Twenty years after the United States ousted the Taliban regime, the insurgent group captured power in Kabul on August 15. The breathtaking collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government and the Afghan security forces paved the way for Taliban fighters to not only capture one provincial capital after another over a span of just 10 days, but also to take Kabul without a fight.
The Taliban takeover of Kabul was followed by a scrambled evacuation of foreign diplomatic staff and nationals as well as of Afghans who, having worked with the U.S.-led coalition or the Ghani government, now feared Taliban retribution. Scenes of the evacuation from the U.S. embassy in Kabul on the eve of the Taliban’s takeover evoked memories of the 1975 fall of Saigon.
“Kabul is not Saigon,” he said.
Blinken may be right. The epic defeat of the U.S., a global power with the most technologically advanced military in human history, at the hands of a few thousand Taliban fighters may have just bookended U.S. influence in the region.
In the weeks since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, U.S. President Joe Biden has drawn harsh criticism worldwide, including from some of Washington’s closest allies, who are now questioning U.S. credibility as an ally and its capacity to fulfill long-standing security commitments.
Michael Kugelman, Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, faults the American implementation of the decision to withdraw troops rather than the decision itself. “The decision to withdraw made good sense,” he told The Diplomat, “but since it was executed so disastrously, it makes the withdrawal seem like a worse decision than it was.”
Kugelman argued that U.S. influence in the region was subsiding well before its withdrawal from Afghanistan. “America has a deep relationship with India, but otherwise, its footprint in South and Central Asia has long been dwarfed by that of China and increasingly Russia,” he said.
The last time the Taliban were in power; they were international pariahs. But over the past two decades, while surviving in the shadows as an insurgent group, they matured politically and have become more pragmatic without ideologically moderating themselves.
This time around several countries have been courting the Taliban.
Even as the Biden administration was withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, Beijing and Moscow were hosting Taliban delegates to ensure that the armed group would not threaten Russian and Chinese interests in the region.
Less than a month after the Taliban takeover, Pakistan hosted a meeting of foreign ministers from China, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan where, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, all the participants in the meeting were of the view that “the U.S. and its allies are [the] culprits” responsible for the crisis in Afghanistan.
While more countries are deliberately engaging the Taliban, the U.S. is not without leverage over it.
“Afghanistan’s economy is dependent on foreign aid,” Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told The Diplomat. “The U.S. could exert pressure [on the Taliban] through international financial institutions and aid agencies.”
“Even so, the Taliban can be stubborn as a mule,” he said, a quality that regional powers could manipulate to their benefit.
“There was never any doubt that rivals of the U.S. would have a strategic opportunity following the withdrawal” of the coalition troops, Kugelman said. “The only question was whether they could capitalize on it, owing to the challenges of stepping up influence and investment in a nation at war.”
For Russia, China, and Pakistan, the U.S. exit brings both opportunity and concerns. While Moscow is concerned over possible export of Taliban-style extremism to its Central Asian allies such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, China and Pakistan fear a spillover of violence from Afghanistan that would disrupt Belt and Road Initiative and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects.
“But given that the war, at least for now, is over, the opportunity is ready to be seized. Russia and China not only have fewer security concerns, but they also have an interlocutor in the Taliban that will likely be prepared to engage with them,” Kugelman pointed out.
Biden had premised ending U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan on the need to shift focus from conflicts in the Middle East to adversaries such as China. Signaling that shift, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Southeast Asian countries amid the chaos in Afghanistan to reassure key partners of American commitment to the region.
However, Biden’s bid to challenge China in the Asia-Pacific may suffer a setback due to his handling of the Afghan withdrawal. “Any country would think thrice before trusting them [U.S.] after they abandoned the Afghans,” Basit said.
China’s state-run Global Times mocked White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan for his remarks on U.S. commitment to Taiwan. Washington’s reassurances to Taiwan are astonishing against the backdrop of its abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan, it said.
It doesn’t help that the U.S. ended its war in Afghanistan by firing a missile into a residential area in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
In Central and South Asia, being branded an American agent brings stigma at best, and a death warrant at worst – a testimony of which is the footage of Afghans clinging to a U.S. Air Force aircraft in desperate attempts to flee the country.
“The U.S. will never live down the images of Afghans clinging onto U.S. Air Force jets to escape,” Kugelman said.
The unfolding saga in Afghanistan in recent months has left “U.S. allies disappointed, and its rivals emboldened,” he added. While “alienating Pakistan, its long-term strategic partner, approximates a death knell for U.S. influence in the region,” Kugelman said that “to maintain influence in the region,” the U.S. “will need at a minimum to recognize the Taliban government.”
“If the Biden administration achieves its goal of restoring U.S. alliances and pursuing multilateralism, it will persevere,” emphasized Kugelman. “[The] longer-term impacts will be mitigated. But at least for the immediate term, this is a blow for U.S. credibility.”
In starting the war on terror and pouring trillions of dollars to contain terrorism, the U.S. inadvertently gave China time to emerge as a global power and Russia to rebuild its capacities. With a clumsy exit from Afghanistan, the U.S. has done its rivals another favor.
“Everything comes with an expiry date, this might just be America’s as a superpower,” reflected Basit.