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Karl Eikenberry: A Role for China?

July 8, 2015

By Karl Eikenberry

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, and a trustee of The Asia Foundation. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, where he led the civilian surge directed by President Obama to set the conditions for transition to full Afghan sovereignty. He previously served in the U.S. Army, serving at one point as commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, and retiring as a lieutenant general in 2009. During his military career, he had extensive experience in the Asia Pacific Region, including serving as defense attaché in the U.S. Embassy in the People’s Republic of China. He spoke with The Asia Foundation in Beijing during his participation in the World Peace Forum, organized by Tsinghua University.

Amb. Eikenberry, left, speaks with fellow Asia Foundation Trustees Missie Rennie and Karl Inderfurth on a trip to Afghanistan.

Amb. Eikenberry, left, speaks with fellow Asia Foundation Trustees Missie Rennie and Amb. Karl Inderfurth on a trip to Afghanistan.

With the U.S. scheduled to withdraw its military forces by the end of 2016, what kind of role do you hope to see China play in building a more peaceful and stable Afghanistan?

First, it’s not certain that the U.S. will withdraw all of its troops by end of 2016. It has yet to be decided. It’s possible the U.S. will continue to have a military mission to help further develop the Afghan national security forces and counterterrorist missions. Secondly, I believe that China has an increasingly important role to play in Afghanistan’s future, in helping to build a peaceful and stable country. First of all, it’s a neighboring country, so it has that special tie. Secondly, it has the possibility to contribute to Afghanistan’s economic development in an important way. Afghanistan needs to improve its physical infrastructure, including road building, energy systems, etc., and China has great expertise in doing infrastructure projects on a large scale around the world. It also has considerable expertise in areas where Afghanistan needs assistance, such as improving healthcare and the education system and making improvements in the agriculture sector to increase productivity. Thirdly, I think China is concerned because it sees the U.S.’s ongoing withdrawal of troops and knows that Afghanistan’s security is not guaranteed, and it wants to be more proactive in helping Afghanistan strengthen its security.

In what ways could the U.S. and China work together to facilitate a better outcome for Afghanistan?

The most important way they can work together is diplomatically. The United States has deep experience in Afghanistan. As a result of that deep experience, we have a good appreciation of the security concerns of Afghans and their government. We also have excellent relations with the foreign donors who have contributed to Afghanistan’s security and economic development. China also has good diplomatic relations with other major players. The two of us working together, using our comparative diplomatic advantage, can achieve good results in collaborating and coordinating. We should work together to get the security guarantees from its neighbors that Afghanistan needs. We should also promote collaborative approaches in the development of Afghanistan; for example, opening borders to trade. Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. It has tremendous resources that need to be developed.

What are the Chinese government’s motivations for getting more involved in Afghanistan now? Given their previous reluctance to engage, what has changed in their calculations?

There are three factors that are motivating increasing Chinese interest and participation. (1) The events of 9/11 occurred in 2001, 14 years ago. China is a much wealthier country today, with much more capability. That’s not a small factor. It has a lot more resources that it can bring to bear. (2) There are concerns over the drawdown of international military forces and how instability may increase on China’s border. China does face problems and threats from terrorism. It has its eyes on Afghanistan, and it wants to work with the United States and the international community. It wants to find ways to stabilize that country and deal with a threat on its own border. (3) China is moving onward with its vision of One Belt One Road, which involves Central and South Asia. It would be much harder to achieve this without Afghanistan’s participation. If you can stabilize Afghanistan, given its location and resources, Afghanistan can make big contributions to China’s vision of One Belt One Road.

Earlier this year, China hosted a meeting between Afghan officials and Taliban representatives. What are the advantages that Beijing brings as an international mediator in the Afghan peace process?

It would seem that China brings trusted agency into the process. It has not been involved in the fighting in Afghanistan. It has not sent security forces into the country. It’s looked at by the Ashraf Ghani government and the Taliban as being a balanced, objective, and neutral actor. We’ll see how this proceeds. China maintains very good relations with the Afghan government, and it maintains good relations with Pakistan. Pakistan has a degree of influence with Afghanistan’s Taliban. There are some interesting possibilities, and we’ll see how the talks proceed.

As an Asia Foundation trustee, you know that The Asia Foundation has active programs in both Afghanistan and China. What role do you think NGOs can play in shaping the next stage of Afghanistan’s development and fostering international cooperation?

When I was ambassador in Afghanistan, I saw The Asia Foundation in action, and it was doing some great work in the field of helping to build governmental effectiveness and accountability. It was heavily engaged in areas of women’s education and women’s empowerment. The Asia Foundation also has a large program on alternative access to education for girls and women. I believe these are areas where China and the U.S. should explore cooperation. The role of NGOs, whether they are Chinese or U.S. NGOs, is going to become ever more important. The era of massive investments from the international community is coming to an end. Afghanistan’s needs will continue for decades. The value of NGOs is that they can develop great local expertise and local ownership. They have a deep understanding of the areas they are working in. Their philosophy is about having sustainable projects, not just short-term projects.

Karl Eikenberry is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He can be reached at karl.eikenberry@stanford.edu. The views and opinions expressed here are his own, and not those of the Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Afghanistan, China
Related programs: International Cooperation
Related topics: International Development

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