Since the Taliban retook Kabul last month, geopolitical analysts have speculated about the role that China could play in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Beijing has spent the past few years promoting its Belt and Road Initiative, which intends to expand Chinese regional influence across Eurasia via infrastructure and commercial expansion.
Simultaneously, re-evaluations and nostalgic paeans for the pro-Soviet Afghan government of Nur Muhammad Taraki have emerged. Some people, lacking any grasp on reality or decency, have even gone further with moral abominations like this:
It creates a certain narrative logic that is hard to avoid: The Soviets may be gone but another Communist superpower now has the opportunity to replace them and help the war-ravaged country rebuild towards the glorious proletarian tomorrow. Chinese President Xi’s Belt and Road sees the future and it works. Cue the Red Army Choir rendition of The Internationale.
Unfortunately, back on planet earth, things are far from convenient. The Afghan people certainly are entitled to self-determination and that includes deciding how to rebuild the country with whomever they choose as commercial partners.
And as such, they might be slightly skeptical of Beijing’s intentions. Contemporary Chinese foreign aid and economic development models, their “win-win” lending and infrastructure construction paradigm, are far more humane and progressive than the West’s. But it wasn’t that long ago that the Chinese Communist Party was helping rip Afghanistan to shreds by supporting the rat line of weapons from Washington to Osama bin Laden’s Mujahideen.
This was all described in George Crile’s book Charlie Wilson’s War, which was later adapted into a motion picture starring Tom Hanks:
…No one thought the Chinese government would risk Soviet wrath by becoming the major arms merchant for the Afghan rebels. This came about through the efforts of a brilliant young station chief in Beijing, Joe DiTrani. Fluent in Mandarin and married to a Chinese woman, he presented headquarters with the novel suggestion that the Chinese might be willing to manufacture Soviet-designed weapons for the jihad. DiTrani reminded [CIA Afghan Task Force Chief Gust] Avrakotos of a young Frank Sinatra; “Broadway Joe,” Gust called him. “The thing we had to do in China,” explains Gust, “was to convince the Chinese that we not only wanted to fuck the Russians … [but] we were going to win. Joe did that.”
DiTrani had asked his Chinese counterparts, “Do you think we’d have people in Kabul and Pakistan who are not like me? Look at me. I speak your language. I married one of your people. We have people like me everywhere. We can’t lose.”
“He did a marvelous con job,” says Avrakotos admiringly. The Chinese connection was one of the most tightly held secrets of its day. Only two or three of Avrakotos’s colleagues from the task force knew about it. Perhaps no more than ten people in the whole [Central Intelligence] Agency were read in. The Chinese still do not acknowledge that they provided such arms.
To Avrakotos it was delicious revenge: “Just the thought of using Chinese Communist guns to kill Russians—just the irony of it.”
On paper, this should never have taken place. China and the Soviet Union were both Communist and had a distinct reason for opposing American imperialism.
But things were far from simple. The Chinese and Russian Communist Parties had very cool relations going back to the start. In 1923-24, the Kremlin directed their Chinese comrades to join the Kuomintang, Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist party that had overthrown the monarchy and declared a Republic in 1912. This blew up in everyone’s face within three years when Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun’s political heir, decided to purge and murder all the Reds in the April 1927 Shanghai massacre. The survivors, led by Mao Zedong, retreated on the Long March into the countryside, where they formulated a set of theoretical innovations on orthodox Marxism-Leninism. These heterodox developments, which eventually became known as Maoism, implied the grand all-knowing ideological genius of Communist theory, Joseph Stalin, was a bit of a rube and a strategically inept hack. You can imagine how well that went over with the Boss.
From there, things continued to go south. Stalin and the rest of the Soviet leadership always were leery about these Young Turk upstarts that both claimed to be smarter and, perhaps more importantly, had such a firm connection with the Chinese people that it would be impossible to unceremoniously replace them with a more Moscow-subservient group, something that happened frequently in Eastern Europe. Simultaneously, Beijing had legitimate reasons to complain about Soviet replication of old imperial territorial overreach, pointing to spots in southeastern Siberia that had been historically part of China until relatively recent Tsarist invasions. By the time Stalin died, Soviet Premier Khrushchev was not shy about using racist adjective phrases like “cave Marxist” to describe Mao.
All these and many more factors led to the collapse of fraternal Communist relations and the birth of the Sino-Soviet Split. As a result, China pinpointed the Russians as the ultimate imperial threat in the world. This logic was used in justifying their collaboration with America in Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, with their support for the Khmer Rouge and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet being the most depraved examples. The fact that the tensions were temporarily ratcheted down thanks to the benevolent and cool-headed intervention of the men called Nixon and Kissinger is truly insane.
By the time Jimmy Carter and rolled into Washington to banish the Nixonian detente and reignite hostilities with Moscow, China had become fully integrated into the global economy. They coordinated with Pakistan, under the reprehensible dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, to construct the weapon rat line to the Mujahideen. Their reverse-engineering of Soviet arms was a substantial intervention because, during the Vietnam war, one of the key advantages of the North Vietnamese had been the superior Russian-supplied arms against America’s guns, which infamously broke and jammed frequently.
Again, the Afghan people are entitled to full self-determination and Americans have nothing helpful to offer at this point. But it would likewise be a mistake to over-determine Chinese regional policy as benevolent and demonstrating a grand internationalist ethics. They collaborated with the CIA in destroying Afghanistan. That’s not something that should be easily brushed aside.