Home / Robert Farley / Interdependence of Commitments and Mission Creep

Interdependence of Commitments and Mission Creep


I think Matt misses the truly insidious follow through of this:

I’ve been struck over the past three or four years by how many different Chinese people have expressed to me the view that the purpose of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan is to establish a long-term presence there in order to encircle the PRC. This would not, as a policy objective, make much sense, but I think it does illustrate the important fact that Chinese people have a China-centric view of the world.

If you want to see how foreign policy commitments metastasize, think this through: If the Chinese believe that the United States is in Afghanistan in order to encircle China (and to be sure, I don’t think this), then a US withdrawal from Afghanistan becomes a “win” for China, even if Chinese beliefs were without foundation. If the Chinese believe that the American encirclement project has failed, then they might be inclined to take more aggressive steps in some other part of the world that touches on “genuine” US national security interests.

And thus, we need to stay in Afghanistan in order to make the Chinese believe that we’re committed to the encirclement project, even if we’re not interested in the encirclement project. It’s right there in the Schelling, and Kissinger would totally understand.

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  • It never made any sense to me that a country which can only be supplied through Russia, Iran, or China’s ally Pakistan would be any use in encircling China. Afghanistan is encircled, as far as we’re concerned.

    The logical way to encircle China would be to peel away its friends like Russia or its clients like Burma… But most hawks don’t seem too hot about that.

    • Murc

      Russia qualifies as a state that’s friendly to China? Really? In a ‘likely to support expansionary foreign policy goals of said friend’ sense?

      That’s news to me. Russia and China have been rather cordially suspicious of each other for, you know, the last two hundred some off years, as near as I can tell. And that’s at their MOST friendly.

      • No, because your standard of ‘friend’ is a rather high bar for the cutthroat world of international politics. But you seem to pretty much miss my point entirely, which is that the US has utterly failed to exploit the longstanding divisions between Russia and China over the past decade.

        I agree that Russia and China should historically be rivals. But currently they’re at the friendliest point in their history, (which is clearly reflected in Russia’s decision to concentrate force modernization and reform towards former USSR – not the east – and China’s decision to concentrate modernization and reform in its maritime periphery – not on the Russian border) which is why it’s all the more ridiculous that US policy has helped preserve their unlikely current cooperation.

      • ajay

        Russia qualifies as a state that’s friendly to China? Really? In a ‘likely to support expansionary foreign policy goals of said friend’ sense?

        Well, there’s the SCO. And a fair number of weapons sales (fewer these days, though, mainly because China can make its own) including things like carrier aircraft.

  • Daragh McDowell

    Of course the real threat is China’s new, super-advanced virtually undetectable submarine fleet. How do I know they have undetectable submarines? Because we haven’t been able to detect them!

    • c u n d gulag

      And I just didn’t see or hear one of their super secret stealth planes flying overhead.

      Be afraid, be very afraid…

      • Charlie

        Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

  • wengler

    Screw Afghanistan.

    We gotta invade North Korea.

    • Ken

      Exactly. The flaw in the argument “we can’t leave Afghanistan because of what the Chinese think” is that it lets the Chinese control what we do. All they need to do to jerk our leash is play N-dimensional chess at a higher value of N than we do.

  • patrick II

    You don’t have to go back to Kissinger to find American policymakers defending against the imagined imagination of its enemies:

    As Cheney put it in Lake Elmo, referring to Osama bin Laden and his followers: “They talk about wanting to re-establish what you could refer to as the seventh-century caliphate,” to be “governed by Shariahlaw, the most rigid interpretation of the Koran.”

    Or as Rumsfeld put it on Monday: “Iraq would serve as the base of a new Islamic caliphate to extend throughout the Middle East, and which would threaten legitimate governments in Europe, Africa and Asia.”

    Like Al Qaeda could take over the world. This comes to mind because, before 9/11 Cheney saw China as the next big threat and we might well have had some sort of cold-war with China had not bin Laden move to the top of Cheney’s paranoia list. Before 9/11 Cheney wanted to invade Iraq and carve up its oil fields and have a dagger at the throat of Iran. Afghanistan, on the other side of Iran, might have fit into the broader plan. And all of this would have been to secure mideast oil before China could have been a power in the region.

    Maybe my own paranoia about Cheney is catching up with Cheney’s own paranoia, but Cheney wanted a military presence in the mideast in part to protect against eventual Chinese competition. The fragments of wars initiated for an unobtainable purposes driven by the paranoia of our sociopathic vice-president has lead us to the remains of incoherent foreign wars that continue to drain us.

  • Charlie Sweatpants

    Comrades Farley and Yglesias would do well not to speak so casually of the encirclement plan. We’ve only just finished ringing Germany, the Chinese project is barely underway.

  • Just so that we can be clear how crazy these Chinese are, teh America-centric reason for why teh US is militarily engaged in Afghanistan is?

    • rea

      There is no reason–we’re there because we’re there.

    • To prevent a return to the status quo ante, when the country was run by a regime that was working in partnership with al Qaeda and making the resources of a sovereign government available to them.

      • Anonymous

        Can’t wait for that Pakistan war!

        • 2001 called. They want their contemporary understanding of state-sponsored terrorism back.

        • Pakistan is the worst ally in American history, no question. They make the House of Saud look like the Canadian staff at NORAD.

          But the government of Pakistan is not making the resources of their state available to al Qaeda.

          • dave


  • The equivalence to China’s belief is the belief that somehow Iraq was involved in 9-11

    To-wit: it’s made up garbage that someone has inoculated into the bureaucracy to excuse some other weird behavior.

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    • Oh great! “Pivots” is going to become the new “problematic” where any asshat who presumes to legitimacy starts to misuse it.


      • Ed Marshall

        I noticed a couple years ago that “I want to push against that” had entered the vocabulary of academics as a substitute for “That is a bunch of horseshit”.

        • Ed Marshall

          err “I want to push back against that”.

          • “Walk back” is annoying but has the charm of creating an image in one’s head. If someone is going to use a cliche, for God’s sake use one that has some impact!

            • Charlie

              It’s really useful when you’re talking to your students and show some respect for them, while simultaneously dismantling their utterly uninformed bullshit.

              • Charlie

                It’s the vague abstractness of it that makes it a good euphemism. Sometimes you want to stop a totally horseshitty line of reason without embarrassing the oft-well meaning, if lazy, student who is promoting it.

          • Posted on You have bgoruht up a very excellent details , regards for the post. “Wit is educated insolence.” by Aristotle.

      • Malaclypse

        Pivoting will be impactful in a new discursive paradigm.

        • “Oh baby, I love when you pivot!”

        • Njorl

          Even if it isn’t true, we’d be negligent if we didn’t discuss the controversy.

  • Patrick

    If that’s how people in China feel, imagine how Iraq and Afghanistan seem to Iran. And once you’re in those shoes with a small dose of paranoia, why in the world wouldn’t you be building nukes as soon as possible?

    • Paranoia nothing.

      Even if we carried out the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with Iran, the fact of our military presence in significant numbers on their eastern and western borders is a military and political reality to which a government, which is charged with defending its territory and security, has a duty to respond.

      Even if the Iranian political and military leadership was 100% certain that the US had no hostile intentions in launching those wars and no hostile intentions in maintaining a presence in those countries, so what? “The US” in that sentence means “the current political leadership,” and we could be one election away from a political leadership that does have those hostile intentions.

      So the Iranian government has a duty, a responsibility, to take that threat into account.

  • Passing By

    Since the US military fairly blatantly regards China as its most-likely major opponent, why shouldn’t the Chinese suspect any US activities on their borders of having an anti-China aspect?

    That’s what opponents do … seek positions of advantage.

  • The Chinese have a point.

    They’re wrong about our intentions, but so what? If we maintain a permanent military presence in Afghanistan for whatever reason, even for reasons having nothing to do with great-power competition with China, that military presence is a threat to their national security and needs to be taken into account in their own military posture.

    • Lurker

      The one point that has not been made here is a way of defusing the situation: buy concessions from China as the price for pulling out of Afganistan. That would be an ultimate Kissinger-style move: “We want out anyway, but we’re going to charge for it, because you think you are profiting from it.”

      However, pulling out completely is rather difficult. If you leave a base with a single battallion and a runway there, it is a potential staging point and a location from which intelligence and special operations can be carried out in South-Western China. And it is quite clear that even if the US pulls out, it leaves a few residual bases like that in Afganistan. Thus, for the Chinese, Afganistan remains a part of encirclement plan even if the “war” is ended.

  • cpinva

    since most americans have a US-centric view of the world, why should it come as any surprise to us that the chinese would have a china-centric view? for that matter, it’s my guess that most people have a (insert name of country here)-centric view of the world. it’s natural.

    most people don’t spend a great deal of time pondering “the big picture”, as they are busy just living their lives. heck, most voters in the US are nearly politically illiterate, expecting them (and people in other countries) to think beyond their immediate environment is asking a lot.

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