Yesterday’s post covered the intractable situation in Afghanistan from Alexander the Great through to America’s involvement as of 2018.

I ended with an article by Lawrence Sellin, a retired colonel in the US Army Reserve, who wrote an article for the Indian Center for Diplomatic Studies, ‘China Moves into Afghanistan As Part of Its Global Expansion Mission’.

Lithium and other minerals

China’s involvement in Afghanistan will become much deeper. The country’s mineral deposits, lithium in particular, are much sought after. This is what the US withdrawal on August 15 means:

The tweeted article is by an Indian scientist, Ameya Paleja, writing for Interesting Engineering: ‘With Taliban, Is China Eyeing Afghanistan’s Mineral Deposits?’

Paleja writes (emphases mine):

The abrupt removal of the US forces has left a political vacuum that China seems eager to fill. The Week reported that Foreign Minister Wang Yi met a Taliban delegation earlier in July and the two have agreed on a bigger role for China in the “future reconstruction and economic development of the region.”

China had made some inroads in mining projects in 2008 with a plan to mine copper out of what is believed to be the second-largest copper reserve in the world. However, progress on the project had been slow. Its next target could be the rare earth elements like lithium that China currently mines and exports from its mainland to fuel the electric transformation of transportation in the US and Europe.

Lithium-ion batteries are now ubiquitous in almost all electronic appliances and even working as storage systems for grids powered by renewable energies.  However, China would be happy to move the operations to another country, given the environmental risks entailed in the process. 

Therefore, it is curious that Joe Biden abruptly ended US involvement in Afghanistan, known to be the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium’.

Where was that expression coined? In the United States, by their own defence department:

Yet, for whatever reason, Ameya Paleja points out that the 2020 United States Geological Survey (USGS) report:

does not even mention Afghanistan in the list of global lithium reserves

Newsweek invited Nigel Farage to write an editorial on Biden’s perilous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Farage wrote about the lithium deposits:

A commentator on GB News this week said that China plays the long game. Western countries think four or five years ahead. China looks 10 to 20 years ahead.

In reading Farage’s article, one might be forgiven for thinking that China started putting the pieces together some years ago, even before electric cars became a thing:

Afghanistan’s lithium reserves were first identified during geological studies carried out in the 1980s by the Soviet Union. At that time, the discovery did not resonate with most people because demand for the mineral was fairly low. After the Americans arrived in Afghanistan 20 years ago, they sought to back up the work done decades earlier and, in 2007, the United States Geological Survey discovered vast deposits of iron, gold, copper, cobalt and lithium. This discovery remained largely unknown until 2010. Yet media reports from that year confirmed its significance to modern industry, saying that Afghanistan was on course to be one of the most important mining centers in the world. An internal Pentagon memo that was unearthed at the time even stated that the country could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” It should be noted that Joe Biden was vice president when that memo became widely known.

Almost 15 years after that survey, most of these mineral deposits remain unexploited as a result of the various problems which have overshadowed Afghanistan. Recently, however, rapidly rising commodity prices have proved just how vital lithium has become. This development makes Biden’s irresponsible withdrawal from Afghanistan even more difficult to comprehend.

Farage discussed China’s strategy in Africa, which clearly works for the continent’s leaders:

Despite its great size, China is surprisingly short on many of the vital minerals it needs to support its modern industrial revolution. To date, its Belt and Road initiative has used Africa to ensure vital supplies for the future, successfully securing the rights to mineral mining in many countries in that continent. In return, African administrations receive revenue for opening up their countries to the Chinese. The fact that some individual African politicians seem to have become extremely wealthy very quickly in recent years is not a coincidence.

Therefore, he says, China can use the same strategy with the Taliban, despite the Uighur situation:

I predict that exactly the same thing will happen in Afghanistan. True, there will almost certainly have to be a compromise over the appalling treatment of the 12 million-strong Muslim Uighur minority living in Xinjiang, but I have no doubt that China and Afghanistan will reach an understanding. China is desperate to forge links with the Taliban in order to obtain Afghanistan’s assets as quickly as possible.

Arguably, it has already begun to do so. It was announced this week that a Chinese consortium intends to reopen the Mes Aynak copper mine near Kabul, which is believed to contain some of the largest copper deposits in the world. The consortium, consisting of the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC Group) and another Chinese company, Jiangxi Copper, was awarded a 30-year, $2.9 billion contract in 2008 but halted work because of the pandemic. According to an unnamed source at the state-owned Global Times “We would consider reopening [Mes Aynak] after the situation is stabilised and international recognition, including the Chinese government’s recognition of the Taliban regime, take place.”

Farage concludes:

Although guaranteeing the future availability and price of any commodity is difficult, in this particular situation one thing seems certain: the West’s green revolution has been dealt a major blow. In strategic terms, this underlines the madness of Biden’s withdrawal decision. Was the president poorly briefed, or simply not up to the job? Whatever the answer, the green revolution that has been planned by every G7 nation has suffered a setback. The blame can be laid squarely at the feet of blundering Joe Biden.

On Tuesday, August 17, Cynthia Chung of Canada’s Rising Tide Foundation wrote an article for Strategic Culture: ‘Afghanistan: Whatever the Future Brings, One Thing Is for Sure, Britain and the U.S. Should Stay Out’.

Chung wrote about the Chinese government’s interest in the Wakhan Corridor, about which I wrote yesterday. It is a slim tongue-shaped piece of eastern Afghanistan that borders China. Among other projects:

Beijing is also building a major road through the Wakhan Corridor, which would connect China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang to Afghanistan.

The Wakhan Corridor project is fraught with risk, but the Chinese have been negotiating with the Taliban since 2019. From what Chung reports, the Taliban might sacrifice any concern for the Uighurs for the good of Chinese investment:

China has been undergoing negotiations with the Taliban since 2019.

The Wakhan Corridor is regarded as a rather risky endeavour having the potential to act as a corridor for terrorism rather than development.

Just a few weeks ago, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview that “China is a friendly country and we welcome it for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan…if [the Chinese] have investments, of course we will ensure their safety.

On the issue of whether the Taliban might support alleged Uyghur militants against China in neighboring Xinjiang, Shaheen responded, “We care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, in Myanmar, or in China, and we care about the oppression of non-Muslims anywhere in the world. But what we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs.

This may seem like empty talk meant to impress Beijing and earn more brownie points, but the Wakhan Corridor is narrow and will not be difficult to monitor. Thus Beijing is offering this in good faith but it is also an easy test to see how much substance is indeed behind such words, and the Taliban know this.

On July 28th, Taliban representatives met with Chinese officials in Tianjin. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi statedThe Taliban in Afghanistan is a pivotal military and political force in the country, and will play an important role in the process of peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction there.

This is sending a clear message, that so long as the Taliban agrees to defend Afghanistan against terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and serves to increase stability in the region, it will continue to have a seat at the negotiation table.

Trump’s withdrawal plan had wide approval

President Donald Trump presented his plan for American withdrawal from Afghanistan on February 29, 2020: ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’.

It placed a certain degree of trust in the Taliban to negotiate with the then-Afghan government.

It also met with wide approval from not only the UN Security Council but also Russia and China. Chung gives us an outline of Trump’s strategy. It included:

provisions including the withdrawal of all regular American and NATO troops from Afghanistan, a Taliban pledge that they would oppose al-Qaeda in their zones of influence and open up talks with the Afghan government. This peace agreement was also supported by Russia, China, Pakistan and unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

Under this peace agreement there was to be an initial reduction from 13, 000 to 8, 600 troops in July 2020, followed by a full withdrawal by May 1st 2021 if the Taliban kept its commitments during this downscaling of U.S. military presence.

This agreement looked promising under the Trump Administration, and it was thought that it would be possible to work with the Taliban in securing peace and stability in Afghanistan, to counter al-Qaeda, and to allow for American troops to finally leave a country they had been occupying for two decades. And again, this was a proposal that was supported by Russia, China, Pakistan and the UN Security Council.

Even Gen. Nick Carter, the UK chief of the General Staff stated in an interview, “I think that the Taliban is not the organization it once was, it is an organization that has evolved significantly in the 20 years that we have been there…They recognize that they need some political legitimacy and I would not be surprised if a scenario plays out that actually sees it not being quite as bad as perhaps some of the naysayers at the moment are predicting.

Trump was already discussing his plan the year before, in January 2019. On January 31, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) agreed, saying that it was not in any way ‘precipitous’. Who at the time could have imagined Biden’s precipitous move 17 months later?

The following day, February 1, Trump tweeted:

I inherited a total mess in Syria and Afghanistan, the “Endless Wars” of unlimited spending and death. During my campaign I said, very strongly, that these wars must finally end. We spend $50 Billion a year in Afghanistan and have hit them so hard that we are now talking peace

However, the Senate disagreed with a proposed withdrawal. Jesse Kelly, a Marine Corps veteran, wrote about it on February 4 for The Federalist: ‘Congress’s Vote To Keep War In Afghanistan Sells Out American Soldiers’.

It began:

The U.S. Senate cannot agree on anything. They are so mired in partisan gridlock, a resolution declaring the sky to be officially the color blue would fail along party lines. But there is one thing and one thing only they agree on: 17 years of our troops dying in Afghanistan isn’t long enough.

By a 68-23 margin, the Senate decided we haven’t spilled enough blood, broken enough soldiers (mentally and physically), or spent enough money. All for a now-aimless conflict in a part of the world Americans don’t even care about.

What began as an attempt to hunt down Osama bin Laden has now become a generational conflict where sons are patrolling the same areas as their fathers did. This no longer a war. This has become a hopeless mission to tame a part of the world that has never been and will never be tamed.

Afghanistan is a rugged, tribal nation with different interests than ours. As with so many parts of the world, the strong will rule over the weak there, and there is precious little America can do about that. That is why we’re now resigned to negotiating a peace deal with the very Taliban we’ve been fighting for 17 years.

He cited three Founding Fathers, none of whom thought that America should be the world’s policeman.

Kelly concluded:

Let us stop this. Let us revert back to an originalist foreign policy that lets America worry about America and Americans.

That’s not isolationism, as America must remain ever vigilant and ready to take on the evils of this world should they threaten her interests. Instead, it’s a foreign policy that focuses on neutrality, trade, and places high value on the life of the American soldier. Let us finally send neoconservative interventionalism to the death it wishes upon our troops.

With regard to the Senate vote, Rand Paul told Fox News:

He also suggested that it was time for the Senate to stop using US troops to further a prevailing narrative in politics and the media:

On September 7, Trump was ready to meet a Taliban delegation at Camp David, but the meeting fell through. He tweeted:

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to…

I don’t know what the next tweet said.

On Thanksgiving Day that year, while the media accused him of being on holiday, Trump travelled to Afghanistan to meet with American troops:

He was at Bagram Airfield:

On February 20, 2020, just nine days before Trump issued his ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan,’ Mike Pompeo and his negotiators met with the Taliban in Doha and arrived at an agreement to further the Afghan Peace Process:

How was this going to work? Trump said that the US would keep an eye on the Taliban:

Speaking at the White House, Mr Trump said the Taliban had been trying to reach an agreement with the US for a long time

“I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we’re not all wasting time,” Mr Trump added. “If bad things happen, we’ll go back with a force like no-one’s ever seen.”

The agreement, fragile though it was, was signed on Saturday, February 29, 2020:

Trump expressed his gratitude for the support he received from the UN and NATO. Dr Fauci is there because coronavirus press conferences in the United States had already begun:

On March 1, however, Afghanistan was reneging on the release of prisoners. President Ghani said at the time that the release was a decision for the Afghan government, not the United States.

Nevertheless, by March 9, US troops began going home. American Military News reported:

Hundreds of U.S. troops have begun withdrawing from Afghanistan in line with the U.S. commitments announced in the recent U.S.-Taliban peace deal.

American service members are leaving Afghanistan, with no troops planned to replace them in the country, the Associated Press reported Monday following conversations with an unnamed U.S. military official. The withdrawal comes even as uncertainty persists around the Taliban peace agreement, as well as political upheaval within the Afghan government.

On November 16, several days after the hotly-contested election, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) sided with Joe Biden and again said that Trump’s plan was premature:

However, freshman senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) urged Trump to press ahead in his final weeks in the White House:

The Concerned Veterans for America also urged Trump to act before he left office:

Unfortunately, by January 2021, President Trump’s hands were tied and, on Inauguration Day morning, as planned, he left the White House.

Biden and Afghanistan

On April 14, 2021, Joe Biden made an announcement about further troop withdrawals:

Biden said that he spoke with Obama and Bush before taking a decision:

The then-Afghan president Ashraf Ghani confirmed a conversation with Biden:

By July 8, however, the wheels were falling off the bus, even though Biden insisted there was no threat of Taliban takeover:

On July 9, the Taliban were already on their way to retaking control of Afghanistan, as you can see from this BBC map:

https://www.strategic-culture.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/sc17082101.jpg

By the time Biden created chaos on August 14 and 15, the Taliban had triumphed.

More on Afghanistan to follow next week.