Winner Takes All, Beijing-Style

Much has been made of the estimated one-trillion-dollars worth of lithium reserves hiding in the soil of Afghanistan since the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Kabul cast doubt on America’s future ability to exercise power in and around Afghanistan. That ability is not zero. The U.S. has the power to withhold large sums of aid on which the Taliban is relying for the reconstruction of a devastated country. But it’s greatly inferior to the power and influence currently exercised by China which is cosying up to all of its neighbors in Central Asia in an attempt to gain something like a monopoly of lithium.

It’s a scene reminiscent of pre-war thrillers in which hostile powers vie for the control of materials essential for war, usually oil, and their agents scheme to steal the maps and contracts that will ensure their victory. (See Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and more recently, Alan Furst passim.) But it’s very far from fiction.

China herself has substantial reserves of lithium. That’s a “special earth” that goes into the manufacture of electric vehicles, AI machines, and iPhones. As an Al Jazeera report pointed out,

Now all three are at the cutting edge of a modern economy driven by advancements in high-tech chips and large-capacity batteries that are made with a range of minerals, including rare earths. And Afghanistan is sitting on deposits estimated to be worth $1 trillion or more, including what may be the world’s largest lithium reserves — if anyone can get them out of the ground.

And not just lithium. Among the other rare minerals increasingly needed to power a modern economy and to achieve climate change policies such as Net-Zero, China also has large reserves of tungsten, iron, lead, copper, mercury, and more.

Looking to 2050.

If China succeeds in its current wooing of not only the Taliban but also Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and other countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, and further afield, it will come close to gaining a strategic monopoly of the minerals needed for economic growth, technological superiority, and military power. The West ignored that threat until recently when the Chinese Communist Party’s deceptive and even sinister suppression of news of the Covid virus until it had spread worldwide belatedly alarmed policy-makers. If China is an enemy or becoming one, its hoovering up of strategic minerals would constitute a major national security threat. Unless . . .

There was one optimistic interpretation of China’s rush to monopolize strategic minerals, however: it suggested that the new superpower might be serious about eventually combatting climate change. Its previous promises to do so were looking as threadbare as its explanations of the origins of Covid. But might China’s grab for a virtual lithium-etc. monopoly mean that it was preparing for an eventual switch from fossil fuels to “renewables” which would require a reliable supply and build-up of stocks of the raw materials for the switch?

So has does that optimistic view look when placed alongside other decisions taken by Beijing? My attention was caught by a paragraph in the important book, This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe, by the distinguished Cambridge historian, Robert Tombs, in which he briefly notes the “alarming rampage” that China embarked on in June 2020: economic sanctions against Australia when its government proposed to investigate subversion and corruption in its own political system; China’s suppression of liberty in Hong Kong (that incidentally broke an international treaty with the U.K.); the invasion over the Ladakh frontier by the Chinese army that attacked and murdered twenty Indian troops; renewed tensions with Japan and other maritime states over Chinese claims on strategic islands in the Pacific; threats against Taiwan (naturally); and then, more interestingly:

[I]n quick succession in July and August the Chinese government concluded long-term oil and gas contracts with Iran(for $400 billion—effectively a monopsony for twenty-five years), Saudi Arabia (it is said in exchange for nuclear technologies that the US would not provide), and Abu Dhabi, securing long-term supplies at bargain prices at the expense of Europe and Japan.

The return of the Silk Road.

At the expense of the U.S. too since the country won’t be able to access the reserves China has locked up when the slow strangulation of America’s fracking revolution and pipeline capacity by Biden’s regulatory policy means that the supply of American natural gas peters out. No one in Washington or Brussels seems to have joined up all the dots. Professor Tombs now does so:

[T]his pre-emption of vast oil supplies, combined with massive use of coal for electricity generation, suggests how far Beijing’s vaunted backing of Green technology is a weapon against a gullible West.

In other words the Chinese government is locking up energy reserves of all kinds, the means of transporting energy of all kinds (think Belt and Road), and the supplies of lithium and other raw materials needed for ‘clean’ energy and ‘renewables’ to work. America’s defeat in Afghanistan just made China’s task both easier and more vital.

And what are the U.S. and the West locking up? Not America’s high-technology weaponry abandoned in Kabul but promises of eventually joining the West in its Net-Zero crusade—promises that China has broken several times already.

Enemies of the People: Gen. Mark Milley

The Perils of Weakness

What a difference a few days can make. It was only the other day that President Biden spoke to the nation in what was billed as a press conference devoted to Covid-19 and vaccinations. After staring blankly into the teleprompter for eleven minutes and delivering his scripted remarks, the president inexplicably shuffled from the podium without taking any questions from, you know, the press. Bizarre as this was, it was made slightly less so by the fact that he had declined to answer questions in a similar setting the previous day, where he spoke about what at the time was the still-nascent debacle in Afghanistan.

The Covid-19 speech was plainly a ham-fisted attempt at misdirection, intended to divert the nation’s attention from what was merely an international embarrassment but has since become a literal bloody mess, with some 13 American servicemen and scores of Afghans killed in suicide bombings near the Kabul airport. Late last week, the president held another press conference, this one devoted to the events in Afghanistan, and as bland and affectless as he was in his appearances earlier in the week, when compared to Thursday’s performance he was Henry V at Agincourt.

In his address on Thursday, the president appeared confused, weak, and detached, as though still in denial that his own decisions have led to all that has recently transpired in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan. Even as he answered a question from Fox News reporter Peter Doocy about his role in the Afghan debacle, the president deflected responsibility onto his predecessor.

Not if you're doing it right.

“I bear responsibility for, fundamentally, all that’s happened of late,” the president said, then he  predictably resorted to one of the most tiresome of all his tiresome tropes. “But here’s the deal,” he continued, “you know as well as I do that the former president made a deal with the Taliban.” He then attempted to engage Doocy in some kind of bastardized version of a Socratic dialogue, the intent of which was to establish that he, fundamentally, bears no responsibility for the loss of life after all.

The disorder in Afghanistan is only the latest example of what happens when utopian visions come into violent collision with reality. From the comfort and safety of the White House (or Camp David, or his basement in Wilmington, or wherever), President Biden can claim the best of intentions, the mere invocation of which, he believes, absolves him of any responsibility for the consequences wrought by his decisions. As is always the case with leftist utopians, the costs are borne elsewhere and by others.

It is not only in Afghanistan that we see evidence of this. The product of poor leadership is evident in many American cities, most especially those where defund-the-police movements have taken root within local government. In Los Angeles, where the entire municipal government and the management of the LAPD have kowtowed to the police-are-the-problem mob, murders have increased 24 percent over last year and 44 percent over 2019.

And in Chicago, where Mayor Lori Lightfoot appears to have lost whatever minimal grip on reality she might have once had, murders are up 5 percent over last year, which may not sound all that dire until you recall that 2020 saw a huge spike in murders from the previous year.

Da Mayor.

The daily carnage in places like Los Angeles and Chicago, in which the bodies stack up incrementally, may lack the punch-to-the-stomach impact of a suicide bombing that claims dozens in an instant, and while some may think it unfair to compare the killers who stalk our city streets to jihadis waging war in foreign lands, can those jihadis be said to be any more depraved than the gunmen who, two weeks ago in Chicago, shot two little girls as they sat in their car seats in their parents’ car?

Like the jihadis in Afghanistan, those gunmen in Chicago pay little heed to the platitudes pouring forth from politicians insulated from the costs of their poor leadership. They want what they want and they do what they do because they have no fear of the consequences.

It wasn’t so long ago that no foreign leader would consider aggression on a neighboring country without first considering the question, “How will the Americans respond?” Not even some tin-pot dictator in the most backwater third-world hellhole would make an adventurous move without weighing the risk of seeing U.S. Army paratroopers filling the skies, Marines swarming ashore on the beach, or an Air Force JDAM whistling down the palace chimney.

Today, if our adversaries even bother to ask how the Americans will respond, the answer they arrive at is, “They won't.” No more than Lori Lightfoot does, or Bill de Blasio in New York City or  Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles.

Our president displays weakness, which in its turn invites challenge. It should surprise no one that Afghanistan is once again under the control of the same sandal-clad barbarians we routed from power 20 years ago, and it remains to be seen which of our adversaries will be next to take advantage.

Gaia Akbar?

"Know thy enemy," said Sun Tzu, and this is a lesson the Taliban have apparently taken to heart. And they've had ample time to get to know us during their twenty years interregnum as rulers of Afghanistan, as we milled about in their country for no apparent reason. In that time the key thing they've learned seems to be that we are a nation of suckers.

What else are we to think when, for instance, Taliban spokesmen are out there assuring the world that they've learned the error of their ways, and now that they're back, they are planning on building a more inclusive society and will make it a point to respect women's rights. Of course, they did add the notable qualifier “in accordance with Islamic law,” which might explain the reports we're already seeing of women being killed for not wearing the burqa. You've got to assume the country's only all-girl boarding school made the right decision when it closed up shop and moved to Rwanda. The Taliban's understanding of Islamic law has never been particularly open-minded about women learning things.

Spokesmen also said they would not infringe upon freedom of speech and promised to issue an amnesty for all Afghans who worked for Western governments in Afghanistan over the past two decades. Suffice it to say, I have my doubts that these promises will be kept.

Still, I couldn't help but laugh at the chutzpah of this pledge, reported by The Daily Mail, "The Taliban has vowed to tackle climate change... as part of the terror group's attempt to rebrand itself and modernise." Said Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a member of the Taliban's Cultural Commission (yes, it is startling that such a thing exists):

We believe the world has a unique opportunity of rapprochement and coming together to tackle the challenges not only facing us but the entire humanity. These challenges ranging from world security and climate change need the collective efforts of all, and cannot be achieved if we exclude or ignore an entire people who have been devastated by imposed wars for the past four decades.

Tackle climate change?! Mail columnist Jack Newman speculates that they might be intending to accomplish this "by taking Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages," which, to be fair, is more or less the long-term vision of hardcore western environmentalists as well.

You might be saying to yourself that no one in the west is dumb enough to believe this, but I'm not so sure. After all, we're constantly being told how responsible and forward thinking Chairman Xi is whenever he says anything about climate change, even while China's new coal power plant capacity alone outstripped the rest of the world by 300 percent in 2020.

The Taliban are betting that if they say the right things, eventually we will just let them do whatever they like. Maybe they know us a lot better than we're willing to admit.