But an Army colonel said it's all a plot!

I rewrote this post because I had originally misconstrued Wilkerson's argument as saying the entire invasion of Afghanistan in 2003 was in order to contain China, which is absolutely nonsensical (and one he rejected explicitly in a 2017 interview, "China was a consideration only in the sense that we knew we were getting [US forces] very close [to it].") His position is slightly less nonsensical, but still fails to hold up to basic scrutiny.

TL; DR:

  • Wilkerson thinks US Afghan strategy has recently shifted to be about containing China. This is an opinion of his, but it's not based on classified information or the like—Wilkerson has not been in government for over 15 years, and has previously stated the war in Afghanistan was not initially concerned with China, as noted above.
  • Wilkerson's theory is not supported by the United States' concerted drawdown of troops beginning in 2011 and slated to head for complete withdrawal per the 2020 agreement signed with the Taliban.
  • Even if it were true that the US will remain in Afghanistan to contain China ("if the CIA has to mount an operation using those Uyghurs," in Wilkerson's words), that is not evidence that the ongoing human rights abuses are a conspiracy or fabrication. It is all the more reason that the Left should be simultaneously aware of the atrocities and the potential for the weaponization of said atrocities for warlike ends a là the War in Iraq.

In August 2018, retired Army colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson gave a talk at the Ron Paul Institute (strike one) entitled "What is The Empire's Strategy?". Wilkerson criticized the United States' lack of substantive strategy with regards to the Middle East, and in particular its absurd and destructive attempts to "make war upon a methodological phenomenon—terror". He spends about two minutes of this talk musing about Xinjiang, and his words were seized upon by denialists (and the Chinese government) as proof of a vast conspiracy by the United States.

Before we begin, let's take a minute and establish who exactly we're talking about. Many denialists seem to assume that because Wilkerson was a ranking officer in the military, he necessarily is knowledgable about the situation in a way the public isn't. But according to his bio, he retired from the military in 1997, and hasn't worked in government since 2005 (he was a high-ranking aide to Colin Powell, and helped form his presentation to the UN falsely alleging Iraq had WMDs; that intelligence failure left him massively disillusioned with US military and foreign policy).

Wilkerson now thinks Afghanistan is largely about containing China's Belt and Road Initiative (which he mistakenly calls the "Central Base Road Initiative", strike two). That is his opinion, but it quite literally cannot be based on any sort of specifically privileged information: BRI wasn't announced until 2013, eight years after he left public service. Xi Jinping wasn't even President when Wilkerson last worked in government.

That doesn't mean his opinion is necessarily wrong, of course. So let's take a look at what he says. His bit about Xinjiang comes about 21 minutes in to the talk (see below for transcript):

Expand for transcription of the relevant portion. Particularly... weird stuff underlined and in red.
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I spent 31 years in the military. Here is what it has decided for Afghanistan—and I bet you don't know this, either. We are in Afghanistan as we were in Germany post-World War II, that is, for at least a half a century. It has nothing to do with Kabul and state-building, nothing to do with fighting the Taliban or proving that we can reconcile with the Taliban and nothing to do with fighting any terrorist group. It has everything to do with three primary strategic objectives. And I—really as a military officer, as a professional—I don't necessarily object to these objectives but i believe the American people probably ought to be told about them and there ought to be a debate as to whether or not they want to spend their money on these objectives. The first objective is to be in the place that Donald Rumsfeld discovered was the most difficult country in the world to get military power into in 2001—and take my word for it, it is, look at it on a map—and leave it there, because it is the only hard power the United States has that sits proximate to the Central Base Road Initiative of China that runs across Central Asia. If we had to impact that with military power we are in position to do so in Afghanistan. Second reason we're there is because we're cheek and jowl with the potentially most unstable nuclear stockpile on the face of the earth, in Pakistan. We wanna be able to leap on that stockpile and stabilize it if necessary. And the third reason we're there is because there are 20 million Uyghurs and they don't like Han Chinese in Xinjiang province in western China, and if the CIA has to mount an operation using those Uyghurs as Erdoğan has done in Turkey against Assad—there are 20,000 of them in India and they live in Syria right now, for example—that's why the Chinese might be deploying military forces to Syria in the very near future, to take care of those Uyghurs that Erdoğan invited in. Well, the CIA would want to destabilize China and that would be the best way to do it, to foment unrest and to join with those Uyghurs in pushing the Han Chinese from internal places rather than external. Not saying it's going on right now—you didn't hear that—but it is a possibility. So that's why we're there and I'll wager there's not a handful of Americans who realize that we, our military, has decided that for these strategic reasons, which are well thought out, we are gonna be in Afghanistan for the next half century.

In other words, the US is in Afghanistan to contain China. While it's not clear in this clip, in other interviews he makes clear that he "thinks the strategic rationale for staying in Afghanistan is shifting"—basically, the US is trapped in Afghanistan and the military has found new strategic objectives to justify its continued presence there. It's a weird argument that's a little bit difficult to falsify.

It's also got a few rather bizarre assertions, e.g., "the Chinese might be deploying military forces to Syria in the very near future", something no serious observer ever thought, and something the Chinese government has never given any indication of doing. A Saudi newspaper first reported this would happen in 2017, which was repudiated as a misunderstanding by the PLA and never seems to have actually occurred. China has reportedly sent handfuls of military advisors before, and rumors of imminent combat troop dispatches pop up every once in awhile, but they have never been substantiated. Deploying troops to take part in active combat would represent a massive reversal of decades of PLA doctrine and Chinese foreign policy. That major global news outlets have not reported on what would necessarily be such a stunning reversal by a world power in one of the most watched conflicts in the world is a hint at the quality of these rumors. Anyways, this is me digressing.

The most obvious problem with Wilkerson's argument is that the United States is actively in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan—although with a lot of road bumps ahead of the May 1, 2021 deadline—after having negotiated its exit with the Taliban. A basic tenant of the agreement is the total withdrawal of US forces; unless there is some major change in policy, it is not true that "we are gonna be in Afghanistan for the next half century." It is certainly possible that there is some major change; the US reentered Iraq at its request as ISIS encircled Baghdad, but that's not something we can predict today.

To be fair to Wilkerson, back in 2018, Trump was not committed to withdrawing from Afghanistan permanently, but Trump is an idiot who almost certainly cannot put Afghanistan on a map. But even so, the United States' military presence in Afghanistan does not at all comport with the story Wilkerson is trying to tell. Take a look at this chart from the Congressional Research Service:

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Stats can be a little iffy sometimes, but it should be glaringly obvious that the United States' raw military power within Afghanistan started to dramatically decrease circa 2011-2012. Note that it's not just troops that have been drawn down; the US is also shuttering or transferring military bases, too. These, even more so than troops, would be critical for the projection of air power into China's sphere of influence.

Wilkerson thus argues a few thousand troops is enough to halt the Belt and Road Initiative (which would necessarily involve the invasion of another country, given that BRI does not run through Afghanistan). So even if the United States prolongs its withdrawal, I am extremely skeptical of the idea that the remnant forces are laid back specifically as a force waiting to pounce on China's loose network of infrastructure projects. Let's also remember that even if we accept Wilkerson's argument at face value, that is still not evidence in and of itself that the mass human rights violations committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang are a fabricated conspiracy. That is a critical link in the denialist view of Wilkerson.

The Washington Post's 2019 Afghanistan Papers, which you can view and search through yourself, also make no almost no mention of China—the generals, ambassadors, and diplomats whose views are catalogued in the Papers are focused overwhelmingly on Afghanistan itself, stability, and terrorism in the Middle East. You also can't find any mention of such a strategy 2010 Afghan War Logs, or any Wikileaks data, for that matter. The alleged government strategy to use Afghanistan as a base to pressure China thus seems to be a minor concern for anyone who is actually involved in Afghanistan policy.

Addendum:

I've also seen this screenshot or some variant thereof floating around:

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This is not worth a whole lot of time, so I'll just put it like this:

  • Edmonds is a 9/11 truther who can't even spell Uyghur right, lol
  • She gets by on grift related to her super secret access to information about "Gladio B"—a program that includes US activity in Xinjiang, and one that is totally 100% real despite the complete lack of a single mention of it in any of the millions of leaked US intelligence files from the last decade.
  • There is no way Edmonds, an FBI translator hired fresh out of college for a few months, would even have access to information related to US financing of overseas intelligence activity—that's first and foremost the domain of the CIA. (Edmonds was fired because she complained about corruption, inefficiency, and incompetence; the ACLU took up her whistleblower case) That sort of information would undoubtedly be classified as sensitive compartmentalized information, a classification designation that indicates access is restricted to a subset of individuals at a certain clearance level with a specific need to know.