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Aug. 26, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

China set to join ‘graveyard of empires’ in Afghanistan

By Bill Gertz
China has reaped the benefits of costly American military and security efforts in Afghanistan but now faces a hostile Islamic regime near its western border, according to David Stilwell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, who adds that the Biden administration should not help Beijing deal with its problems there.

Mr. Stilwell, a former military attache in China, said the large and growing presence of Chinese officials and businesses in Afghanistan will become more prominent once more than 10,000 Americans depart the country. Then al Qaeda and other groups will begin conducting terrorist attacks against the Chinese in Afghanistan.

Beijing has been quietly developing economic relations with Afghanistan for the past decade or more under its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure program. Beijing also has signaled its support for the new Taliban regime in Kabul.

Mr. Stilwell, who worked in the State Department during the Trump administration, recalled an encounter in China with a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer who criticized him for what the officer said were “imperialist” U.S. policies that had turned Afghanistan into an American colony.

Mr. Stilwell responded that he agreed it was long past time for the United States to depart the country. “I wished him and his PLA buddies luck in the graveyard of empires,” he told Inside the Ring. “Publicly, he pounded his chest and said that suited him fine. Afterward, he pulled me aside and said he hoped we wouldn’t leave anytime soon.”

The Chinese government was happy that thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan provided security for Chinese nationals and businesses at the same time the United States bore huge monetary and political costs in propping up the Kabul government.

“Now they have no choice but to engage. The alternative is to leave all that investment in Afghanistan and give up the One Belt/One Road dream,” Mr. Stilwell said. U.S. officials say China is using the program as a stalking horse for communist expansionism.

The fall of Afghanistan in the long term could benefit the United States, Mr. Stilwell said.

“Beijing won’t have time to attack Taiwan because we’ll take advantage of their distraction to carve Xinjiang and hopefully Tibet away,” he said. “That should be the [U.S.] message [to China] in private.

“We can and should make the PLA own this, but not by ‘cooperating.’ We need to avoid our usual habit of trying to be helpful,” he added.

U.S. failures in Afghanistan, China
Pete Hoekstra, a former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, says the United States has suffered two intelligence and policy disasters: the failure in Afghanistan and the failure to properly assess and counter the threat posed by China.

“The debacle in Afghanistan is a stark and frightening example of a massive intelligence failure of our country’s entire governing elite,” states Mr. Hoekstra, a onetime Michigan Republican congressman who recently served as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, writing in an article published this week by the Gatestone Institute, a think tank.

Four administrations — two Republican and two Democratic — along with several congresses, also failed to develop a strategy for dealing with Afghanistan that would “keep America safe,” Mr. Hoekstra said.

“They insisted that the jihadist threat would quickly be eliminated, and they refused to see and act upon the growing evidence that our policy in Afghanistan was not working,” he said.

The result is that despite more than $1 trillion of investment and the loss of 7,500 American and allied lives, the Afghan government and military collapsed without any meaningful resistance.

The fanatical Taliban Islamist movement has retaken control of the country, and the danger to the United States posed by Afghanistan as a terrorist redoubt is perhaps even greater than the danger faced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he said.

China, too, represents a major intelligence and policy failure for the United States, he argued.

“For 20 years, we have been acting as if engagement with China would eventually solve our China problem,” he stated.

Mr. Hoekstra noted that the 2000 law granting permanent normal trade status for China was based on the hope that it would usher in a new era of global trade and that Beijing would embrace the U.S.-led international trade order.

“But now, just as the failure of our wishful thinking has become brutally clear in Afghanistan, it is more and more apparent that our China strategy has failed the test of time,” Mr. Hoekstra said.

Instead, China has failed to comply with any rules-based economic order and refuses to open its markets without imposing onerous conditions and unilateral restrictions on those doing business with Chinese firms.

“The ongoing Uyghur genocide, the hostile takeover of Hong Kong, the persecution of Tibetans, Christians, Falun Gong and other religious minorities reveal that China‘s totalitarian dictatorship has only become more ruthless,” said Mr. Hoekstra, noting what he said was the regime’s cover-up of COVID-19 as well.

“China continues to steal intellectual property wherever and whenever it can,” he said. “It continues to infiltrate our colleges and universities with spies disguised as students and professors, and thereby to gain access to invaluable academic and scientific research. The warning signs have been flashing for years. It has taken willful blindness not to see them.”

Mr. Hoekstra said there will no doubt be vigorous debates in the coming days on the intelligence failure in Afghanistan and continued questions on whether there are intelligence gaps regarding China.

“Our leaders have refused to acknowledge the increasing, and increasingly compelling, signs that our policies toward Afghanistan and China were failing,” he said. “That is the true intelligence failure.”

China war games near Taiwan
The Chinese military this week kicked off large-scale war games close to Taiwan involving live-fire naval exercises, and government spokesmen for the first time said the exercises were aimed at deterring the United States from backing the island-state. The naval maneuvers appear to be the latest effort by China to employ military coercion on the Taiwanese government, a major target of Beijing.

Chinese military spokesmen and state media asserted that the war games are being held “in direct response” to growing U.S. and Taiwanese cooperation.

The military maneuvers coincide with Chinese government information operations designed to exploit the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by portraying the United States as an unreliable partner who should not be expected to come to the aid of Taiwan in response to a mainland attack. The state-affiliated Global Times reported that the exercises are practice for a large-scale amphibious assault on the island.

The newspaper said large-scale amphibious landing exercises will involve People’s Liberation Army operations to achieve air superiority and control of waters around the island, located 100 miles from the Chinese coast.

China’s government also made clear that the war games are intended to mark the 39th anniversary of the U.S.-Chinese joint communique that Beijing insists required the United States to restrict arms sales to Taiwan. The Chinese propaganda outlet asserted that the United States “repeatedly broke its promise.”

The PLA exercises also come at a time when “the U.S. military has lost credibility after its irresponsible, hasty and embarrassing troop withdrawal from Afghanistan,” according to the Global Times.

Participating in the war games are several PLA warships, anti-submarine warfare aircraft and fighter jets operating in areas near southwest and southeast Taiwan. Live-fire training assaults designed to practice joint operations also are part of the exercise, according to PLA Senior Col. Shi Yi, a spokesman for the PLA Eastern Command.

The official Chinese comments are unusually direct references to countering the United States. In the past, China has referred indirectly to its “main enemy” in such reports and official comments.

Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress this year that China is determined to retake Taiwan and could do so militarily in the next several years.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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