NEW YORK – “This is manifestly not Saigon,” said United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken as helicopters snatched fleeing Americans from the embassy roof in Kabul. It’s incomparably worse for America’s world standing.
Like the fellow in the Sam Cooke song, Blinken doesn’t know much about history or geography. Unlike the man in the song, he doesn’t know that one and one is two, by which I mean Russia and China.
Richard Nixon opened diplomatic relations with China three years before the fall of South Vietnam, securing China’s tacit agreement not to exploit the Communist victory by exporting the revolution to the rest of Southeast Asia.
America’s defeat in Vietnam, damaging as it was, had a limited impact in the region. Afghanistan, by contrast, will draw China and Russia into a dominant role in Central and Western Asia.
The defeat of an American proxy regime by Taliban irregulars marks the first victory for a jihadist army against Western military forces since the annihilation of a British expeditionary force in Afghanistan in 1842.
It will serve as a rallying point for jihadists in Russia, China, Central Asia and the Middle East. America’s display of casual disinterest in the region, to the point of abandoning significant numbers of its own citizens behind enemy lines and very large numbers of its allies, has persuaded all the region’s players that America is enervated and feeble.
It is the last ignoble installment in a series of errors compounding previous errors over 20 lamentable years.
China and Russia have no choice but to step in. If they do not excise the jihadist cancer today, it might metastasize into something uncontrollable.
By 2085, the number of South Asian Muslims – Pakistanis, Bengalis, Indonesians and Indian Muslims – will exceed the total number of East Asians, assuming constant fertility.
Southeast and South Asian Muslims will number 2 billion by the end of the century, nearly double the population of East Asia. Projections of this sort never are accurate, but the relative magnitudes make the point: The populations susceptible to jihadist influence are enormous and growing.
The educated and literate Muslim countries like Turkey and Iran have fertility rates well below replacement. Pakistan, with a literacy rate barely above 50%, still has four live births per female.
Imperial adventurism is not the motivation for the new Sino-Russian effort in Central Asia. Their overriding concern is internal security.
That concern is heightened by Chinese suspicion that the US will use jihadist elements to destabilize the Chinese state, especially through its porous western and southern borders.
Giving Iran full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was the first Sino-Russian response to the imminent collapse of Afghanistan. Iran had applied in 2006 and 2015, but faced objections from Central Asian republics.
These disappeared as Afghanistan dissolved and Iran’s imminent accession was announced on August 12. That by itself was a crushing blow to American policy in the region.
Since the late Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates co-authored a report for the Council on Foreign Relations calling for a “new approach” to Iran in 2004, the American foreign policy establishment has hoped to integrate Iran into a Western-led regional security architecture.
Now Iran is part of the Sino-Russian security architecture, and the much-debated Iran nuclear deal is a moot point.
To the extent that Western strategists hoped to separate Russian and Chinese ambitions, the Afghan debacle has cemented this alliance by presenting Beijing and Moscow with an existential common interest – containing jihad on their frontiers.
Russian and Chinese statecraft will follow the “Godfather” template: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Russia and China will embrace the enemies of the US, and their own prospective enemies.
When Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war in September 2015, a senior Israeli official met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin told him that the presence of tens of thousands of Muslims from Russia’s Caucasus, especially Chechnya, forced his hand.
The prospect of a large contingent of trained terrorists returning to Russia was an existential threat to the country’s internal security, Putin said. The Israelis took Putin at his word, the Israeli official told me later in the year.
Western media had reported that large numbers of Russian Muslims had joined the Syrian Sunni jihadists, starting in 2013.
The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat kicked Russian advisers out of Egypt in 1972. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pulled the rug out from under Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak in 2011, with the enthusiastic support of the whole Republican establishment.
Washington threw its full weight behind the so-called Arab Spring, and the CIA-trained jihadists in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime in Damascus. America’s delusion about Arab democracy gave birth not to democratic movements, but to a Sunni jihad, and forced Russia back into the Middle East after an absence of more than four decades.
The Israeli official recounted his interview with Putin at a hotel bar in Beijing, where we were both attending a series of private conferences on jihadist threats with Chinese military and foreign policy officials.
Thousands of Chinese Uighurs were also fighting in Syria. Many left China illegally through the country’s southern border with Myanmar and then to Thailand where – according to the Chinese – they obtained travel documents from Turkish consulates. Estimates of the number of Uighurs in Syria in the Western media ranged from 5,000 to 20,000.
As Christina Lin reported in Asia Times, China had warned about Uighur militants in Syria years earlier: “In October 2012, Major-General Jin Yinan of the People’s Liberation Army’s National Defense University, disclosed that Chinese militants belonging to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement/Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIM/TIP) were joining anti-government rebels in Syria, with Chinese Foreign Ministry then-spokesman Hong Lei issuing a stern warning that these militants “seriously harm China’s national security as well as regional peace and stability.”
China’s concern went well beyond the country’s 20 million Muslims and extended to Southeast Asia’s large Muslim populations.
A jihadist movement that enflamed China’s southern flank was the nightmare scenario of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planners.
The collapse of the reality show posing as the government of Afghanistan in August created a problem for China as well as Russia. The United States spent US$2 trillion, or an average of $50 billion a year over 20 years, in a country whose annual GDP barely amounted to $20 billion.
The tsunami of American money corrupted everyone and everything, including the American military. The US created not a government, but a reality show in which hired actors stole all the props.
When the Americans announced their departure, the relevant Afghans said in so many words: “The show’s been canceled – where do we audition for the next one?”
In both Syria and Afghanistan, American blundering and self-delusion forced Russia and China to intervene in a region that the US had dominated for decades.
Xinhua reported August 5: “Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan began to conduct joint military exercises in the border area of Tajikistan adjacent to Afghanistan on the 5th. On the same day, Uzbekistan and Russia continued their joint military exercises in Uzbekistan’s border area near Afghanistan.
“Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan border Afghanistan. In the context of the continued deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan due to the hasty withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, neighboring countries are increasingly worried about the spillover effects of the chaos in Afghanistan.”
On August 10, China and Russia conducted joint exercises in northern China. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Russian soldiers would use Chinese weapons for the first time.
Xinhua wrote that “the exercises will deepen … joint anti-terrorism operations,” and “demonstrate the firm determination and strength of the two countries to jointly safeguard international and regional security and stability.”
And on August 19, China’s Ministry of Public Security announced a joint counter-terrorism exercise “to safeguard the national security of China and Tajikistan.”
One of the Chinese strategists I met during the late 2015 sessions was retired Admiral Luo Yuan, then the head of a military think tank. Admiral Luo told me that Chinese intelligence had tracked jihadists trained by then-US Commander in Iraq David Petraeus as they infiltrated back into China.
From this, Admiral Luo told me, China concluded that the US planned to use Uighur terrorists to destabilize China. I disputed the assertion; Petraeus was interested in bailing out the Bush administration and his own career prospects, in my view. Admiral Luo didn’t buy my explanation.
China may be paranoid about American intentions, but even paranoids have real enemies. After September 11, 2001, China gave tacit support for America’s invasion of Iraq in return for America’s designation of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization, as Mark Magnier reported September 2 in the South China Morning Post.
“Almost immediately after the World Trade Centre attack, China’s leadership saw the opportunity to change the channel and pivoted deftly. The US priority was now the war on terror, diverting attention from China. Washington needed Beijing’s support at the United Nations Security Council. And China could redefine challenges to its domestic control as global terrorism,” Magnier wrote.
China supported the US at the Security Council. The US put ETIM on its terror organization list, and the United Nations followed suit.
International recognition of Uighur terrorism was a pillar of Chinese diplomacy, and Beijing drew the direst conclusions when US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo removed ETIM from the terror list in December 2020.
China responded with outrage. In a January 25, 2021, editorial entitled “Mike Pompeo’s doomsday madness,” the English-language state daily Global Times said: “Pompeo is the most insidious hand behind terrorist activities. As we all know, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is a terrorist organization recognized by the UN Security Council and the international community.
“A long time ago, the ETIM spread violent terrorist thoughts in the guise of religion. It further incited, plotted and conducted a series of violent terrorist activities, causing tremendous damage to the safety of people’s lives and property.”
The ETIM organized, plotted and committed a number of terrorist attacks that shocked China and the rest of the world.
These included the October 28 Golden Water Bridge assault in Beijing in 2013, the March 1 violent attack in Kunming, Yunnan, in 2014, and the April 30 bomb blast that killed three and injured at least 79 at the south railway station in Urumqi, Xinjiang, the same year.
Washington has displayed a fatal combination of provocation and weakness. Beijing read the removal of ETIM from the State Department’s terror list as a provocation as well as a betrayal of a tacit deal with the US that had lasted two decades.
And it reads America’s helter-skelter departure from Afghanistan as a sign of imperial senescence.
I doubt that Secretary Pompeo had any plans to incubate Uighur terrorists as a weapon against the Chinese regime; the ETIM affair probably constituted no more than a Parthian shot at Beijing by an official of a lame-duck administration with future political ambitions.
But that is not how Beijing read the matter. Chinese analysts read the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2012 report warning that American support for Sunni jihadists would foster the new Caliphate movement that turned into ISIS.
As noted, they tracked jihadists from General Petraeus’ “Sunni Awakening” into their own counter-terror sphere. They watched Pompeo arrange for the release of 5,000 Taliban militants as part of the peace negotiations that preceded the Biden rout.
With its richly financed Belt and Road Initiative, China had already seized the diplomatic high ground in Central Asia – likely to the discomfort of Russia, formerly the dominant power among the former republics of the defunct Soviet Union.
Now Russia and China will set aside their differences and the dragon and bear will bestride Eurasia like twin colossi. That is the alliance that Richard Nixon set out to prevent in 1972, and it is now hard upon us.