20 Apr 2021
Joe Biden’s big blunder on Afghanistan will backfire
President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US military forces from Afghanistan by September 11 is his first big blunder in office. This could cost the US dearly in future years and should give America’s friends and allies pause to ask if Biden has the grit for the tough road ahead.
The President’s announcement, laughably titled On the Way Forward in Afghanistan, was nothing more than an unseemly bolt for the exit, based, Biden tells us, on a conviction he formed in 2008 “that American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government”.
In fact, that is precisely what American, Australian and other forces delivered to Afghanistan: a flawed but functioning democracy, keeping the Taliban at bay and preventing groups such as al-Qa’ida from using Afghanistan as a training base from which to attack the West.
Here Biden and Donald Trump are on a unity ticket, locked on to a bizarre sabotage mission, negotiating and now honouring a “diplomatic agreement” with the Taliban while deserting the Afghans who have fought with our forces during the past two decades.
Let’s be clear, this is an abandonment as complete as the US failure to back South Vietnam after many promises of providing air support to Saigon in the face of North Vietnam’s advancing conventional forces in 1974 and 1975.
Biden’s statement gives the Taliban a green light to start massing forces against the capital. The President says: “The Taliban should know that if they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal.”
Partners refers to NATO, Australia and other countries that seem to have been swept into a unilateral American decision to get the hell out of Dodge. Biden explicitly says the US “will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily”. He has decided — in that crystalline moment of conviction in 2008 — that Afghanistan cannot succeed.
Moreover, the withdrawal is happening without detailed thinking about what happens next. There is no plan for how the US will fight terrorism in the region, just a promise that “my team is refining our national strategy to monitor and disrupt significant terrorist threats”.
There is no plan for how the US will support the government in Kabul, just a vague assurance that in “the next few months we will also determine what a continued US diplomatic presence in Afghanistan will look like”.
With no military forces to provide protection, I’ll tell you what that future diplomatic footprint will look like: nothing, nada, bupkis. Australia will be compelled to follow suit. Our mission in Kabul has a strong security detachment but protecting an embassy compound is the last part of a system that must also stabilise the town, limit access to key government institutions and embassies and, at worst, enable evacuation to an airport. Without a larger military force, the Western diplomatic presence in Kabul will wither.
To whom should Kabul look for support? Biden has a suggestion: “We’ll ask other countries — other countries in the region — to do more to support Afghanistan, especially Pakistan, as well as Russia, China, India and Turkey. They all have a significant stake in the stable future for Afghanistan.”
You read that correctly. The US is asking Russia — Russia! — to support Afghanistan. Presumably not like the Soviet Union did in its invasion of 1979. President Vladimir Putin will not prop up Kabul except to put his own proxies in power.
China then? Biden has no interest in promoting Beijing’s growing presence in Central Asia and the Middle East. China prudently has minimised its presence in Afghanistan but may indeed be interested in building a corridor of control through Afghanistan, linking up with its closest partner in the Middle East, Iran.
Beijing also has a close partnership with Pakistan. What could be attractive to China is the chance to build a condominium of influence, strengthening Beijing’s access to the warm-water ports of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.
In that outcome, apart from Afghanistan of course, the big strategic loser is India, which then would face a hostile China on its northeast as well as Chinese proxies in Myanmar under the generals and, to the northwest, in Pakistan.
Biden is right that these countries have significant stakes in Afghanistan, but their interests are not US interests or ours. Beijing, I suspect, will be amazed at Biden’s invitation to supplant US interests in Afghanistan. Xi Jinping may judge that this confirms his assessment of American decline and withdrawal — a dangerous assessment, right or wrong.
This is the enduring reality of America’s strategic situation: Biden can withdraw the remaining 2500 US troops from Afghanistan but he can’t withdraw America from its global strategic interests, be they preventing the rise of terror groups or limiting the malign behaviour of countries hostile to the US: China, Russia and Iran.
For a force deployment no larger than the annual rotation of US marines to Darwin, denying Kabul to America’s enemies was a valuable military investment. Leaving, with only the barest notion about how to protect US interests in Afghanistan, will destabilise the region and more than likely create the basis for a new intervention a half-decade or more in the future.
Biden told the press corps, “For the past 12 years, ever since I became vice-president, I’ve carried with me a card that reminds me of the exact number of American troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
He stumbled on the numbers, simply couldn’t read them out, but the corrected transcript of his statement records that 2448 US personnel died in the Afghanistan conflict. Biden’s announcement offers no solace to the families of those people, or indeed the families of our own Afghanistan casualties, only the weary absence of strategic purpose and historical perspective.
The bigger threat from an aggressive, intolerant, authoritarian China is the strategic challenge of our age. Biden is right to focus on that, as we must, but the Middle East and Central Asia cannot be forgotten and will not be ignored.
I wonder how President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan reacted to Biden’s words that, ultimately, “only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country”. Replace Afghanistan in that sentence with Taiwan or Australia, for that matter. As if the Afghanistan war weren’t fought defending US and Australian interests and purposes. As if the next one won’t be. Lest we forget.