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Where the U.S. stands after Afghanistan with China and the world

How we exited from Afghanistan is as shameful as it was avoidable. I’m sure you’ve read some of the coverage. It is an episode in our history that calls for bipartisan outrage — and there was much of that.

For context and analysis I reached out to Ian Bremmer, as I often do when I find the world of global affairs vexing, and per usual he was a font of penetrating call-it-like-it-is reason replete with wow-I-never-thought-about-that insight. I was particularly interested in how our withdrawal from Afghanistan affected our relationship with the Chinese, and I’ll get to that, but first here’s Bremmer’s 30,000-foot view.

“So much of this was badly handled on the part of the past few days,” Bremmer told me. “And it’s very painful for me to say that, especially as someone who knows most of the cabinet. These are capable people, they’re thoughtful people and they’re experienced people, but it’s been a disaster on pretty much every front. There’s no circumstance under which you should have the Kabul airport swarmed by thousands of Afghan civilians, with an American transport plane with Afghans hanging literally off the wheels and falling to their deaths.”

The even bigger debacle, of course, was simply how long we were in Afghanistan, which is to say almost 20 years (invasion date was October 7, 2001) and under four presidents; Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden. I just have one request for future presidents: Can we please, please learn from the past and not do this again. To wit: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and now this.

And in the case of Afghanistan, we were doubly stupid. Not for nothing, they call Afghanistan the Graveyard of Empires. Ask the British who were bogged down there for 65 years (1830-1895) in what came to be known as The Great Game. Check out Rory Stewart’s documentary “Afghanistan: The Great Game” or John Huston’s movie adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novella “The Man Who Would Be King,” if you want to learn more about that era. Or ask the Russians, who were driven out in 1989 after almost 10 years of warfare and more than 14,000 Russians dead (plus 100,000 Afghan fighters and as many as 2 million civilians, or 5% to 10% of the population.) All that did was precipitate the demise of the Soviet Union, inspire Chechen separatists/terrorists and create fertile ground for Osama bin Laden to set down his poisonous roots. For a popular culture look here, I recommend “Charlie Wilson’s War” by the late George Crile, made into a movie of the same name by Mike Nichols with an all-star cast.

So, after nearly 200 years of screaming warning signs, and after our own previously enumerated experiences in Asia and the Middle East, we went into Afghanistan in 2001. At first, yes, justifiably, to rout the Taliban and to search for Osama bin Laden. But after that we stayed without justification to do…what? Continue to hunt and quell the Taliban? Stabilize the situation? It wasn’t so much a Great Game as a Loser’s Game.

And the cost? Unimaginable. Incalculable. Or to put it more accurately, $2.261 trillion as of April, according to the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University. And then beyond that, the horror of mass unnecessary deaths, starting with U.S. service members killed: 2,448. Then Allied/NATO deaths, 1,144. Aid workers, 444. Journalists, 72. Oh and Afghans killed, at least 150,000. (This all according to the AP.)

For what? And what was accomplished?

Instead of $2 trillion plus and thousands dead, we could have spent a tiny fraction of that utilizing spy planes, special forces and collaborating with friends and frenemies to keep the Taliban at bay. Without question we’d be no worse off than today.

Internally displaced Afghans from northern provinces, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, take refuge in a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Internally displaced Afghans from northern provinces, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, take refuge in a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Internally displaced Afghans from northern provinces, who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel, take refuge in a public park in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

So, why then does the United States continue, time after time after time, to invade countries at such a cost? American exceptionalism for one thing. We think we can tell the world what to do. But I often think that even this particularly misguided notion, along with its condescending colonialist cousin, “nation building,” and the other empty rubrics, be it “fighting communism” or “the Domino Theory,” or “strategic geopolitical positioning to check rivals’ hegemonistic goals,” are really just cover for a more fundamental modus operandi.

Bald fact: We have by far the biggest military budget in the world at $778 billion this year, three times bigger than No. 2 China at $252 billion. More facts: The U.S. owns 39% of the world’s military spend. And in terms of military dollars spent as a percentage of GDP, we come in at 3.7%, behind only the Saudis, the Israelis and the Russians. (Gee.)

My point is if you spend that much money on weaponry and soldiering, you are never going to be content letting it all sit there at Camp Lejeune or one of the other roughly 5,000 U.S. military bases here and overseas (and of course we have more of these than any other country.) No, you are going to want to fly it, cruise it, shoot it and deploy it. So yes, I am laying the blame for most of our disastrous military involvements not only at the feet of the U.S. military but also with what General Eisenhower famously called (and he would have known) “the military-industrial complex,” aka our nation’s defense contractors.

With our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we’ve reined them in for now, but trust me, it’s only for now. The generals and the defense contractor CEOs will push us out into the world again I’m afraid. And I bet it will be in my lifetime.

But let’s turn back to the matter at hand which is the current situation in Afghanistan. As I said I wanted to look specifically at what this means for China and our relationship with the Chinese. First let’s look at what this means specifically for China, Afghanistan as you may or may not not know “shares a 50-mile (80 kilometer) border with China’s western region of Xinjiang at the end of the narrow Wakhan Corridor,” as CNN notes.

Bottom line: The Chinese have been keenly interested in developments in Afghanistan. “It’s a regional problem for China in a way it isn’t for us that creates a set of security concerns,” says Dan Kurtz-Phelan, editor of Foreign Affairs who served at the State Department during the Obama administration. One would be the Taliban’s reliance on opium as a cash crop. Another, radical Islam spreading forth from Afghanistan. 

“In terms of the Islamic extremism and the fact that the Taliban will see themselves as compatriots with Uyghurs muslims,” says Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on global terror groups. “There will be concerns about that. The Chinese will have to play that balancing act.”

Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the author of “The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics,” thinks the Chinese may have learned from the British/Russian/American debacles, (and are perhaps less expansionistic to begin with, at least overtly.) “China tends to perceive Afghanistan, especially at the moment, through the lens of it being kind of a trap,” Small says. “There is a sense that if you get too sucked into Afghanistan — certainly militarily but also the depth of economic-political commitments — that turns into a liability. At points it looks as if it’s easy but it turns hard very, very quickly.”

Would China make Afghanistan part of its super-regional economic development program known as the Belt and Road initiative? “It depends on the domestic stabilization in Afghanistan,” says Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Washington D.C.-based Stimson Center. “If it remains unstable and civil war and armed conflict continue, Afghanistan will be avoided by foreign investors, including China. If it’s stable, I don’t think China will avoid it per se.”

But what I really want to focus on is what Afghanistan means for the U.S.-China relationship. For more on this I want to go back to Ian Bremmer, but before I do, I want to tell you more about him.

Ian is an American success story if there ever was one. He describes himself as coming from immigrants and from refugees. His Armenian grandmother emigrated from Aleppo in the 1920s. His father, a Korean War veteran, died when he was 46 and Bremmer was four. Ian grew up in housing projects in Chelsea, Massachusetts, graduated magna cum laude from Tulane and went on to get his PhD in political science at Stanford. He founded the Eurasia Group in 1998 and has grown it into a significant player in the global risk management business.

He’s a little guy (I can say that). Plucky, funny, a little bit hyper and in possession of a staggering amount of information with a processing function in his brain to match. Or as Ken Underwood, who runs our live programming at Yahoo Finance (on which Ian has appeared frequently) once said to me, “I could listen to Ian talk for hours about anything.”

Here’s some of my conversation with Bremmer from this past week.

Serwer: Let’s talk about China and talk about the relationship and where we stand with that right now.

Bremmer: When Biden first became president, I said, what’s going to surprise people is that Biden is going to be softer than Trump on Russia. And he’s going to be harder than Trump on China, which is exactly the opposite of what everyone was saying, Democrat or Republican, at that point. He’s softer on Russia, because even though Trump wanted to be the good guy for Putin, wanted to do a reset, he couldn’t do it at all, couldn’t do it because of his own cabinet. And because of the GOP in Congress, because he was just constrained massively from implementing. For Biden, China is the big problem. And so he doesn’t want the Russia relationship to go off the rails farther than it has.

Biden sees China as the top priority, as did Trump. But Biden is much more interested in coordinating with our allies on that China policy, and thus far more effective, in part because China screwed a bunch of stuff up. So the Chinese are actually less happy with Biden than they have been with Trump. They weren’t happy with either but they see Biden as more problematic for them.

Now, clearly this debacle in Kabul is going to show a lot of Chinese that are running laps saying the Americans are in decline. The reality is they’re not happy about the United States leaving Afghanistan, they would have preferred us maintaining some level of baseline stability on the ground there and using our money and our troops and our allies to shore it up.

Serwer: What are the economic implications? There’s things like Afghanistan’s mineral reserves worth supposedly $3 trillion.

Bremmer: Definitely spreads are going to widen on Pakistani bonds. Same with Uzbek bonds. And I think that there are like five people that care about that. This is Afghanistan. This is not an economic priority. Those rare earth metals are in the ground. It is hard to get to them. There is no infrastructure. And there are major security issues. The Chinese are going to have similar sorts of problems [that the U.S. had.] So even though they have interests in securing rare earth metals, as part of their supply chain for electric vehicle batteries, and things like that, it will be a very long time before Afghanistan becomes economically important for a country like China.

But China is the major power in the region that cares the most about Afghanistan not becoming a failed state, because of the potential to spread into Pakistan, for example, which is an important strategic increasing ally of China. The Chinese will become the most important proximate political and economic supporter of the Taliban. And to the extent that there are those inside Afghanistan that really don’t like that, China will increasingly be a target. So, we are kind of leaving China with holding the bag to a degree here.

Again, another mistake, in my view of the Biden administration, as much as you mistrust the Chinese and it’s mutual, why wouldn’t you have asked China to at least engage and say, ‘Hey, we want to get out.’

This week Chinese state media has been chortling over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, as in this kind of stuff: “…the U.S.’ desperate withdrawal plan shows the unreliability of U.S. commitments to its allies: When its interests require it to abandon allies, Washington will not hesitate to find every excuse to do so…the U.S. is indeed like a ‘paper tiger.’” The messaging here is targeted to, among other entities, Taiwan, saying in effect, when the going gets tough, the U.S. won’t be there for you.

America supports and has deep affinity for the people of Taiwan but when it comes to military intervention over that island — with its Mandarin speaking population of 23 million, 100 miles off the coast of China — I actually hope Beijing is right.

There are a million ways for us to engage with China and we should. When it comes to our military though, it is time we learned to mostly stay at home.

This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on August 21, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer

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