Afghanistan 2009 = China 1945

In the Hutong

Contemplating Awareness

0936 hrs

Starting to catch up with my reading – I’m at least four years behind – I came across some of the writing CFR Fellow Elizabeth Rubin is doing from Afghanistan, in particular an August 4 piece in the New York Times Magazine called “Karzai in His Labyrinth.” I spend less time than I should reading into the situation in China’s neighbor to the southwest (an oversight, because much of China’s thinking about the world is dictated by the “near abroad”), so this piece was something of an eye-opener.

The more I read about the Afghan political scene in the midst of a brutal civil war, the more similarities I see with China in 1945. The United States is, once again, essentially supporting a leader who has forged a weak and tenuous polity out of an uneasy alliance of warlords and narco-barons that have emerged from the wreckage of a weak and brutal neo-feudal theocracy offers.

The U.S. has  done this in the name of expediency and ideology, preferring a corrupt, secular, and nominally democratic alliance to a centralized fundamentalist state. And, to be fair, the U.S. did so with the best of intentions but with painfully little care, planning, and expertise.

As a result, it is working little better in Afghanistan than it did in China 65 years ago.

None of this is to suggest that America and its NATO allies should throw in the towel and come home. It is, however, time for some realpolitik and some more creative thinking.

In World War II, the U.S. sent a combined military-civilian mission to Yan’an to investigate the possibility of working with the Communists after the war. Called  the “Dixie Mission,” the three year effort was eventually undermined by a combination of McCarthyism, a failure to appreciate the latent rifts between the  Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party, and the policy myopia of the Truman Administration and specifically Ambassador Patrick J. Hurley.

If there is an implicit message coming from the ground in Afghanistan, it is that we need to start looking for alternatives to the present situation rather than bolstering it. Even if the Taliban were to pack it in tomorrow, would what was left truly be the kind of government of which we could be proud – or that would promise stability for anything longer than a lunch break?

None of this is meant to suggest that the U.S. ally itself with the kind of regime that ruled Afghanistan prior to October 2001. Instead, it is time to start getting a little more creative in casting about for solutions, rather than “backing a horse and sticking to him.”

“Sticking to our horse” failed in China in 1946, in Cuba in 1959, in Vietnam in 1975, and in Iran in 1978. It has failed in Afghanistan for two centuries at least. History may not repeat itself, but it does echo, and this is an echo worth heeding.

It is also an echo that suggests that China has as much – and perhaps more – at stake in the eventual outcomes in Afghanistan than the U.S. and NATO (as do Iran, Pakistan, India, and the Central Asian Republics), and that if there was ever an opportunity for China to begin exercising itself on the world stage, this is it.

That is, of course, unless China’s strategy is to hang back, watch the U.S. make a mess of Afghanistan, and then swoop in and try to clean up the mess afterward. In which case, we can only hope they learn from the mistakes of their predecessors rather than repeat them.