Beware of Fulda Gap Syndrome: China is Not Rushing into Afghanistan

By Noah Schwartz

Image Credit: Original RR Creation, Spec Jeffery Harris/DVIDS

President Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan has been met with approval by a majority of Americans. However, a curious set of detractors in the media and think tank sphere have recently been fretting that the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan somehow benefits China. 

A stereotypical example, America departs Afghanistan as China Arrives, makes the case that “Americans have shed too much blood, sweat, and tears over the last two decades to hand over the hard-fought gains on a platter to either the Taliban, China or both.” 

This is not coherent with China’s largely cautious goals for the region. More importantly, the zero-sum worldview that America’s loss is always China’s victory is a remnant of Cold War-era politics. Diagnosing this historical tendency is crucial in a moment when America is seemingly on the brink of a new Cold War with China. 

American policymakers have consistently held that unrestrained military access to the Eurasian region is crucial to maintaining American primacy as a whole. As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in 1997, “[how] America copes with the complex Eurasian power relationships -and particularly whether it prevents the emergence of a dominant and antagonistic Eurasian power — remains central to America’s capacity to exercise global primacy.” 

This mindset explains the American fixation with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, through which Beijing plans to heavily invest in the Eurasian region. Various op-eds, like the one above, worry that China would send forces into Afghanistan to prevent instability from leaking into Xinjiang province and putting BRI infrastructure at risk. 

This view is not totally unfounded. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi cautioned the United States against “simply shifting the burden onto others and withdrawing from the country with the mess left unattended.” 

However, China is not eager for United States troops to leave. It is inaccurate to even frame China’s increased role in the region as a victory for Beijing. If China sent security forces into Afghanistan, it would run into the same basic fact as the Americans and the Soviets before them: counterinsurgency against a restive populace is very hard. 

Wang Yi’s recent meeting with Taliban leaders seems to indicate that China is opting for a different strategy. Instead of pursuing a military counterinsurgency program, China will attempt to pacify the Taliban by promising them recognition and noninterference. In return, China hopes that the Taliban will break ties with terror groups like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. 

This recognition of the Taliban, should they come to power, is not particularly radical nor should it be worrying to American commentators. Close Western allies like the U.K. already acknowledge the Taliban as a strategic reality. 

The Taliban and the CCP have massive ideological differences and different strategic goals. Previous Chinese infrastructure projects, such as the Aynak copper mine, floundered due to security concerns and locals who felt alienated by the influx of foreign money into their rural communities. 

Furthermore, the actual dollar amount of Chinese investment into Afghanistan is minuscule. Chinese investment into Afghanistan in 2020 was $4.4 Million, which pales in comparison to the $110 Million invested into Pakistan in the same year. 

It seems unlikely that China would see Afghanistan, perpetually on the edge of collapse, as a safe place for any more foreign direct investment and expensive BRI projects. China is unlikely to pursue major nation-building projects in a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Even in the off-chance that they do, what does America have to lose by letting them try? 

Beyond the specifics of China’s strategy in Afghanistan, more relevant is why certain defense intellectuals at home seem to be reviving a Cold War-era ideology. The belief that America’s enemies are menacing every corner of the globe, the United States must remain forward deployed and that only military engagement can stop the Reds from sweeping in are all core tenets of Cold War Liberalism. 

As a result, American strategists during the Cold War became hyper-focused on the Fulda Gap. The thought that Soviet Tanks could sweep through this German lowland at any second created not only a hyper-aggressive posture but also a zealously anti-communist American culture.

Popular board games featuring the Fulda Gap as a staging area for war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO became best-sellers in America. This fixation and suspicion on both sides almost resulted in armageddon in 1983 due to the infamous Able Archer 83 exercises, when NATO war exercises were misread as real provocations by Soviet authorities. 

Current discourse that implies Afghanistan is a prize to be won by Chinese investment relies on the same kind of flawed suspicions that kept Cold Warriors up at night, obsessing with the Fulda Gap.

The main symptom of Fulda Gap syndrome is the inflation of a threat posed by a geopolitical adversary, such as imagining that the enemy is about to invade at any given moment. In the Cold War, this could easily be imagined as a Blitzkrieg by Soviet Armor through the Western bloc. 

Today, the specter of Chinese economic statecraft and BRI projects fill this void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, policymakers should guard themselves against this mindset in Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan is nearing total collapse as the Taliban continue to make gains; these real issues are not helped by endless speculation as to how Beijing will benefit. The Soviets were never going to cross the Fulda and the CCP is not salivating to invest in the Taliban or make Afghanistan a client state. 

Afghanistan’s problems are complex and we do them injustice when we discuss them in a simplified and outdated Cold War paradigm.

Noah Schwartz is a senior at George Mason University studying Government and International Politics. He specializes in Chinese Grand Strategy and Left Realism.

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