Chinese, Russian narratives following US Afghanistan withdrawal present a US in decline
Commenters and officials labeled the US
Commenters and officials labeled the US withdrawal as a loss that shattered America’s image around the world. Part one in a two-part series.
By Kenton Thibaut and Roman Osadchuk
As the world watched scenes of chaos and violence unfold as the US withdrew from Afghanistan, Russia and China seized the opportunity to spread narratives designed to undermine faith in the United States as a global leader. The US and democracy as a whole are popular targets of both Russia and China; however, the speed with which the Afghan government fell and the criticism the US faced both domestically and among partner countries provided fertile ground for both countries to amplify and disseminate these narratives, especially around the time of the final phase of the US withdrawal. The recent events at the airport in Kabul, in particular, provided fertile ground for a new wave of criticism of the US emphasizing its “unreliability” and “hypocrisy,” especially over human rights.
The DFRLab identified two core narratives being pushed by Russia and China in the immediate aftermath of the US withdrawal, in both state-owned media outlets and on social media. This article will explore the first narrative, which emphasized the chaotic and allegedly disgraceful nature of the US exit, taking it as evidence of US “decline” and highlighting Russia and China’s roles as stabilizing powers in the region. In our second story, we examine how Russia and China highlighted what they considered US hypocrisy over human rights with what they depict as negligence of non-American lives.
Russia has a long history of using media and the internet as propaganda tools to prove its supposed superiority and frame the Western perspective as wrong and authoritarian. The DFRLab has previously reported on how Kremlin-owned and Kremlin-aligned media promoted anti-NATO sentiments, amplified false versions of the events, and undermined trust for non-Russian COVID-19 vaccines.
The US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is somewhat different. First, it gave fodder to the Kremlin’s belief that the United States is a power in decline that cannot tell anyone else what to do. The chaotic withdrawal and the Taliban’s quick takeover of the country allowed Kremlin-aligned actors to portray it as US capitulation with multiple comparisons to the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 and, particularly, imagery of evacuations on the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon. Multiple actors enjoyed mocking the defeat of Western values and the US-trained army in Afghanistan.
Second, various commenters and media found an opportunity to draft parallels with the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. While the Soviet invasion and its subsequent exit from Afghanistan were not noble nor controlled, with 15,000 soldiers dead and many more injured, the US withdrawal provided an opportunity for Kremlin-aligned sources to put the Soviet campaign in a brighter and more victorious light. Some commenters focused on what they called the “humanitarian” aspect of the Soviet Union’s intervention, focusing on its investment in building multiple infrastructure projects and comparing the horrible events in the Kabul airport with the “solemn and noble” exit of Soviet troops.
The hostile narratives about the US withdrawal helped Russia to portray its ideological enemy as a weak, declining power that is no longer a hegemon but instead a humiliated actor inferior to Russia, as the latter is not fleeing from Afghanistan. Russia also used the opportunity to attempt to scare US allies, particularly Ukraine, by mentioning that the United States would abandon them as well. Finally, it helped exaggerate regular skepticism toward Western values and human rights, portraying the United States as a hypocrite using human rights to achieve military and political gains worldwide.
In contrast to Russia, China is relatively new at leveraging the internet as an external propaganda tool, having focused primarily on shaping domestic public opinion in the first decade or so of internet propagation within the country. In recent years, however, China has begun the leverage new methods of information operations in the form of interference campaigns and disinformation to gain “discourse power” on the international stage — the ultimate goal of which is to attain increased geopolitical power commensurate with Beijing’s view of itself as a global leader through influencing the political order and values both domestically and in foreign countries. At the core of this discourse power push is to shape a positive image of China among both domestic and global audiences. As such, Beijing saw the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as an opportunity to increase its discourse power on the global stage by undermining US leadership.
Chinese propaganda efforts surrounding the US withdrawal show key synergies with Russian efforts. Beijing also viewed the US withdrawal as a symbol of the latter’s decline as a global leader on the world stage — both in terms of hard (military) and soft (cultural and value influence) power. China in recent months has been pushing a “decline of the West, rise of the East” narrative, and official media has taken up this theme in its Afghanistan-related propaganda efforts. In fact, the Global Times — the nationalistic offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official newspaper, the People’s Daily — has reposted numerous articles from Russian state media highlighting the US decline narrative and contrasting the “disgraceful exit” with themes of China and Russia’s stabilizing presence in the region.
As one example, the Global Times English edition published several pieces with the theme of US human rights hypocrisy — one title reads, “Afghan refugee controversy reveals US real nature — duplicity and hypocrisy.” Like Russia, it also took the opportunity to depict US actions as evidence of the inevitability of US abandonment of its allies, underscoring the fact that a capricious United States would not stay to ensure Taiwan’s security if it decided it was no longer in its interest to do so.
Chinese state and CCP-affiliated media also homed in on humanitarian issues in Afghanistan, particularly focusing on the scenes of chaos at the Kabul International Airport. China’s “wolf warrior” officials on Twitter were quick to disseminate photos of Afghans crowding the tarmac with captions meant to reframe US “interventionism” as a human rights issue. In a readout of a call between the Chinese and Russian Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Wang Yi, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated the two sides had emphasized the “damaging effect on human rights” that US interventionism had had. These frameworks were meant to illustrate US “hypocrisy” over recent efforts by Washington sanctioning Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Both China and Russia were able to leverage the US withdrawal to push narratives emphasizing US decline, hypocrisy, and unreliability as the reigning global leader. Russian interests seized on key themes in the US exit to repaint its own history in the region and to undermine global faith in the United States as a moral leader in global affairs. In the case of China, it sought to leverage and increase its own discourse power relative to that of the US by propagating images, commentary, and other media that drove forth these themes; in turn, it sought to present itself as a legitimate and viable global leader, with a status equal to or surpassing that of the US. Both countries used the power of the internet to disseminate narratives meant to undermine faith in the US democratic model and to present their own authoritarian models as viable alternatives.
The first narrative described the recent withdrawal of US troops from the Afghanistan as a “disgrace,” highlighting the “failure of Afghanistan democratization” and the escape of troops rather than honorable and calm exit. Part of the narrative focuses on that the whole 20 years-long campaign went wrong and how it might shatter US authority around the world.
Kremlin-owned media amplified the “disgraceful escape” narrative in multiple articles that spread on social media. For instance, RT published a long-read on the US’s “disgraceful final act” in Afghanistan and its consequences for both US domestic and foreign policy. It quoted former US President Donald Trump, alongside Russian experts, who claimed that it was a big mistake that partially happened because some “US lobbies perceived the operation as a commercial opportunity to earn money.” Kremlin-owned RIA News wrote that the United States is “suffering a grandiose shameful failure before the eyes of the entire world.” State-owned Sputnik went further and contrasted the supposed failure of the US withdrawal with the alleged success of the Soviet Union building a lot of infrastructure in the country. While mentioning only the Soviet Union and that negative consequences of the former US presence in Afghanistan, Sputnik omitted the amount of infrastructure that the United States itself developed in Afghanistan. Also, Kremlin-owned Zvezda compiled a story based on user comments below an article on a Polish news site, headlining it with “Shame for NATO and the US.”
Some Russian government officials also commented on the US decline narrative. For example, Russian Duma Senator Aleksey Pushkov called the withdrawal of US troops “a collapse of American foreign policy, namely the export of democracy.” The idea of “democracy export” similarly appeared in Kremlin-owned Baltnews.
Some Kremlin-aligned sources were more blunt in their comments. Sergey Maradan, special correspondent for Kremlin-aligned Moscow Komsomolets, wrote an article declaring that the “American dream dies in Kabul airport.” Contradicting other more positive spins on the Soviet Union’s time in Afghanistan, Maradan concluded his piece mentioning that the Afghan war was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union and hinted that the same fate might befall the United States.
Separately, several stories compared the withdrawal of Soviet troops with the US withdrawal and claimed that the Soviet Union withdrew proudly, whereas the United States fled in shame. Kremlin-aligned Lenta featured an interview with Aleksandr Rutskoy, a former vice president of Russia and commander of an air assault regiment during the Soviet Afghan operation, in which he claimed that Soviet forces exited Afghanistan “with [a literal] orchestra accompaniment,” whereas the United States “ran in shame.”
Like the Russian outlets, Chinese state and state-affiliated media also pushed a narrative of the “chaotic and irresponsible” US withdrawal. For example, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, published an article on August 24 paraphrasing an opinion piece from British newspaper The Daily Telegraph with the title, “Failure in Afghanistan signals American era is ending: British media.” Allister Heath, editor of The Sunday Telegraph, wrote the quoted piece as a commentary on the withdrawal, but the People’s Daily presented the opinion column as representative of this particular British media outlet as a whole:
The ‘stupidity and incompetence’ displayed over the Afghan withdrawal have once again confirmed that the American elites don’t understand the rest of the world, and aren’t fit to govern their own country, let alone the globe, The Daily Telegraph said in a recent opinion article.
The tactic of misquoting or choosing selective quotations from foreign or Western sources to criticize the United States is often used in the Chinese information warfare arsenal.
On Twitter, Chinese officials also amplified the narrative of US failure. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying tweeted, “The lack of #American self-awareness is startling. #US failure in #Afghanistan is an abiding failure of American political culture and a failure of the belief that the solution to every political challenge is military intervention or #CIA-backed destabilization.”
Meanwhile, on Chinese social media sites like Weibo (China’s Twitter-like microblogging site, which has over 530 million monthly active users as of March 2021), Chinese Communist Party and government-affiliated organizations flooded the site with videos and images taken at the Kabul airport of the crowds and chaos. One Weibo post from the CCP-affiliated Yunnan Communist Youth League reposted English-language news articles highlighting the “chaotic scenes” at the airport and, similar to Russian sources, drew parallels to the “disgraceful” US exit from Vietnam in 1975.
Meanwhile, official Chinese messaging — including statements from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — set out to depict China as a “responsible party” left to help ensure stability in the chaotic aftermath of US meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. In a call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on August 17, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized what he considered the “error” of “applying foreign models to countries with completely different history, culture and national conditions” and chastised the United States as not having a “responsible” attitude — in a purposeful juxtaposition to China’s oft-stated claims of acting as a “responsible power committed to promoting peace and development around the world.” In doing so, China seemed to ignore its own issues regarding “debt trap diplomacy” with its Belt and Road infrastructure investments.
Following this, the Global Times published opinion pieces the same day in English emphasizing that the Chinese embassy in Afghanistan was running “as normally” and published a widely read (more than 100,000 views, 1,000 likes, and 600 reposts) article on its official Chinese WeChat channel that underscored the abandonment of the US Embassy building during the withdrawal, quoting RT as a source. The narrative was misleading, as US Embassy staff still in country and working with the U.S. Department of Defense to exfiltrate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies through Hamid Karzai International Airport, and at that point in time, the US ambassador and a number of diplomatic staff still remained in the country.
Chinese officials also worked to disseminate this narrative on English-language and US-based platforms. Zhou Bo, a former colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, wrote a guest essay in The New York Times on August 20 with the title, “In Afghanistan, China Is Ready to Step Into the Void.” In his conclusion, he wrote, “Afghanistan has long been considered a graveyard for conquerors — Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States. Now China enters — armed not with bombs but construction blueprints, and a chance to prove the curse can be broken.”
Meanwhile, Chinese officials — many of them ambassadors known for being part of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats — worked quickly to spread these themes on US-based platforms like Twitter. For example, Deng Xijun, China’s ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), projected the official line depicting China as “orderly and responsible” and the United States as “the opposite.” Similar messaging can be seen from China’s Ambassador to Malta, Yu Dunhai, who emphasized China’s long-held belief in “peaceful coexistence.”
In part two of this story, we examine the second narrative exhibited by both Russia and China, in which they argue the US has behaved hypocritically regarding human rights and its emphasis on saving Americans from Afghanistan at the expense of its Afghan partners.
Kenton Thibaut is China Fellow at the DFRLab.
Roman Osadchuk is a Research Assistant, Eurasia, with the DFRLab.
Cite this case study:
Kenton Thibaut and Roman Osadchuk, “Chinese, Russian narratives following US Afghanistan withdrawal present a US in decline,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), September 7, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/chinese-russian-narratives-following-us-afghanistan-withdrawal-present-a-us-in-decline-51552a9d7ed2.
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