Last week’s dramatic fall of Kabul to the Taliban brought New Zealand troops rushing back to Afghanistan – just three months after its 20-year mission there was to have ended.
Around 80 New Zealand Defense Force personnel were hurriedly assembled, this time on a short-term mission to evacuate both New Zealand citizens and Afghan nationals who had assisted New Zealand’s forces during their deployment.
The messy nature of the immediate crisis response and questions over whether New Zealand should be accepting a much greater number of Afghan refugees – following examples set by other Western countries, including New Zealand’s Five Eyes partners – effectively formed the first layer of last week’s debate.
Green MP Golriz Ghahraman called on New Zealand to “commit to saving more Afghans from the Taliban regime… there must be no empty seats on New Zealand’s plane,” while academic Alexander Gillespie made the case for New Zealand to accept an immediate additional quota of 1,500 refugees from Afghanistan.
A second layer of the debate focused on whether New Zealand’s 20-year involvement in Afghanistan had been worth it, in light of the Taliban takeover.
Former soldiers and the current military leadership wrestled with the reality that the Taliban takeover meant that the war had essentially been in vain. One former New Zealand serviceman cited Afghans’ increased access to education and clean water as reasons why the war “definitely wasn’t a waste of time,” while Kevin Short, the chief of the defense force, argued that New Zealand had “changed the lives of many people, especially women and children.”
On the other hand, former Green MP Keith Locke wrote that the Taliban takeover had only proven his original opposition to the war in 2001 to be correct. In his view, the Taliban victory demonstrated precisely why New Zealand should never have been involved in the first place.
A third, and final, layer to the crisis – the longer-term impact of the Afghanistan crisis on New Zealand’s foreign policy – remains largely unexplored.
The surprise and chaotic nature of the crisis means there are very few certainties. The security situation in Afghanistan is still deteriorating. Yet the rapid takeover of Kabul by the Taliban brought obvious and frequent comparisons with Vietnam – a byword for U.S. foreign policy failure and misadventure.
When it comes to Afghanistan, U.S. President Joe Biden suddenly appears to have very few friends. Domestically, criticism in Congress has come both from Democrats and Republicans. One poll also suggested that public support for the withdrawal had declined sharply, from 69 to 49 percent.
Numerous voices from key U.S. allies – including EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell – were also critical of Biden’s pull-out. And former leaders of countries that had sent troops to Afghanistan, including Tony Blair, Helen Clark, John Howard, and Kevin Rudd, were equally unhappy with the United States’ exit.
Clark, who first deployed New Zealand’s troops to Afghanistan when she was New Zealand’s prime minister in 2001, called the fall of Kabul “one of the lowest points of Western foreign policy for decades” and likened it to the Suez crisis of 1956.
For his part, Blair argued that Taliban control would give “protection and succor to al-Qaida” and would have “every jihadist group around the world cheering.”
What are the implications for New Zealand?
In recent years, New Zealand has attracted a disproportionate share of U.S. foreign policy attention, mostly by virtue of New Zealand’s inclusion in the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific is the United States’ new name for the Asia-Pacific and effectively serves as a short-hand reference for the alternative U.S. vision to growing Chinese influence in the region.
Extricating itself from Afghanistan is seen by the U.S. and outside observers as one of the necessary preconditions to enable Washington to fully redirect its focus to tackling China in the Indo-Pacific.
Ironically, the U.S. could – but does not – view Afghanistan itself as part of the Indo-Pacific gameplan, especially if it used the more generous geographical Indo-Pacific definitions used by India or Japan. China’s own interest in Afghanistan is now growing, driven in part by the country’s mineral wealth.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was on a visit to Southeast Asia last week, telling a Singapore audience China had been involved in “coercion” and “intimidation” in the South China Sea, and confirming the U.S. commitment to its allies in Asia.
But despite those comments, the crux of the challenge faced by the U.S. is that if Afghanistan continues to deteriorate, and terrorism and security again become the primary lens through which the U.S. views its foreign policy, it will probably remain the center of American attention – even without its military forces being stationed there.
The focus on problems caused by instability and security issues will inevitably also draw U.S. attention back to other countries and crises in the Middle East to Afghanistan’s west – think Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
After all, until only a few years ago, these issues dominated the U.S. foreign policy agenda, rather than China’s rise. Indeed, the United States’ interest in the Indo-Pacific largely surged as its interest in the Middle East waned, and especially after the Islamic State was effectively defeated as a territorial force in 2017.
And then there is the growing threat posed by Iran, which the U.S. recently pinpointed as the perpetrator behind a fatal drone attack in the Gulf of Oman on an oil tanker with links to Israel.
From a U.S. perspective, the overall state of Afghanistan and the Middle East is probably as bad as it has ever been.
For all that, Biden appears to be holding his nerve on the Afghanistan withdrawal. If he can pull it off, the fiasco could end up being just an uncomfortable and embarrassing bump on the road toward the United States’ Indo-Pacific future. But it could also be the beginning of a very large distraction.
It’s not as if we haven’t been here before. Barack Obama’s second-term “pivot to Asia” strategy – essentially an earlier version of the current Indo-Pacific blueprint – was largely derailed by the more pressing need to combat the Islamic State’s sudden rise in Iraq in 2014 and 2015.
It might be argued that as a superpower, the United States is more than capable of handling a deteriorating Middle East as well as forging ahead with its Indo-Pacific plans. And to some extent this is true, and it was a point emphasized by Kamala Harris in Singapore.
But as the last week has demonstrated, when a foreign policy crisis rears its head, it will invariably dominate the news agenda – and the president’s time.
Even if the United States forges ahead with its overall reorientation toward the Indo-Pacific, the lesson of the Afghanistan crisis is that even the best-laid plans can easily be upset by unexpected events.
In other words, you don’t always get what you want. And that goes for New Zealand too, which may yet find itself back on America’s periphery.
This article was originally published by the Asia Media Centre under a Creative Commons license.