Afghanistan – Earthquake on the Edge of Empires, by Andrew Hicks

President Joe Biden has described the American evacuation from Kabul as, ‘one of the most difficult airlifts in history’. Since July 2021, 18,000 evacuees were flown out and since the military airlift began on 14 August a further 13,000. Presumably he is making comparison with airlifts of people, though the Berlin airlift and the American supply of Nationalist China over the Himalayas from Assam during WWII, both of cargoes not people, were in fact far more challenging. As for the unfortunately named Operation Frequent Wind when the US evacuated Saigon in 1973, 50,000 evacuees were flown out of the frequently shelled airport and 7,000 by helicopter from the centre of the city. Photos of evacuees scrambling aboard from a roof top are a defining image of this final debacle in the American war against communism in Viet Nam.

A further largely forgotten American airlift was in China at the end of WWII when the US intervened in the emerging civil war between the Nationalists and Mao’s communists. The American air force airlifted tens of thousands of Nationalist troops from southern China where they had been deployed against the Japanese to the north. This movement was in order to take the surrender from the Japanese thus securing territory for the Nationalists and to allow them to engage in armed conflict with the communists.

When airlifting an army into a new theatre of war key equipment and essential ground transport also have to be carried. As the Nationalists primarily used donkeys, thousands of these too had to be flown to North China. The cargo space of the American C47 transport planes was divided up by wooden stalls and the animals dragged up ramps and secured inside. I have a slim novel called Beyond the Call of Duty by Eugene Brown which describes the appalling conditions in which Chinese troops and donkeys were thus transported. The American pilots had oxygen and parachutes but the Chinese soldiers of course had none. The author describes a chaotic incident in which donkeys break loose from their stalls during severe turbulence, smash open the plane’s loading door and fall out at high altitude, all I assume based on actual fact.

In addition to this intervention in China’s internal affairs in the forties, it was also American supplied and managed aircraft that enabled the defeated Nationalists to be evacuated to Taiwan, thus creating a tension and confrontation that has run for decades and remains without resolution to this day.

All of these are instances where an American intervention has proved to be counterproductive to what they were trying to achieve, instead finding themselves on the losing side. Lessons that aggressive military intervention such as the discredited ‘War on Terror’ leads to long term instability rather than implanting democracy never seem to be learned. At least Biden has now declared an end to the era of America ‘remaking other countries’, insisting it was therefore right to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan. While final withdrawal from Kabul might have been handled better, the greater criticism should fall on President George W. Bush who impetuously invaded Afghanistan and Iraq without confined objectives or a clear exit plan, thus creating huge problems for his successors and the world.

From Genghis Khan onwards the aggression of empires and super- powers has blighted world peace as they constantly seek to expand their territory and influence. In recent times technological advances in surveying have enabled the creation of fixed political boundaries, thus securing nation states within defined borders, together with a rule-based international order to promote peaceful and stable relations. However, human affairs are never perfect and international relationships are rarely harmonious. Indeed, modern empires or power blocs are like tectonic plates and where they meet there are often earthquakes. Afghanistan is one such example and Tibet another. Empires also abhor a power vacuum on or near their borders and often seek to control any such territory to make sure that neighbouring powers do not get there first.

Thus for example in the nineteenth century Tibet was a tributary state of China, with Russia and British India as active competitors in the region. Britain was engaged in ‘the Great Game’ and, fearing that Russia would extend its influence into Tibet, manufactured the pretext of a border dispute and in 1904 invaded Tibet from India across inhospitable mountainous terrain as far as Lhasa. Its huge invasion force had the logistical problem of carrying supplies and travelled with 7,000 mules, 5,000 bullocks and 3,500 yaks all of which also needed feeding. In consequence of this invasion Tibet came under British influence causing long term instability and tension with China. With the Chinese revolution of 1911 and subsequent internal turmoil China was unable to exert itself to recover its position in Tibet for several decades until finally united under Mao. The rest as they say is history, though it is a history that is poorly understood in the West, especially the destabilising consequences of the earlier British invasion.

Afghanistan, invaded in the nineteenth century by the British, by the Russians in the twentieth and the Americans in the twenty first, is thus another such example of power play politics between super- powers causing increased instability. With the American withdrawal and its influence now diminished it is now hard to predict the future for the country. The best outcome for Afghanistan would of course be to have an indigenous government that governs well for all its people and is able to act properly on the world stage, even if that government is the Taliban.

As world economic power and influence shifts eastwards, India and China will increasingly be key players in this region. Pakistan as Afghanistan’s neighbour and already sheltering about three million Afghan refugees will also play a crucial role. China, being its close ally, is likely to be highly influential and has a strong interest in preventing poverty and chaos in Afghanistan. The western alliance has hardly covered itself in glory, its policies being promoted through military invasion and force, all in the name of freedom and democracy. It is possible therefore to hope that the world will allow China the positive influence it can now exert in Afghanistan based its new economic strength.

China has always been the world’s biggest economy except for the last two centuries of stagnation and disorder, and is once again becoming a world super power. This state of affairs offers more promise than threat despite the remorselessly negative perspective of the western media towards anything that China ever does. China’s expanding industrial and mercantile economy makes it essential that it transacts responsibly with the world and is a good citizen and this can be fulfilled if the world permits it to do so. Its diplomacy towards Afghanistan and the region may indeed prove to be more effective and beneficial than that of the military invasions of the western alliance over recent decades. Having intervened so actively the West can hardly criticise if China now supports Afghanistan with soft loans and other strategic support, even if with elements of self-interest. The future is now wide open.

This article was first published in China Eye, Issue (72) Winter 2021.

Andrew Hicks is a SACU Council member who has lived in Chinese-influenced communities in Asia for over 20 years. He first lectured in Law at the University of Hong Kong from 1976 to 1983, then went on to lecture at the National University of Singapore and later settled in Thailand for some years. Now back in the UK, Andrew says being a Council member of SACU enables him to share his passion for all things Chinese.

His book, Jack Jones, A True Friend to China: The Lost Writings of a Heroic Nobody: the Friends Ambulance Unit ‘China Convoy’ 1945-1951, was published in 2015.