The Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban may not successfully bring our war in Afghanistan to a close. Some number of U.S. forces will remain on open-ended counterterrorism missions, their presence in harm’s way creating a constant risk of escalation, and a lot could change in the “many months” that Defense Secretary Mark Esper says it will take to complete the U.S. drawdown.
Still, the deal is welcome news and could be the beginning of the end of the longest conflict in U.S. history. American troops who have seen three, four, even five or more deployments to the Middle East may finally be able to come home — or not. If Esper’s grim vision becomes reality, they may soon be fighting China instead, embarking on a new and far larger conflict that would make Afghanistan look like child’s play, put U.S. security in unnecessary danger and plunge the world into lasting turmoil.
“I would like to [reduce troop levels in Afghanistan] because what I want to do is reallocate forces to” the Asia-Pacific region, Esper said while the U.S.-Taliban agreement was under negotiation. “All of these places where I can free up troops where I could either bring them home to allow them to rest and refit and retrain or/and then reallocate them [to the Asia-Pacific region] to compete with the Chinese, to reassure our allies, to conduct exercises and training.”
The defense secretary also has been conducting a “blank slate review” of U.S. force levels in Africa to the same end, “predominantly to reduce presence” there, he said, so the Pentagon can train its sights on China. And the Air Force described a flight by a nuclear-capable B-52 bomber over Somalia in February as, in part, a warning to China of engagement to come.
The rationale here, as Esper summarized in a recent interview on CNBC, is that the United States is in a new “era of ‘great power competition,’ and that means we need to focus more on high intensity warfare going forward.” For the United States, “our long-term challenges,” Esper continued, “are China, No. 1, and Russia, No. 2. And what we see happening out there is a China that continues to grow its military strength, its economic power, its commercial activity, and it’s doing so, in many ways, illicitly — or it’s using the international rules-based order against us to continue this growth, to acquire technology, and to do the things that really undermine our [and our allies’] sovereignty, that undermine the rule of law, that really question [Beijing’s] commitment to human rights.”
Esper’s argument is compelling because it includes a bit of truth: China is a rising power and our economic rival. It is growing in military strength, and it does engage in illicit business practices, including hacking and theft of trade secrets. Beijing has acted without regard for other nations’ sovereignty (which is not to say Washington is innocent of the charge), and its treatment of the Uighur people and response to the new coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan have settled, once again, any remaining question of whether the Chinese government has adequate respect for human rights.
None of this is in dispute, except perhaps by Beijing’s propagandists. But none of it remotely justifies twisting great power competition into a shooting war.
To deliberately court war with China by ramping up the American military footprint in Asia and seeking to “compete with the Chinese” — a troubling euphemism, as there’s really only one way militaries “compete” — is not the prudent grand strategy Esper suggests. It is reckless in the extreme. War between two nuclear powers is never to be sought and would have grim worldwide consequences far beyond those of our present interventions in the Middle East.
Unlike those interventions, a U.S.-China war would pose a real threat to the American homeland. China’s military might does not equal our own, but it is developing rapidly and, especially on Beijing’s home turf and in its near-abroad, would be a formidable, even existential, enemy.
The Islamic State group never had air power. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. Al-Qaida has no navy. China has all this and more, which is to say it could and, in a situation of open warfare initiated by Washington, would no doubt consider a strike on the United States. The administration should not make that scenario more probable.
Our security wouldn’t be the only likely casualty of the confrontational China policy Esper hopes to pursue. Great power war would produce economic chaos and suffering the world over. In China specifically, war would exacerbate the human rights problems Esper decries, and on a global scale it would take decades to regain the level of peace, freedom and prosperity we have today.
Withdrawing U.S. troops from the Middle East, Africa and beyond is necessary and overdue, and pivoting to focus on great power relations can serve U.S. security interests if done right. But pivoting to active cultivation of conflict with China is dangerously unwise. Our goal with Beijing (and Moscow, for that matter) should be diplomacy, mutual economic benefit and peace — not war.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a contributing editor at The Week.