Written By Benz Seo

Commentators from around the world agree that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the accompanying collapse of the US-backed Afghan government will have long-term strategic consequences. So far, most observers have focused their attention on the rapidity of that government’s downfall and the resulting chaos in Kabul, where thousands of American citizens and former Afghan employees of the United States are struggling to find safe passage out of the country. Many assert that the Biden administration’s failure to anticipate the chaos and plan for an orderly evacuation process has greatly diminished US power and prestige. But these are early days, and such early assessments fail to encompass all potential consequences of America’s Afghan departure. Indeed, a more balanced appraisal might identify significant gains as well as losses in the US pullout.

For critics of the Biden administration, the strategic debits are numerous and easy to identify. First, there is loss of a US military stronghold in the jihadist heartland, vastly reducing Washington’s capacity to observe, track, and disrupt such entities as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban itself. President Biden, in his August 16 televised address to the nation, claimed that despite the US departure from Afghanistan, we have developed a “counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability” that allows an effective US response to terrorist threats throughout the region. Critics argue, however, that the critical work of tracking enemy militants will become much more difficult without that Afghan base of operations, and that an “over-the-horizon” capability is no match for “boots on the ground.”

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Taliban leadership will again allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks on the West or, seeking desperately needed aid and investment to restart the economy, will shut down such endeavors. Also unknown is whether they will direct their future jihadist inclinations against anti-Islamic regimes in neighboring China and the former Soviet republics rather than against the West.

A second major loss, in the view of Biden’s critics, is that Washington has abandoned any hope of playing a major role in Central Asia—viewed by many analysts as the geopolitical pivot of Eurasia. During the 19th century, British diplomats spoke of the “Great Game” to describe the struggle between the British and Russian Czarist empires for control of Afghanistan and the surrounding region—a term immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his 1901 novel Kim. More recently, the United States sought to subvert the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979–89) by supporting anti-Soviet insurgents, including Osama bin Laden (Al Qaeda was founded in the last year of the occupation). Following the Soviet collapse, the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations undertook a concerted effort to establish a robust US presence in Central Asia, seeking thereby to minimize Russian and Chinese influence in the area and exploit its vast energy and mineral resources. The 2001 intervention in Afghanistan was also viewed from this larger geopolitical perspective, and at one time the Pentagon even operated bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in support of its Afghan operations. But now, with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington retains few levers of influence in the region.