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The geopolitics of the war in Afghanistan and the New Silk Road project led by China

The United States will withdraw militarily from Afghanistan on September 11, leaving behind only 650 soldiers to protect the Embassy in Kabul, ending like this the longest war in its history. Since 2001, about 65,000 Afghan military and 50,000 civilians, 45,000 Taliban, 2,500 US and 500 NATO soldiers have been killed in the conflict. The 'Mission in Afghanistan', as the US military leadership likes to call it, has cost more than $1 trillion. This is equivalent to the budget allocated to Education in the United States during the same period of time.

From the start of the 20th century until 1973 Afghanistan was a relatively secular monarchy. The kings wanted to modernize the country with social reforms that constantly enraged Islamist tribal groups, and kept a position of neutrality during World War II and the Cold War.

Two coups d'état that occurred in 1973 and 1978 turned Afghanistan, which has a 99% Muslim population, into a socialist dictatorship that oppressed Islamist groups. Subsequent internal disputes led to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union to 'bring order' into the new government.

Islamists fought against the Soviet occupation with the support of the United States and other regional powers in a guerrilla war that lasted 10 years and caused the death of nearly 1 million Afghans, 15,000 Soviet soldiers, and 5 million refugees heading to Iran and Pakistan. In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan and this eventually contributed to its weakening and later collapse in 1991. On the other hand, the Taliban emerged in the 1990s as the dominant political and social force and imposed a brutal theocratic regime in 1996.

In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban government refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden after the September 11 attacks. This war quickly became quite unpopular in the United States and the world, especially among leftist groups, considering it an 'imperialist intervention'. The Afghan civilian government that was established with international support has been very weak and corrupt, it is branded as a 'puppet of the United States' and seen as illegitimate among large parts of the civilian population. This situation has caused the Taliban to re-emerge with great force and by now they control almost half the country.

Barack Obama, in his last term, and Donald Trump, sought to progressively reduce the US presence in Afghanistan. Ironically, in recent years it has been leftist groups that most regret that the United States is withdrawing for abandoning women and vulnerable populations at the hands of the Taliban, while the US nationalist right considers that these resources should be invested above all in their own territory and not get involved in the affairs of other 'underdeveloped nations'.

In this process of unsettled violent struggles, the Afghan government offered the Taliban official recognition as a political force to compete in elections, but an understanding regarding the exchange of prisoners was not reached, which has maintained the same levels of violence.

Already in 2020, the Trump government signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, where they have a public relations office, of complete military withdrawal by May 2021, on the basis that the Taliban would not attack international forces, respect women's rights and do not protect terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. This pact was endorsed by China, Russia and Pakistan, and unanimously in the General Assembly of the UN.

Biden decided to not respect this withdrawal date, claiming that there were still too many attacks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and that the new date would be on September 11 of this year. Despite the fact that the Taliban already control many border crossings and are at the gates of Kabul, the capital, Biden said in early July that 'the collapse of Afghanistan was not inevitable because of the 300,000 Afghan soldiers fighting against the 75,000 Taliban'. Most of the moderate population is disappointed with the chaos that this withdrawal is causing, and those who collaborated with international forces, like translators, fear for their lives if this secular government falls.

Civilian groups are organizing into self-defense groups to confront the Taliban and the constant retreat of government forces. Amid an imminent situation of chaos, China, which has a 76 km long border with Afghanistan and big investments in companies that extract natural resources, has sought to get closer to the Taliban to ensure that they will not support the separatist Islamist group in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Taliban leaders have responded to this de facto diplomatic recognition by declaring that 'China is a friend country and we welcome their effort in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan' and that 'if the Chinese have investments, of course we will ensure their protection.'

In 2013, China launched an ambitious project called the 'New Silk Road' which consists about making huge investments in infrastructure within countries that are on its trade route to Europe. With this, China is expanding its zone of political influence over key countries through the 'debt trap policy' that gives China control of infrastructure in case a country is unable to pay its debts. Because of this, muslim countries all over the New Silk Road region, like Pakistan, have given unconditional support to China regarding Beijing's policy of oppression of the Muslim Uighur minority living in the west of the country.

Thus, Afghanistan will not only represent a costly episode for the US hegemony, but one that could also directly increase the power of China in this part of the world.


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