Carl von Clausewitz, 19th century military theorist, stressed the importance of knowing your enemy: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”
For 17 years, we wrongly applied counterinsurgency doctrine to a proxy war waged by Pakistan against the United States and Afghanistan. That approach was never a winning strategy as long as Pakistan controlled the supply of our troops in landlocked Afghanistan and regulated the operational tempo through its proxy army, the Taliban, who has maintained an extensive recruiting, training and financial support infrastructure inside Pakistan and immune to attack.
An American withdrawal will only be a humiliating defeat if the United States is forced into strategic retreat from South Asia because we do not have a plan in place to address the changing regional conditions in a post-U.S. Afghanistan.
I have written and spoken extensively about China orchestrating a strategic shift in South Asia working closely with Pakistan, Russia and Iran.
That geopolitical plan cannot succeed without the removal of the U.S. forces and influence from Afghanistan. China’s plan is for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to become the dominant economic driver in South Asia through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Shanghai Cooperation Organization will be the controlling regional alliance led by China.
Although not stated, Chinese militarization of the region will follow to ensure “security.” In many cases, expect that militarization to occur initially disguised as civilian construction projects.
Nowhere has Chinese ambitions been more clearly and publicly articulated than in a June 2018 China Daily article by former Pakistani diplomat, Zamir Ahmed Awan, who works for the Beijing-controlled Center for China and Globalization:
New [Chinese] initiatives for peace in Afghanistan are welcome, and may change the scenario in the whole region.
I believe American think tanks and leadership, especially military leadership, [have] already realized that this war cannot be won. The only option is withdrawal, the sooner the better.
Pakistan can play a vital role in a sustainable solution to the Afghan conflict [controlling Afghanistan as a client state]. Complete withdrawal and an Afghan-led [Taliban-led] solution is the only permanent way out. Pakistan can facilitate an honorable and safe passage for U.S. withdrawal.
Peace in Afghanistan will allow economic activity between Central Asia, Russia, China and the Arabian Sea…It can change the fate of the whole region. Chinese projects like the Belt and Road Initiative and the objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] … At the recent SCO summit, the Afghanistan president was invited as a guest and observer. Hopefully, the country will soon join SCO. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor may also be extended to benefit Afghanistan in the near future if there is peace.
Since that article was published, China has offered to extend CPEC to Afghanistan; China will build a military facility in and deploy Chinese troops to Afghanistan; Afghan military personnel will be trained in China; and members of the Afghan Parliament have recommended that the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the U.S. and Afghanistan be cancelled, presumably to be replaced by China.
The only bargaining chip the United States has in peace negotiations is simply our presence in Afghanistan. According to the Voice of America, talks with the Taliban are stuck over the issue of the maintenance of U.S. military bases in the country. The United States wants to preserve two military facilities, Bagram Air Base and the Shorabak base in Helmand province.
The “presence” argument is tenuous at best. The United States should be identifying new forms of leverage, in the short term, to bolster our negotiating position, and, in the long term, as a basis of a new South Asian strategy.
The recently-announced effort to strengthen military ties with India is a step in that direction. The U.S. should also include measures to thwart Chinese plans for regional hegemony through BRI and its evitable military component. CPEC is the flagship of BRI, Balochistan is CPEC’s center of gravity and ethnic separatism is Pakistan’s major pain point. Both the Baloch and Pashtun resistance to Pakistani government oppression offer the opportunity to create greater leverage through the use of our own proxies.
The foundations of a new U.S. strategy in South Asia should be burden shifting and, when necessary, strategic disruption of our adversaries.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.