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From Taliban To Taiwan, The Limits Of Military Power

China is beefing up its military arsenal, with Taiwan as its target. However, as with the continued difficulty to control the terrain in Afghanistan, we increasingly see that military power is far from ensuring the hegemony hoped for by stronger parties.

From Taliban To Taiwan, The Limits Of Military Power

During a military exercise in Taiwan

Dominique Moisi


PARIS — "How many divisions does the Pope have?" once famously asked Joseph Stalin, highlighting that despite religious or political authority, military force can always prevail in geopolitics. However, in the 21st century, one can legitimately ask what military force is for.

In Afghanistan, more than three months after the Taliban's lightning victory, terrorist violence continues. It seems that members of the defeated regular army have joined the ranks of the "fundamentalist international" to continue the fight against the Taliban. In short, military victory on the ground has not solved anything. The Taliban face the resilience of those nostalgic for freedom and progress on the one hand, and Islamic fanatics on the other.

But above all, a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented magnitude is brewing, encouraged in its intensity by the combination of global warming, international sanctions against the Taliban regime and the continuing violence on the ground. The departure of American troops and their allies, and the victory of the Taliban on the ground, has not resolved anything, quite the contrary.

Ethnic violence in Ethiopia 

In Ethiopia — the most populous African country after Nigeria — the use of military force has not solved anything either. After a series of initial victories against the "Tigrayan rebels," the forces of the central Ethiopian government have experienced a brutal reversal of fortune. They're under the command of Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed. (Never in retrospect has such an award been so undeserved.)

It is now the Tigray People's Liberation Front that is at the gates of Addis Ababa. In the meantime, tens of thousands of civilians have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced in an ethnic conflict that seems to be getting out of hand and where all parties are behaving equally badly toward the civilian population.

At the end of the day, the question is whether Ethiopia is becoming for the African continent what Yugoslavia was for Europe at the end of the Cold War: an entity that explodes in violence. Ethiopia had given the impression that it could serve as a positive model for the African continent through its economic success and its reconciliation process with Eritrea and between its ethnic groups.

Lukashenko's blackmail

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. The indiscriminate use of military force has plunged this African giant into chaos. Here again, force has not solved anything, quite the contrary. And what can we say about Yemen, where the Saudis and Iranians are waging a war by proxy, the only clear result of which is the immense suffering of civilians on the ground?

Only the regimes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus — both of which have benefited from the support of Vladimir Putin's Russia — can take pride in having successfully used force against their populations. In Syria, despite accusations of genocide against the regime still in place, the United Arab Emirates foreign minister has just visited Damascus, giving al-Assad a semblance of legitimacy. But at what price? To stay in power, al-Assad has set his country back several decades. He still rules, but on a "field of ruins."

As for Lukashenko, he has discovered the migrant weapon and uses the victims of violence in the Middle East as a means of blackmail against the European Union countries that have the audacity to criticize his revolting cynicism. "You want to isolate me, sanction me: I will suspend Russian gas deliveries that pass through my territory and I will drown you under a flood of refugees."

U.S. soldiers evacuating civilians from Kabul in August 2021

Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/U.S. Marine/Planet Pix/ZUMA

China's invasion scenario 

And yet, as if these warnings were not enough, it is China that now seems ready to take over by embarking on its own military adventure. Everything is happening as if the last lessons of the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq had been of no use.

Thus, in northwestern China's Taklamakan desert (nicknamed the "Sea of Death"), Chinese armed forces are training, according to images provided by monitoring satellites, on replicas of U.S. warships deployed in the Pacific.

These could be used as training targets for Chinese new generation missiles. In its desire to assert its status as the leading power in Asia today and in the world tomorrow, China is multiplying its efforts and exploding its defense budgets, as if it did not perceive the "systemic" limits of classical military action today.

Chinese and U.S. leaders give the impression of flirting dangerously with the abyss

In Washington, the "narrative" seems increasingly credible: China, it is said, will soon have the maritime means to land its troops in Taiwan. But given the island's difficult geography, Taiwanese resistance will continue in the interior, aided by the United States and its Asian allies.

Does the Chinese economy have the means to cope with a prolonged conflict that would have more than just negative consequences on its growth? There is certainly a clear desire to dissuade China in this scheme, which many of my U.S. friends insist on. It's as if Washington wants to make Beijing see reason: "You can invade Taiwan, but think carefully; a successful landing will not solve anything: Taiwanese resistance (with our support) will continue."

In their heads, Chinese and U.S. leaders give the impression of flirting dangerously with the abyss, as if both sides had resigned themselves to the hypothesis of an inevitable confrontation. The progress of the Sino-American dialogue on climate change in the framework of COP26 should not create any illusions. The priority of Chinese and U.S. leaders is not to help save the planet, but for China tor regain their status in the world and for the United States to maintain it. It is as if they had learned nothing and understood nothing of the warnings from history.

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