There's got to be some symbolism -- if not irony -- in the fact that just as the last of the 33,000 troops surged by Obama two years ago supposedly to pacify Afghanistan pulled out, the highest ranking Chinese official to visit Afghanistan in almost half a century pulled in -- arriving in Kabul for a secret round of meetings with top Afghan officials.
Question: How will China deal with the country that proved such an expensive and bloody disaster for both the U.S., its NATO allies -- and the U.S.S.R before them?
In a brief visit, unreported until he had left Kabul, Zhou Younkang, China's chief of domestic security, met with Afghani leaders, including President Hamid Karzai. They talked about drugs, international crime, terrorism, and developing Afghanistan's huge natural resources -- just as visiting Americans have done for years.
The result, a cluster of agreements, among them an announcement that 300 Afghan police officers will be sent to China for training over the next four years.
Which is another irony of sorts -- coming at the same time as news that the U.S. and its allies have been obliged to scale back joint operations with the Afghan military and police, because they can no longer trust the men they've trained. American troops in the field with their Afghan allies now keep weapons ready and wear body armor even when they're eating goat meat and yoghurt.
So far this year 51 American and NATO troops have been gunned down by Afghan military or police: A startling 20 percent of all NATO casualties this year.
The off-the-wall video from California ridiculing the prophet Mohammed has only further fueled anti-American hatred among those the U.S. trains and arms.
As the New York Times quoted one 20-year-old Afghan soldier, NATO casualties could even be higher.
"We would have killed many of them already," he said, "but our commanders are cowards and don't let us."
There are still some 68,000 American troops based in Afghanistan, but the plans are for them all to be out by the end of 2014.
Which means that China itself will now be confronting serious security problems of its own in their attempts to exploit Afghan's resources. They already have direct investments of more than $200 million in copper mining and oil exploration, and have promised to build a major railroad east to Pakistan or north to Turkestan. [See my January 2012 blog]
But they could pour in billions more if Afghanistan were a secure, well-ordered country, free from the Taliban, free from kleptocratic war lords and venal government bureaucrats, patrolled by well-trained Afghan soldiers and police: in other words, exactly the kind of country the U.S. would like to have left behind -- and didn't.
Instead, of course, despite America's huge sacrifice in men and treasure -- more than half a trillion dollars since 2001 -- things haven't worked out that way. [For a dramatic running count of the enormous hemorrhage that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still represent to the U.S. economy check out costofwar.com.]
Meanwhile, corruption is rampant, and it's by no means certain that Afghanistan has -- or ever will have -- a national army and police force worthy of the name.
The U.S. Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, peered into the Pentagon's 1.1 billion dollar fuel program to supply the Afghan Army, and concluded that there was no way to be certain how much if any of that fuel is really being used by Afghan security forces for their missions. There was also no way to know how much was stolen, lost or diverted to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Almost half a billion dollars worth of receipts detailing with fuel payments over the past four years have been shredded.
With the Americans heading for the exits, the challenge facing the Chinese -- and anyone else, like India -- interested in investing in the country -- is how to navigate this imbroglio.
Indeed, the Chinese have apparently already run into problems in Afghanistan. Work at the Mes Aynak copper mine in Lograr Province is already behind schedule, and no work has begun on the promised Chinese-built railroad yet. Various impediments have turned up, like recalcitrant bureaucrats, tensions provoked by the need to displace local populations, the discovery of Buddhist ruins, as well as ramshackle Soviet-era mines that first had to be cleared.
And then there's the rival, rapacious warlords, who see the country's resources as a way of fueling their own ambitions -- like General Abdul Rashid Dotsum, who the government has accused of attempting to extort illegal payoffs from the Chinese oil company.
However, in their dealings throughout the developing world, from despots to democracies, the Chinese have shown themselves adept at navigating such quagmires. There's no talk from Beijing of Chinese "exceptionalism." They've been taking on the world as it is -- not as someone in a Chinese think tank would want to remake it.
They've generally turned a blind eye to considerations of human rights, opted to pay off or work with the powers that be, and used offers of huge new infrastructure projects as bait, steadily increasing their share of the globe's resources.
Many potential investors still shy away from Afghanistan. They have no idea what lies on the other side of the political abyss after 2014 when the U.S. completes its withdrawal.
China is also wary, but they're also seriously planning their Afghan strategy for the post-American future.
As Wang Lian, a professor with the School of International Studies at the Paking University in Beijing, put it:
"Almost every great power in history, when they were rising, was deeply involved in Afghanistan, and China will not be an exception."
Unmentioned, of course, was what an unmitigated disaster that involvement turned out to be for the British, USSR, the U.S. -- and Afghanistan.
We'll see how China fares.
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