After Failures in Afghanistan, We Must Rethink Our China Strategy

September 6, 2021 Updated: September 6, 2021


Britain’s defense chief, General Sir Nick Carter, just revealed the Taliban’s end-game for victory. “It was the pace of it that surprised us and I don’t think we realized quite what the Taliban were up to. They weren’t really fighting for the cities they eventually captured, they were negotiating for them, and I think you’ll find a lot of money changed hands as they managed to buy off those who might have fought for them,” he said on Sept. 5.

China is trying to use a similar strategy in Washington, Brussels, and other allied capitals. Here’s how, and what we need to do to defend ourselves.

The Taliban experience is instructive. They not only bought-off members of the Afghan government who should have been fighting them, they threatened them and their families. Carrots and sticks at the personal level, and the soft underbelly of the elected government worked well for the Taliban over the years. Without needing to wage large and self-destructive set-piece military battles, they won over people, cities, and eventually the entire country.

A pure military strategy would have been impossible for the Taliban, given U.S. and allied air dominance, and other Western technological superiority on the battlefield. But they didn’t need to beat us militarily. They beat us on the human side, out-maneuvering our strategy of “hearts and minds” with their strategy of “threats and money.”

As far back as 2010, the U.S. Embassy cabled its description of politics in Afghanistan as, “the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement … and the corrosive effect on governance at the highest levels by patronage networks often financed by narco-trafficking and other criminal activity.”

Epoch Times Photo
Lapis lazuli is seen for sale inside a shop in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 28, 2016. An international anti-corruption watchdog says Afghanistan’s war is being fueled by the country’s mining sector, with the Taliban earning up to $20 million a year from illegal mining of lapis lazuli. (Rahmat Gul/AP Photo)

Who ran narco-trafficking in Afghanistan in 2010 and after? The Taliban.

The Taliban infiltrated the government through bribes and threats, to the point that when the United States pulled out, the Kabul government was already theirs. We built a house of cards, and those who read the public Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports, knew it.

While the Taliban were bribing Afghan officials, Beijing has been bribing other political leaders around the world. Those bribes are meant to be covert. In the United States, the bribes and threats are in the form of protection for the $2.3 trillion already invested in China, as well as special favors in the over $500 billion annual two-way U.S.-China trade, for example. Through the billionaires who benefit from these opportunities, Beijing is undermining our political will to resist, just as the Taliban undermined the elected government in Afghanistan.

This points to the three main failures of U.S. and allied strategy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam, and the strategies we need going forward to beat the dictators and terrorists who threaten us and our allies in the future.

First, corrupt officials of a democratic state, whether in Kabul, Baghdad, or Washington, must be removed immediately. In Washington, we need better laws against official corruption, including big money that funds political campaigns, kickbacks in the form of million-dollar jobs after leaving office, and the revolving door between business and politics. In Kabul and Baghdad, we needed the same, plus and until the democracies matured—the United States and allies should have summarily removed any official, no matter how high up, who was found to be taking money from the Taliban, narco-traffickers, Islamabad, Tehran, or Beijing.

Second, to beat the bribes and mafia-like threats of the Taliban, and insurgents of Iraq, we must have greater endurance, but we must be paid for it as well. That endurance is by definition necessary to win forever wars. To win a forever war through endurance requires sustainability, which requires revenue. The United States should never have surrendered the revenue sources of Iraq and Afghanistan, which are principally mining, oil, and gas, to China. But that is exactly what we did.

Third, we must take the fight to its source. In the case of the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, we should have taken it to their principal state sponsors in Tehran, Islamabad, and Beijing. Without fighting the source of global terrorism, especially when that source is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), we are just playing whack-a-mole. We should squarely confront that source, including through sanctions and decoupling.

Wang Yi & Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar
(L) Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during the Lanting Forum in Beijing, on June 25, 2021. (R) The leader of the Taliban negotiating team Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar looks on the final declaration of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on July 18, 2021. (Jade Gao, Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images)

While we paid approximately $2.3 trillion over 20 years to provide security and build a democratic government in Afghanistan, for example, Beijing got its foot in the door with the Taliban for the country’s $3 trillion in untapped mineral resources. When the Taliban approved China’s operations at the Mes Aynak copper mine in 2016, we should have known that surrendering to the Taliban, was surrendering to Beijing. Sure enough, the Taliban, on Sept. 2, announced that China is their “principal partner.” That was two days after the deadline for the last U.S. soldier to leave the country.

Including not only the war in Afghanistan, but those in Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Syria and Pakistan, the United States spent approximately $6.4 trillion since 2001. With that amount of money, we could have built almost 500 aircraft carriers, for example, at $13 billion per carrier. A bigger investment in our Navy and Airforce, including all types of platforms, would have put us in a much stronger position against China’s military today.

We could have both transformed Afghanistan and Iraq, and gotten the carriers, had we utilized both countries’ mineral resources, which are now being sold to China, likely for pennies on the dollar.

A “minerals for peace” approach to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan’s security and the development of democracy, would have defended the Iraqi and Afghan people and beaten the insurgents. Minerals for peace should of course comply with the self-determination of those under the protection of the United States and allies, and include a principle, when bringing stability and democracy to a failed state or dictatorship, not to take more than necessary to cover expenses. It should not turn into colonialism or imperialism, which the 19th and 20th centuries proved to be failed and unethical strategies.

But, neither should that self-determination lead to such a weak allied approach as to accept corrupt elected officials or a house-of-cards government that immediately falls after withdrawal. Real self-determination requires a commitment by a democracy’s allies to step in at the first sign of trouble, and to stay until the threat is definitively gone. Once dictatorship and terrorism is fully removed, however, and a democracy stabilized, allies should leave in order to honor the principle of self-determination. Beijing has yet to learn these lessons.

But one thing is certain: American and allied voters cannot and must not pay for the next forever war. And, we cannot afford another loss. The trillions of dollars we poured into Iraq and Afghanistan actually enriched the terrorists, and their state sponsors in Iran, Pakistan, and China, at our expense. These illiberal actors could have gone on forever, profiting from the blood we spilled.

Citizens have a responsibility to police their own backyards. When they allow terrorists or dictators to take over, they risk their neighbors’ lives, and those of others around the world. The wrong response is what President Biden did on Sept. 1: throw up his hands and say America is no longer the world’s policeman. America’s turn to isolationism is the dangerous strategy of waiting to get sucker-punched. Because of our withdrawal, the next Pearl Harbor or 9/11 is just around the corner.

To protect ourselves, and those who support democracy around the world, the United States and allies must intervene against aggressive dictators and terrorists to build democracy and the stability of regions, protect the sanctity of borders, and defeat terrorists like the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Otherwise the United States and allies will fail at providing global security, and the world will devolve into chaos. This chaos is actually already upon us, with the rise of the CCP and its illiberal allies, creating instability by supporting terrorists and rogue regimes like the Taliban, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, Syria, and North Korea. All of these authoritarians and failed states are creating risk and costs for peace-loving democracies, which just want trade and human rights at home, and for other people around the world. Democratic wars against authoritarians should not be misconstrued as offensive, but defensive of the people, and the principles of territorial integrity, democracy, human rights, and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to illiberal regimes.

The right strategy is to maintain pressure against terrorists and dictators in a sustainable manner by using the resources for which they are fighting, against them. Think about the mafia wars in the United States during the 1980s. The FBI did not fight these wars for free. The government taxed the population to pay for them. And the population benefited by the peace, security, and stability that resulted.

After finding and fixing Osama bin Laden in 2011, President Obama immediately announced a drawdown of U.S. forces. But, the bringing of justice to Bin Laden in Pakistan was just a symbolic victory against global terrorism. Another man would soon take his place as the head of al-Qaeda. The Taliban and Pakistani elements who had hidden Bin Laden were still very much in force. Once we announced our departure from Afghanistan, they knew they could win by simply waiting.

Epoch Times Photo
Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes at 9:03 a.m. in New York City, on Sept. 11, 2001 The crash of two airliners hijacked by terrorists loyal to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and subsequent collapse of the twin towers killed some 2,800 people. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

So instead of announcing our withdrawal, we should have announced that we would stay as long as necessary to ensure the full defeat of terrorism, and its state sponsors in Islamabad and Beijing. That would have assured an eventual victory to the elected government in Kabul, and thus solidified their commitment. It would have prevented the Taliban from continuing what would have been an impossible fight.

Does that sound like biting off more than we can chew? Perhaps. But, the longer we wait, the tougher it will be.

Fighting wars against global dictators and terrorists on the back of the American taxpayer is unsustainable, because after 10 or 20 years, the American taxpayer no longer wants to pay. Americans vote for presidents who extract us from forever wars, like Presidents Nixon and Ford, who got us out of Vietnam, or Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden, who got us out of Iraq and Afghanistan. That we consequently appeared to have lost these wars, terribly weakened our prestige globally.

In fact, we did not lose them. The citizens of these countries who wanted democracy were the biggest losers, because they lost that chance. The wars were not wrong, though Americans and the world has a tendency to blame the loser and celebrate the victor. They imposed costs on terrorists and dictators for all to see, which deters future would-be authoritarians. What went wrong is that we fought the wars unsustainably, and did not take the fight to corrupt officials in Kabul, Islamabad, Tehran, and Beijing.

After our loss in Vietnam, President Reagan did take the fight to Moscow, through tough economic sanctions and a military buildup. The USSR crumbled in the 1980s as a result. But he did not do the same to China because he hoped to keep Beijing onside against Moscow.

Now that the dynamics between Moscow and Beijing have flipped, with the latter being the senior partner, and supporting terrorists like the Taliban, we must take the fight to the CCP. China is, as Biden has said, the challenge of the 21st century.

Victory should be defined as bringing democracy to China, achieved by peaceful means, such as breaking through the great firewall so that Chinese citizens know the truth and choose a new form of governance. No less is required to protect democracies around the world. If we are not more steadfast and focused in this challenge, it will be our own democracy, on our own shores, for which we are fighting. The costs of war will be great, and no democracy anywhere will be safe.

Afghan opium farmers
Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in the Gereshk district of Helmand province on April 13, 2019. (Noor Mohammad/AFP via Getty Images)

During the war in Afghanistan, we also failed to bring the fight to China’s junior partner, Pakistan, which also backed the Taliban. The CCP regime was paying Pakistan tens of billions throughout the war, and Pakistan was paying and training the Taliban. This, along with opium production on our watch, is where the Taliban got the money to buy off almost all the leaders in Afghanistan who would otherwise have fought for their country.

Next time we fight a forever war in Afghanistan or elsewhere, we must adapt our strategies. First, root out corruption in participating democracies, whether in Kabul, Baghdad, or Washington. Second, make the war sustainable and demonstrate long-term commitment by utilizing the mineral resources at hand. Third, stay focused on the root cause of the problem, including state-sponsors of terrorism in Beijing, Tehran, and Islamabad.

We can’t ask the American people, or the citizens of allied countries, to entirely pay for what the citizens of a failed state ought to provide for themselves: a democratic and peaceful government that is not a threat to the world, or influenced by dangerous illiberal actors abroad. As long as the United States and allies have to do this job for them, they should happily pay a portion of the costs with their own natural resources, which are thereby denied to the more dangerous adversaries abroad.

The only real alternative to updating our strategies given the most recent failures in Afghanistan is an isolationist United States, which will lead to global chaos, the continued costs of authoritarianism and terrorism against democratic countries around the world, and our eventual defeat. The choice is therefore clear: double-down or surrender.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”