Earlier this month, US and allied troops launched a fresh offensive in south Afghanistan as part of a new strategy worked out by US President Barack Obama.
It is the largest and boldest US military action in Afghanistan after Obama unveiled his new strategy in March. The first fierce assault was made on the Taliban-controlled Helmand province, where the UK troops used to be in charge of security. Earlier in the week, fighting took a heavy toll on British troops.
As Afghanistan's neighbor, China has suffered a lot because of the turbulence in that country. Evidence shows Uygur separatists who orchestrated the July 5 riots in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, have close relations with the Afghanistan-based Al-Qaida. Hence, the sooner peace and order return to Afghanistan the better it will be for China.
But it would be a mistake to think military initiative alone can win the day in Afghanistan. Since ancient times, war has been used as a means to realize political goals, said Sun Tzu, ancient Chinese military strategist and author of the still popular The Art of War. Carl von Clausewitz, German military historian and theorist, agrees. On this premise, a military action in Afghanistan would be meaningless if it is not accompanied by a viable political package.
The latest US military offensive, irrespective of how powerful or well planned it is, will not bring permanent peace and restore order if it is not accompanied by political and economic initiatives.
Afghanistan is very different from Iraq, which had a unified government before the US invasion in 2003. Unlike Iraq, the country of rugged mountains, high passes and stark poverty has for long been embroiled in factional feuds. It has not seen a unified government since the 1979 Soviet invasion. True, the Taliban ruled it from 1996 to 2001. But those were even more difficult times for the people.
Afghanistan's economic prospects are dismal, too. The battles and wars of the past 30 years have pushed the country into deeper poverty. It is one of the least developed countries in the world. With most of their infrastructure destroyed or damaged, many Afghans have no choice but to survive on poppy cultivation, which is easy to grow and transport.
Afghanistan has been the world's largest opium producer for most of the past decade. A study by the Afghan government and the UN in 2005 shows 2 million people, or 9 percent of the country's population, were engaged in poppy cultivation. Another UN report says 93 percent of the world's opium and 92 percent of heroin originates in Afghanistan.
About 100,000 hectares are under poppy cultivation in Helmand alone, where the US and UK forces are fighting a bitter battle with the Taliban. The Taliban want to hold on to Helmand for obvious reasons: it accounts for more than two-thirds of the poppy grown in Afghanistan.
The US even tried to help impoverished Afghan farmers find other means of livelihood to reduce their dependence on poppy cultivation. But the plan did not work. Since a large part of the income from poppy cultivation goes either to the Taliban or Al-Qaida, which use it to buy weapons and perpetrate their atrocities, what Afghan people really need is an effective economic reconstruction.
Therefore, the fate of the long-drawn war in Afghanistan depends on whether the US can provide the Afghans with other means of livelihood in the areas under its control to enable them to give up poppy cultivation.
China shares its border with Afghanistan and Pakistan and has the experience of rapid economic development, especially in lifting people in arid areas out of poverty. In China's vast western area, including the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, farmers have for long been growing various kinds of cash crops.
The Chinese government and experts have helped farmers in the "Golden Triangle", which borders Yunnan province, grow crops to replace poppy. The country's rich experience in this area can play a bigger role to wean away Afghans from poppy cultivation and put them on the road to peace and development.
But the Urumqi riots, orchestrated by Uygur separatists, have dimmed such a prospect. The riots that claimed 184 lives and left hundreds of people injured, took place immediately after the US and allied forces launched their fresh offensive in Afghanistan. They are not coincidental because terrorist groups in Central Asia have always had close connections.
The Uygur separatists used a ploy that the Western media fell prey to. The media lapped up the fake photographs they had sent, which showed Han people, and not Uygurs, were spreading violence from China's other areas to Xinjiang.
The separatists' purpose is not only to solicit sympathy, but to create animosity and repulsion among Chinese people toward the West. Their ploy is to make Chinese people unwilling to participate in the West-led reconstruction of Afghanistan. After all, disorder and violence in Afghanistan is to the great advantage of Al-Qaida.
(China Daily 07/16/2009 page9)