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Can America’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan Help Its China Strategy?

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Can America’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan Help Its China Strategy?

Despite the intention to refocus U.S. energy and attention on the Asia-Pacific, difficult questions remain as to the benefits for U.S. China policy.

Can America’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan Help Its China Strategy?

Evacuees stage before boarding a C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 18.

Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Nicholas Guevara

U.S. President Joe Biden has been severely criticized from all fronts in recent weeks as the United States’ supposedly peaceful and orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into a classic fiasco in front of the whole world. As a consequence, Biden’s approval rating has dropped to its lowest level since his inauguration, with increasing numbers of both Democrats and Republications disapproving of his handling of the Afghanistan situation. Internationally, Biden has not received much support from the publics in many U.S. allies either. For example, half of Britons believe that Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan is wrong. U.S. allies and partners in Asia have expressed similar concerns as to the U.S. commitment to the region, particularly as China’s influence is rapidly increasing.

To be far to Biden, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan makes some sense from a strategic point of view, as the China-U.S. competition seems set to be the dominant theme of international politics in the coming decades. Given the long-term relative decline of U.S. capability and energy, it is wise to shift the focus and resources to China from other areas, such as the greater Middle East, that are no longer vital national interests to the United States. Afghanistan is such an area, as the U.S. has wasted almost $2 trillion and thousands of U.S. lives there after 20 years of occupation.

Can Biden’s China strategy benefit from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? There are three broad reasons to be skeptical.

First, it should be remembered that the U.S. decision to withdraw from a failed Afghanistan is not just about great power competition, as the Biden administration sometimes claims. There is also a very strong sentiment among the U.S. public to end such useless “forever war” projects, an idea that is supported by both progressives and some conservatives. One could even argue that the past two presidents (Obama and Trump) and also Biden won their elections mainly because of their anti-war positions. So there has been a strong anti-war and anti-involvement sentiment in the United States overall that is likely to remain so in the future. That casts doubt on the renewed interest and focus within policy circles on a possible fight with China. Thus, a mere withdrawal from Afghanistan would not necessarily help the U.S. to refocus on its competition with China, especially if that competition means a possible war with China.

Second, from a pure strategic perspective, the hurried and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in front of the whole world has hurt the United States’ global image and credibility, despite the denial from U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Many in the U.S. are eager to refute the link between Afghanistan and Taiwan, although in Taiwan itself many are getting nervous. The withdrawal fiasco seems to prove three things, and none of these conclusions is good for U.S. credibility in the world. The fiasco in Kabul proves that the United States is, first, incompetent when it comes to an important military and diplomatic mission; second, selfish when it comes to U.S. national interests versus Afghanistan’s human rights and development; and third, disinterested in the long-term prospects of other regions and countries. It could be the case that the United States is more incompetent than selfish and disengaged in this case, and thus Afghanistan does not tell us much about the U.S. commitment to other countries like South Korea and so on. Maybe after three or six months people would forget about the Kabul fiasco and regain their confidence in the United States. Nonetheless it does not help the U.S. message about deterring China’s influence in Asia and elsewhere. U.S. allies and partners will inevitably think about how important they are to U.S. national interests, and we all know from history that any country’s national interests constantly change as circumstances change. Afghanistan certainly was of vital interest to the United States after 9/11, and now is much less important exactly because terrorism concerns are no longer that serious for the U.S.; hence the decision to pull out.

Finally, the U.S. decision to withdrawal from Afghanistan has opened new geopolitical space for China in the greater Middle East region and Central Asia. In a way, the U.S. has willingly given up on the western front of its containment of China by doubling down its efforts on the eastern front. Is this wise from a pure strategic view? There is no doubt that China would gain major benefits in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East now as the U.S. influence in those regions continue to fade. Countries like Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Gulf states will more likely welcome a more active China, especially with the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative. And it remains doubtful that East Asian states like Japan and South Korea would wholeheartedly side with the United States in its strategic competition with China.

To conclude, although the stated purpose of the Afghanistan withdrawal was to shift focus and resources to better compete with China, in reality it is a more complicated story for reasons outlined above. Time would be the final judge as to whether the withdrawal made strategic sense, but so far all indicators suggest that the U.S. simply fumbled, for reasons perhaps tied to U.S. domestic politics. How the withdrawal fiasco will affect the Biden administration’s domestic and foreign policy agendas remains a very interesting subject to watch in coming months.