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Ignoring history in Afghanistan will be costly

China's new interest in helping rebuild Afghanistan is not surprising, but it's not good news. And Afghans can be expected to make that clear in due course.

It was 1709 when the British poet, Alexander Pope, wrote the line "fools rush in where angels fear to tread".

Far from Pope's tranquil British countryside, there was major combat in Afghanistan in that year, as tribesmen from many valleys came together in revolt against a brutal governor appointed by the Persian emperor. Afghans defeated the occupying Persians, but there followed a cycle of repression and revolts.

Afghanistan's larger cycle, of foreign occupations and stubborn guerrilla resistance, continues to this day. The British tried and failed to conquer the country in the 19th century. The Soviets withdrew in defeat in 1989. The United States is about to do essentially the same.

But now the Chinese seem poised to rush into this fiercely independent and intractable country. President Hu Jintao, speaking this week after a meeting of leaders of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) countries, said that the group has decided to "play a greater role in the peaceful reconstruction process in Afghanistan".

The SCO consists of China, Russia, and several Central Asian states. But after the Soviet Afghan debacle of the 1980s, new Russian initiatives there are all but inconceivable. Indeed a top Russian official responded to Mr Hu by flatly ruling out any military role. And most of "the 'stans" are in no position to help other countries. This is a Chinese initiative.

And it is not really a surprise. The Chinese leadership will have calculated this way: If the US-Nato withdrawal gives Afghanistan back to the Taliban, or allows it to crumble into failed-state status, violent Islamic fundamentalism could well bubble over into China's western region, where repression of Muslim populations has created fertile soil for unrest. And China, voracious for raw materials, feels the lure of Afghanistan's vast untapped mineral resources. It already has major oil and copper concessions.

In another development this week, the US said it hopes India can play a greater role in Afghanistan. This unsubtle poke at Pakistan demonstrates, like the Chinese statement, that Afghanistan is still far from being allowed to regulate its own affairs.

Despite China's own long history, its leaders are ignoring Afghanistan's past. If China has decided that a bigger role there makes sense, they will proceed. The pretext that this is part of a "peaceful reconstruction process", however, is sheer hypocrisy.

Afghans have shown little interest in dissolving their tribal and regional identities into a modern state. Today, as 300 years ago in Pope's time, the only thing that seems to unite Afghans is the perceived need to drive out foreigners. The Chinese should be careful where they tread.

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