Freed at least temporarily from the yoke of US occupation, Afghanistan has the choice of whether to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative or knuckle under to the US’ ‘rules-based international order’. Easy choice, right?
Who controls Afghanistan controls the world, or so thought several influential geopolitical theorists whose ideas have hinged on the idea of the ‘world island’ – Eurasia – as the resource-rich, fertile ‘prize’ a nation must control if it hopes to become a world power. This is part of the logic (such as it was) behind the US’ seemingly suicidal 20-year gambit to not only knock out the government of the hostile mountain nation, but embark on a campaign of ‘nation-building’ in its place, creating what was supposed to be a permanent – or at least, dependable – ally.
Now that Kabul is free to make up its own mind as to what model of government it wants, you can bet the line for auditions will be very long indeed, thick with aspiring predators unwilling to learn the lessons of the US and the USSR before it. What choice it makes could have a powerful influence on the fate of other third-world nations unaffiliated with greater ‘empires’, for better or worse.
In addition to its critical location in the middle of Eurasia, Afghanistan is bristling with a rumored $3 trillion-plus in natural resources, the other reason it has set neocolonial powers drooling. Oil and gas are plentiful, and gold, copper, and lithium – all required for the manufacture of electronics – are also readily available, to say nothing of the notorious opium poppy fields. Additionally, Afghanistan is one of the few spots where the rare earth elements that are critical for electronics manufacturing can be found, and for the US to lose access to these is devastating. Unlike China, Washington has no domestic supply and must secure these resources abroad.
But for the West to convince Afghanistan to come back voluntarily into its waiting arms, it must understand that there are other ways to woo a country than ‘shock and awe’. Washington frequently forgets this fact, having poured nearly all of its capital in the last century into building out the world’s most massive, over-powered military, while leaving its once-mighty industrial base to wither and die and allow its people’s standard of living to decline appallingly. When all you make is bombs, every problem looks like a war.
Should Afghanistan opt to ally itself with the US’ ‘rules-based international order’, this time as a willing participant instead of a conquered slave state, it will nevertheless have to take on the same international banking cartels that drained the American economy of its prosperity and are hoping to con the rest of the world’s population into becoming one giant renter class.
Not only are institutional investors like Blackstone and BlackRock – which control trillions of dollars in assets, and with them the majority of the world’s corporations – buying up entire towns in countries around the world and preying on the inhabitants, but the sizeable shares of every company they own allow them to manipulate the levers of commerce in whatever direction they see fit. By signing on with such a cartel, Afghanistan would be jumping out of the frying pan and into Dante’s Inferno.
Fortunately for Afghanistan – or any other ‘orphaned’ third-world country without a larger ally or protecting empire – China has let it be known that it’s willing to provide such nations with whatever they need, even while mining the copper or building the bridges that country wants.
While this might sound similar to the base infrastructure, airfields, and roads the US built in Afghanistan, those were constructed first and foremost for American military usage, and many were completely useless to the Afghans (a natural gas station built in the middle of nowhere, where no vehicles powered by natural gas could access it, was one notable boondoggle). And China doesn’t start a war before sending its construction companies into a nation – it’s hard to build lasting infrastructure if F-35s are sweeping by every week or two and bombing one’s foundations into rubble. But the US, which has historically sided with the corrupt rulers of a country or anyone else who’s willing to split the profits from asset-stripping their nation, needs war – a ‘divide and conquer’ approach is key to ensuring the population of the country doesn’t unite and throw the US and its corrupt insiders out.
Because so many of its own relationships are thus based upon exploitation, the US regards China’s cooperative approach with suspicion. Certainly, Beijing is not building bridges and dams out of the goodness of its heart; the Belt and Road Initiative, if completed as planned, will make it hands down the world’s chief economic power. But arguing China has invested in Africa and Southeast Asia chiefly to gain political and diplomatic influence – as if it will not also benefit from better infrastructure in these countries as it reaps the rewards of ‘helping’ them make use of their resources – misses the point. As the US’ own pathetic attempts at ‘nation-building’ within Afghanistan proved, these countries would benefit enormously from modernization of their infrastructure – it’s simply a question of what strings are going to be attached.
All the US and its ilk have to offer Afghanistan after 20 years of failed nation building are talking points like ‘women’s rights’ and ‘sustainability’ which they trade like baseball cards, the reality utterly disconnected from the words spilling out of their mouths. Nowhere is this clearer than the fluffy NGO-babble of the World Economic Forum’s Great Reset, which talks a big game about ending poverty, saving the planet, gender equality, and the like – all while imposing a global control system from which there is no opting out. Only once countries have been seduced by buzzwords is it sprung that this utopia is maintained through a regime of 24/7 surveillance, strict controls on resource and land use, the abolition of cash and other informal commerce systems, and punishing austerity.
Some might argue that China, too, enforces strict social and economic controls over its people, and that may be true – but it doesn’t pretend to be a democracy. The Chinese system gets a hell of a lot more bang for its buck than the American system, too: Washington poured $2.2 trillion into the black hole that was the Afghanistan war, and got literally less than nothing in return, if one takes into account the thousands of dead soldiers, the increased power of the Taliban, and the flood of Afghan opium into the US. Perhaps this is why the Treasury has frozen close to $10 billion in Taliban assets – the Afghans won’t voluntarily side with the American system, but if one makes them an offer they can’t refuse…
The Belt and Road Initiative, on the other hand, employs local labor for mutually beneficial purposes – a blindingly obvious concept that somehow fell out of favor in the West amid the complex social structures of colonialism. The Chinese get the roads, bridges, and ports they need to extract the resources they want, and the local population gets jobs and the use of those same roads, bridges, and ports for whatever purposes they like going forward – infrastructure they otherwise would not have been able to afford to build themselves. The countries receiving the infrastructure may end up saddled with debt, as China’s American critics never tire of pointing out, but the US and its bankers are past masters at using debt to control other nations – one need only look at hedge fund vultures like Paul Singer, whose Elliott Management held Argentina financially hostage for years.
A recent survey comparing support for China vs. the US as global powers indicated support for the US as global hegemon is on the wane, though still outstripping support for China. Still, 20 years of indiscriminate ‘humanitarian bombing’ ‘collateral damage’, and economic meddling via brutal sanctions, have pushed other countries’ patience with Uncle Sam to the limit. All the saccharine pro-American propaganda Washington can shovel into other countries’ eyes and ears doesn’t cover up its crimes.
The reasons other countries gave for backing Beijing were not surprising – China “sets a good example for national development,” “does not interfere in the politics of my country,” and “can provide my country with economic investment,” respondents said. China was also praised for “valu[ing] economic and political stability over individual freedoms,” something Americans might not mind coming in second place for – except that in the last 18 months, those individual freedoms have been stripped from most Americans as well, under the guise of combating the novel coronavirus.
But ultimately, it will come down to the standard of living of the Afghan people. It doesn’t take a political scientist to see how the American standard of living has declined under a regime of financialized neoliberal capitalism, where the economy is dominated by bankers ‘renting paper to each other’. Nor does it take one to see how China’s standard of living has increased, powered by an industrial base producing goods that people actually want and need rather than finding new ways to package and bet on existing assets. If the Taliban can deliver a better quality of life than the Afghans had under American occupation, they just might have the last laugh. After all, it was the US that put them in power in the first place.