Joe Biden as US President is proving to be far more decisive in understanding American interests, capabilities and the limits of power than most of his predecessors. Early in his tenure, the decision to ‘get the hell out’ of an unwinnable war in Afghanistan has taken many by surprise. The compulsion to launch the war after the tumultuous events of 9/11 cannot be discounted but to recognise the expediency or lack of it to achieve decisive victory seemed to have eluded US strategic leadership for almost two decades. For all their intellectual insights into US interests, the American strategic community and the military failed to converge their thinking.
George Bush left behind two raging overseas wars and an economic situation like none before. Barack Obama failed to be convinced by the military leadership that a surge with a pre-announced date of pullback only meant steeling the adversary’s resolve, that too in a region that has seen only a history of defeat for the invader. After achieving the high mark of the elimination of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Obama’s policy went haywire, unclear on what the aim of military presence in Afghanistan was all about. The larger threat to US interests then was the spiralling pan-Islamic extremism. The rise of the ISIS in the Middle East and its efforts to expand into Central Asia kept the Donald Trump administration on the blink; although a full withdrawal was perhaps outlined most clearly by Trump before Biden’s current decision.
There are two schools of thought in the US. The first views American security through the prism of the threat of Islamic extremism a 9/11-inspired perception that imagines that the fight against Islam has only just begun. This is the view of those in the Pentagon who theorised the Long War against extremist Islam and perceived the Af-Pak region as the core centre of its ideology; the control of this territory and effecting eventual change through socio-economic and political domains was the intent of persistent US presence. The delivery of the intent wasn’t attempted with any strategy in mind; it was just a situation in drift. For most of the time there were weak and purposeless conflict termination attempts.
The Taliban and to a very great extent Pakistan were following their game plan, waiting and watching for the final decision on withdrawal that they knew was inevitable. The second school of thought considers the relative stability in the Middle East, the weakening and displacement of the ISIS, the changing ideological scene in Saudi Arabia, and possibility of the end of the Yemen war to be adequate developments to signal the need for a reshaping of US priorities. This perception appears to have convinced the Biden administration that Afghanistan, the Middle East and the danger from extremist Islam are all secondary in comparison to the threat from China towards US interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Staying alive to being the world’s policeman and committing troops to situations that are designed to frustrate and clearly unwinnable are no longer a US strategy. It wishes to reshape the order to meet the next threat—from China, something which became distinctly clearer in the last 15 months. It is willing to take a risk, although ideally it would like an arrangement by which a degree of stability is assured in Afghanistan. The complexity that Afghanistan provides in international politics can be gauged by the fact that issues related to it bring a difference of perception even between nations whose friendship is supposed to be ‘deeper than the oceans and higher than the skies’, Pakistan and China.
The US withdrawal is fully endorsed by Pakistan, in whose perception it will be Islamabad’s victory, enabling it to go back to its bad old ways in cooperation with the Taliban. However, China isn’t too happy with that on two counts. Firstly, the return of the Taliban spells potential for the return of extremist Islamic agenda to the region. China is worried because Afghanistan also has a short border with its Xinjiang province where the Uyghur Muslim minority has been at the receiving end of Chinese atrocities; it probably expects a backlash there.
Secondly, China will always be happy to witness US security commitments at diverse dispersed points around the world. From multiple Middle East conflicts to Europe’s borders with Russia and to Afghanistan, security commitments of the US have helped the Chinese stave off serious American involvement in countering their not-so-peaceful rise. China has ensured that it does not get prematurely involved in attempts at being the world’s policeman; that has helped immensely in conserving resources and focus in its prime areas of interest.
The first of the effects of the Biden decision is what appears to be a shot in the arm for Pakistan, in terms of its strategic importance. The US would now depend on it to keep the Taliban in control and expects that Pakistan, having suffered the tremors of internal turbulence for almost four years, would probably be more inclined to prevent resurgence of extremist Islamic ideology in the region. The
Chinese have a similar hope from Pakistan.
Clearly, Biden, having overridden the concerns of the Pentagon, is signalling the hurry that he is in to place the structures for the next contestation with China which he thinks is far more important than the Long War. What can be expected is greater energy in moving the Quad and the Plus version to something more substantial than just a consultative platform. So what is in it for India? It is sitting at the high table at Istanbul where the future matrix for Afghanistan will be discussed and decided. With or without final agreement with the Taliban, a post-withdrawal Afghanistan is unlikely to remain stable.
Any attempts to get an Indian military involvement in peacekeeping expeditionary roles must not be entertained by the Indian establishment. We must hasten the establishment of ties with the Taliban in whatever way we can to maintain more balance. We will have to have to deal with a buoyant and unpredictable Pakistan limited in scope by its own economic disarray. There remains scope for Sino-Russian-Indian cooperation too to address their common concerns on Afghanistan. Clearly, India’s strategic importance is on a high, in a way never before seen.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir