US Exit From Afghanistan Was A Matter Of Priorities Involving China & Russia
It may translate to America’s withdrawal not just from Afghanistan, but the AfPak region in general.
Barely two days have passed since the Taliban entered Kabul and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani apparently capitulated before them. That said, the situation may evolve in more than one way, and the time may not be right to start predicting the future. And yet some very general conclusions appear to be at hand.
One is that the final outcome is undoubtedly a failure of the United States in its fight against the Taliban and a shameful manner of abandoning Afghanistan. It’s true that the original mission was to decimate Al-Qaeda, and that had largely been a success. It’s also true that Washington did not want to bear the burden of heavy costs anymore. Obviously, many factors affected the final results (such as Pakistan’s duplicity or the state of the Afghan army), too numerous to be summarised here.
But there is no denying that American mistakes and steps, including those taken over the last year, played a role in the debacle. The Trump administration blundered by pushing through the Doha peace agreement which offered certain important concessions to the Taliban (freeing thousands of their comrades from prisons), while demanding little and vague commitments from their side. The subsequent Biden administration proceeded with a hasty and eventually unorderly withdrawal. But the question that demands attention now is what the US abandoning of Afghanistan may mean for the future of Washington’s involvement in South Asia.
The End of A Toxic Relationship
Firstly, this will perhaps translate to the US’s withdrawal not just from that one country, but the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in general.
Until recently, it was being suggested that Americans would retain some sort of decreased military presence when all other allies leave, not only to support the Kabul government against the Taliban at least to some degree, but also to be ready to surgically strike other terror groups harboured there, if need be. But with what appears to be a total Taliban takeover of the country, keeping any form of an American military presence in Afghanistan is out of the question.
There were also speculations of the US asking Pakistan to allow it to operate a base from its territory, as it once had. But this is also a highly unlikely scenario now. The representatives of President Joe Biden’s administration insist that they will still be able to conduct anti-terrorist missions in the region and claim to have gained a capacity to conduct ‘over the horizon’ operations, but this remains to be proved.
Secondly, the abandonment probably means the end of the uneasy US-Pakistan partnership in the domain of security. Both sides were unhappy with the prospect of a joint war on terror since its very commencement in 2001. Islamabad had apparently been forced to assist the Americans in fighting its “own” people, the Taliban. But it skillfully made a virtue out of necessity by playing a double game. The United States opened its eyes to this reality rather slowly, although once it did, it gradually halted most of its aid and military assistance to Islamabad.
But the war in Afghanistan was ongoing, Pakistan’s territory and airspace was still needed to reach the country, the Taliban leadership was still hiding in Pakistan, and the Islamabad government insisted that contacts with the Islamic group could not occur without Pakistanis. And thus, the cooperation continued, with both sides not only growing distrustful of each other, but also increasingly hating each other. Thus, the 2021 withdrawal should become a coup de grâce to this toxic relationship.
It's Too Early To Guage China's Actions
Thirdly, the US-India partnership, including in the realm of security, will grow, but that probably would have happened anyway. That cooperation is simply fueled by a separate set of factors — bilateral economic relations, New Delhi’s desire to access American military technology, and the common objective to contain China. The US-India partnership was growing even at the time when the US-Pakistan ties were strong, even though Washington’s military support to Islamabad was a significant irritant for New Delhi.
Thus, while the American desertion of Afghanistan is a massive setback for India — until recently, the US was deterring the pro-Pakistani Taliban while New Delhi could proceed with various aid programmes for Afghanistan — it will not weaken India’s bilateral ties with the United States. However, once Washington terminates its arranged marriage with Islamabad, its future capacity to engage in backdoor diplomacy during India-Pakistan tensions, and hence play a mitigating role, will be uncertain.
Fourthly, the growing US-China rivalry is unlikely to be directly affected by the US exit from Afghanistan. There is already a lot of talk in the Western commentariat that China is poised to recognise a Taliban government, and there were even suggestions that the People's Republic of China (PRC) may engage itself militarily in the country.
Indeed, contacts between the Taliban and Beijing did grow to a certain extent: few Taliban delegations visited China over the last years. However, China being deeply engaged in Afghanistan in the near future seems unlikely. That the Beijing government will recognise the Taliban government is still an assumption. But if it does, it is too early to estimate how much this will translate to enhanced relations — we cannot rule out the possibility that more countries may recognise the Taliban government this time.
Why would China, or any other entity, plant investments on unstable soil? The past case of the stalled Mes Aynak mine project will not serve as a reassuring example.
Why would the PRC, or indeed any other foreign power, deeply engage itself in Afghanistan militarily? The past case of the Soviet engagement, and the recent instance of American engagement, will serve as warnings.
Biden Spelt Out The Priorities
For those solely focused on great power rivalry, it may be hard to fathom that there may be places where none of the strongest global players is involved — but this is how Afghanistan may look like in the coming years. Perhaps like the circumstances of the 1996-2001 period, due to the ‘reputation’ the Taliban have gained as unrelenting fighters, and the country’s economic and geographical conditions, major powers will be reluctant to put boots on the Afghan ground. Regional players will, of course, remain involved in various ways, including by cultivating ties with certain groups, as they did before, but probably without making attempts to change the regime.
With this outcome, the indirect result of America’s exit from Afghanistan on the US-China rivalry is that Washington will have more resources to face the PRC.
President Joe Biden in his recent address on the Afghanistan crisis, admitted, in a rather cold way, where American priorities lay: it was beneficial for China and Russia to see the US spend monstrous amounts of money on Afghanistan and the American mission there, and for this and other reasons, the situation had to end.
In other words, with Al-Qaeda, the original primary target of the mission, partially broken, Washington must pull out from Afghanistan and focus even more on the challenges posed by Moscow and Beijing.
(Krzysztof Iwanek is a regular contributor to the Diplomat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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