent international involvement was the Taliban's record of protecting Osama bin Laden, who was considered the main ideologue of the attacks on the twin towers and leader of Al-Qaeda.

It is obvious that, once in the country, in addition to the fight against those hiding and protecting the most wanted human being in the world, the huge American and international military and political machine turned its attention to trying to pull the Afghan population and institutions out of the pit of underdevelopment and misery in which they were mired. But while all kinds of civil-military initiatives launched hundreds of projects under the umbrella of the so-called PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team), ranging from the construction of water wells, schools, facilities of all kinds to the asphalting and completion of the famous "Ring Road", the mythical road that circles the entire country, two simultaneous missions coexisted on Afghan soil: One, sponsored by NATO and including the aforementioned PRTs, called ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), and the other, "Enduring Freedom", a purely combat mission led by the US and involving the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and a very limited number of allies. In the context of the fight against the Taliban, the ultimate objective of Enduring Freedom and the United States was none other than to locate and eliminate the leader of Al-Qaeda, something that happened exactly ten years ago.

REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST  -   El presidente de Afganistán Ashraf Ghani (izquierda) y el jefe ejecutivo de Afganistán Abdullah Abdullah (derecha) en una foto de familia en la Cumbre de la OTAN en Varsovia el 8 de julio de 2016
REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST  -   Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (left) and Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah (right) in a family photo at the NATO Summit in Warsaw on 8 July 2016.

But four years before its demise, Daesh, the Iraqi splinter group of Al-Qaeda, had already made its presence felt, and was gradually taking centre stage in the radical jihadist world until it became the "new biggest threat". 

Road to the end

Objectively, since 2 May 2010, the US presence in Afghanistan had lost its main motive. And the Obama administration had already begun to take steps towards opening peace talks that would allow the US to gradually withdraw its military forces from Afghan soil.

It was President Trump who shaped these talks and reached the Doha agreements, but at a price that raises questions about what has been achieved after 20 years of war beyond eliminating the US's greatest enemy to date.

The Afghan government was excluded from the talks, a condition demanded by the Taliban. And this is a key point, as it means that the US and the international community are giving a free hand to the very group they have been fighting for years. This group is responsible for an oppressive and terrifying regime that ruled by means of Sharia law and which, among many other things, despised and humiliated women and considered them second-class citizens. 

AFP/KARIM JAAFAR - US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign the agreement in Doha.
AFP/KARIM JAAFAR - US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign the agreement in Doha.

It has been implicitly accepted that, in one way or another, the Taliban will be part of Afghanistan's future, which is ironic to say the least.

It is true that the economic and human cost was already bordering on the unbearable, and the withdrawal was entirely in line with Trump's policy of withdrawing from all scenarios that he did not consider to be in the direct interest of the United States. 

A possible future scenario

It is undeniable that the geopolitical centre of gravity has shifted towards the Asia-Pacific area, and that the struggle between China and the US is currently setting the tone and the movements of both, which is why the exit from Afghanistan leaves open certain unknowns and some scenarios that could be decisive.

PHOTO/ Presidential Palace  -   El Secretario de Defensa de Estados Unidos, Lloyd Austin, durante su visita en Kabul, Afganistán, el 21 de marzo de 2021.
PHOTO/ Presidential Palace  -    U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during his visit in Kabul, Afghanistan, 21 March 2021.

On the one hand, there is the tension with Iran. Despite appearances, the Ayatollahs' regime, with its sophistry and attitude, has always shied away from direct confrontation with the United States, and the proof of this is that all its actions are carried out by 'proxies'. Even the death of Qassem Soleimani did not prompt equivalent retaliation. This can be explained by the difficult internal situation in the country, where there is growing opposition to the regime, which is why most of Tehran's threats and actions must be interpreted from the perspective of domestic consumption. But in the event of an escalation of tension, and in recent months this has been the scenario, the American presence in Afghanistan was of enormous strategic value, as military and air bases such as Bagram, Herat, Helmand and Jalalabad were key points very close to the border with Iran that would facilitate any kind of operation should the need arise. The commitment to unconditionally abandon them is therefore not well understood.

Another important aspect of this commitment is the "empty space" phenomenon. The departure of the US and the coalition countries will have such an effect on the Asian country, in such conditions that it will continue to need aid and support. And with the Taliban in power or forming part of it, this change of position seems very difficult to justify by those who until a few days ago have been fighting them, both in terms of coherence and in terms of explanations to public opinion, which would not understand how to go from losing the lives of their fellow citizens fighting the Taliban to supporting a government in which the Taliban have a stake or are the leaders.

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   El presidente chino Xi Jinping asiste a la Cumbre del Foro de Cooperación China-África -Mesa Redonda en el Gran Salón del Pueblo de Beijing el 4 de septiembre de 2018 en Beijing, China
PHOTO/REUTERS  -    Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit-Roundtable at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 4, 2018 in Beijing, China.

By definition, someone will occupy that space, and that someone may well be the US's biggest competitor today: China. In fact, it has already begun to take steps in that direction.

Afghanistan is a country with a subsoil that is very rich in minerals, especially minerals such as lithium, copper, gold and the so-called rare earths, which make it a possible strategic point. The major handicap for mining companies to decide to exploit the different deposits is the lack of security and, to a greater extent, the total lack of infrastructure, especially railways.

However, China has already taken a step forward, and a few years ago a Chinese mining company made a huge investment to obtain the concession for several mines near Kabul.

Because of the authoritarian nature of its form of government, the Asian giant does not have the dependence on public opinion that Western powers have, and its rulers therefore feel much freer in their decisions. A gradual entry into Afghanistan despite security shortcomings is a likely scenario, and such shortcomings would be mitigated either as is currently the case or more explicitly and with fewer constraints than the US and its allies have had, if necessary.

The Kabul government needs financial support and assistance of all kinds, and a power such as China can play on that need for interesting and profitable quid pro quos.

PHOTO/AP-Miembros de la delegación talibán
PHOTO/AP-Members of the Taliban delegation

The main problem as mentioned is infrastructure. Getting the concessions and exploiting the Afghan subsoil may be the easy part of the task. But getting the materials out of the ground is another, more complex issue. The country's terrain makes it extremely difficult to establish a rail network, the cheapest, fastest and most efficient method of transporting goods, and the road network is also almost non-existent. The few stretches of railway that have been planned have been disproportionately expensive.

Only the southern part of the country has a relatively flat terrain that would allow the development of this type of infrastructure at a more affordable cost. And this is what is really interesting. It is precisely in this area of the country where the deposits of what we can consider to be the oil of the 21st century are found: rare earths. These are essential elements for the manufacture of electronic components that are present in all the devices in common use today in the arms industry.

China currently has more than 90% of the world's deposits of these elements, so maintaining this dominant position gives it a clear strategic advantage. Another issue is the current division of labour in the development, design, manufacture and assembly of electronic components and microchips. This is perfectly explained in an excellent article recently published in Actualidad Económica entitled 'The Pearl Harbour of Semiconductors'. There are also studies and indications that important uranium deposits may be located in this area of the country.

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Mina Bayan Obo que contiene minerales de tierras raras, en Mongolia Interior, China
PHOTO/REUTERS  -    Bayan Obo Mine containing rare earth minerals

And the interesting thing about the location of both deposits is their proximity to the Pakistani border, a country where China already has a significant presence, which in turn it is interested in strengthening given its rivalry with India (materialised in recent months in clashes with casualties between Indian and Chinese forces), and where it owns the country's main port: the port of Gwadar, which has a strategic location.

The connection of possible future communications infrastructures from Afghanistan's southern oilfields with those of Pakistan would be the quickest way to bring all the materials extracted from the Afghan subsoil to the sea through this port.

This scenario suggests an Afghanistan benefiting from Chinese support, with a certain degree of control over the Taliban problem and a rapprochement with Pakistan, all of which would result in a "win-win" situation for China, which would strengthen its position in the region by wresting a space of influence from the US and increasing its near monopoly position in the production and control of one of the most important elements in today's industry.