Great Power Politics After Afghanistan

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.

For critics of the administration, this setback in Central Asia represents a vital defeat on the global chessboard, especially given recent Chinese and Russian efforts to extend their reach in this part of the world. Russia has increased its military ties with the former Soviet Central Asian republics, especially Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, all members of the Moscow-directed Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO); China, for its part, has made significant economic inroads via its giant Belt and Road Initiative. In the meantime, US ties with these countries—once elaborately funded—have largely evaporated.

For many in Washington, this precipitous loss of influence in such a geopolitically significant part of the world will require a robust US effort to reassert its presence. “Central Asia is not exactly a hot-ticket destination for diplomats, but we need these dedicated public servants to lay the groundwork for the US military to use existing bases from which to conduct potential airstrikes,” said Democratic Representative Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, referring to those formerly US-occupied bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. “We will also need partnerships for intelligence missions.” But Russian President Vladimir Putin explicitly ruled out any such US military role in the region during his summit meeting with Biden in Geneva on June 16, and, without his blessing, leaders of the Central Asian republics are unlikely to grant their approval.

The loss of a significant US presence in Central Asia is certain to remain a continuing source of concern among many Biden critics in Washington, especially given rising concerns about growing Russian and Chinese influence there. But does Central Asia really occupy such a pivotal position on the emerging global chessboard? That question remains to be determined.

Finally, there’s that hotly debated matter of “credibility,” or the claim that Washington’s abandonment of Afghanistan will undermine the faith of America’s front-line allies, such as Israel, Taiwan, and Ukraine, in Washington’s reliability as a defense partner, while emboldening America’s rivals, notably China, Iran, and Russia, to be more aggressive towards those vulnerable allies.

“The indelible images from Kabul this week have done serious damage to US credibility abroad,” wrote former national security adviser Robert C. Obrien and former director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe in Foreign Policy. Already, they claimed, the government-controlled media in China has “used the chaos in Afghanistan to warn Taiwan that the United States cannot be counted on to come to its aid when China eventually attacks the island.” In a similar vein, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley wrote that “a retreating America gives Russia a green light to invade Ukraine. A disgraced America signals to Iran that we are not serious about defending Israel against the ayatollah’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

“Credibility” has always been a contested term in US defense policy, with some analysts insisting it constitutes a fundamental tenet of American strategy and others claiming its importance has been vastly overblown. In this case, it’s highly doubtful that America’s abandonment of the Kabul government—a dubious ally if ever there was one—will have any lasting impact on the calculations of Beijing, Tehran, and Moscow regarding US intentions to support Israel, Taiwan, and Ukraine. If anything, the Biden administration is likely to bolster aid and support for those countries, further deterring any aggressive moves by US adversaries.

Leaving a Quagmire Behind

What about any strategic gains from the US withdrawal? Again, it’s very early to draw any firm conclusions, but there are good reasons to believe that that Washington will reap benefits as well as losses from its Afghan departure.

To begin with, the United States can say good-bye to a military quagmire that’s cost the lives of 2,352 American soldiers (along with those of many more Afghan soldiers) and some $2.3 trillion in taxpayers’ dollars without achieving any demonstrable strategic gains. In fact, the opposite can be said to be true: The Afghan conflict—the longest war in American history—has diverted the US military’s attention and resources away from what most top officials view as the far more important task of confronting growing Russian and Chinese power in Europe and the Asian Pacific, respectively.

“For nearly two decades, the United States concentrated on fighting violent extremist organizations in low-intensity conflicts that left us less focused and prepared for a high-end fight against near-peer adversaries,” declared Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper in September 2020. That is unfortunate, he continued, as “today, in this era of great power competition, the Department of Defense has prioritized China then Russia, as our top strategic competitors.”

For Esper, his successor Lloyd Austin, and America’s top generals and admirals, the US departure from Afghanistan (once the immediate embarrassment of a botched evacuation process is left behind them) can only be viewed with relief. Now, at last, they’ll really be able to focus on their preferred objective of enhancing US capabilities for that “high-end fight” with China and Russia. Troops and equipment once designated for low-intensity operations in Afghanistan and surrounding areas can now be repurposed and redeployed to more critical locations in Europe and the Pacific. And Congress, no doubt, will be more than happy to throw money at such endeavors.

What is more, US strategists can finally say, “The Afghan quagmire is now yours to solve.” Those pundits and politicians who claim the US departure will result in a net geopolitical gain for Russia and China fail to recognize that the chaos in Afghanistan and the revolutionary zeal of the Taliban pose a far greater threat to the former Soviet republics on Russia’s southern border and to China than they do to the United States.

The Central Asian republics harbor their own Islamic zealots and have long faced internal unrest over widespread inequality and corruption. Some of those zealots traveled to Afghanistan to join the Taliban in their struggle against the US-backed government in Kabul and, now that the Taliban have prevailed, are likely to return to their own countries and stir up more trouble there. Russian authorities worry about such disorder spreading into their own Muslim-populated regions, and so have stepped up their military aid to their CSTO allies.

Likewise, Chinese officials are fearful that the Taliban will provide aid and comfort to Uyghur separatists from Xinjiang, where the Beijing regime has employed extraordinary measures to suppress the Uyghur Muslim majority. Officials from both Russia and China have met with Taliban leaders in recent months—encounters that were largely viewed in the West as designed to advance Russian and Chinese interests in Afghanistan at America’s expense, but were more likely intended to gain assurances from the Taliban that they would not use their impending victory to foment rebellion against their neighbors.

How the Taliban victory will affect Afghanistan’s other neighbors—Iran, Pakistan, and India—remains to be seen, but there could be some benefits (as well as added risks) for the United States here too. Iran faces the prospect of chaos on its borders and a huge influx of Afghan refugees, further straining its sanction-ravaged economy and diverting Tehran’s attention from the ongoing struggle with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the US. India and Pakistan will have to worry about an increase in terror attacks from Afghanistan-based militant groups, possibly drawing them closer to Washington at the expense of Beijing and Moscow, but possibly risking fresh US entanglements in the region.

And so, we can see a new global chessboard beginning to take shape. It will undoubtedly pose new risks for Washington but may well prove to be one that plays to US advantages while accentuating its adversaries’ disadvantages. Conducting low-intensity conflicts in the heart of Eurasia has never been a winning strategy for the United States; rather, it excels at high-tech coalition warfare in Europe and sea-based operations in the Pacific. For Russia and China, however, the emergence of a revolutionary Islamic regime on their poorly defended inner Eurasian borders poses new security perils that will force them to divert attention and resources from the vital task of fending off the United States in more critical areas. This may, of course, prove a premature judgment, but it’s one that one that views the implications of America’s Afghan pullout from a clear-eyed rather than partisan political perspective.

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