On Aug. 16, 300,000 Afghan soldiers surrendered Kabul to 74,000 Taliban troops without a fight. With that, the 20-year U.S. war in Afghanistan came to an end.
To use the words of Ernest Hemingway in “The Sun Also Rises,” this conclusion to the conflict came about “gradually, then suddenly.”
The Taliban have mercilessly assassinated Afghan Air Force pilots and their families. On July 2, U.S. forces withdrew from Bagram Airfield located north of Kabul. This airfield had been the last bastion of the Afghan government’s air supremacy. Without it, government troops immediately lost their fighting spirit.
Relinquishing the air base also complicated the departure of local translators and other Afghans who had cooperated with the U.S., and turned them into quasi-hostages of Taliban forces. The world is unlikely to forget the image of a young Afghan woman begging for help at the fence surrounding Kabul International Airport, crying: “The Taliban are coming (for me)! The Taliban are here!”
The dignity and prestige of the U.S. have plummeted.
This is not the result of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is a consequence of the shameful fact that the U.S. could find no other way to withdraw.
Up until the very end, the Nixon administration remained fixated upon finding a way to withdraw “honorably” from Vietnam. The Biden administration appeared utterly indifferent to such concerns. The eyes of the world are fixed upon the future course of a superpower that has forgotten the importance of “honor.” On this point, American allies fear the Biden administration may not be so different from the Trump administration.
The Taliban will gain prestige across the Muslim world following their victory over the U.S. This may make the Taliban’s brand of Islamic fundamentalism even more rigid and intolerant.
While Afghanistan was lost on Biden’s watch, in fact the U.S. was already losing Afghanistan under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, due to incompetent political leaders, a corrupt government, the clannish self-righteousness of the Pashtun ethnic group and the cruel geopolitical reality of a landlocked country surrounded by powerful adversaries.
I recall the gallows humor of a former high-ranking U.S. military commander who told me that under the Ghani administration, many Afghan government troops left their “day job” at 5 p.m. to devote themselves to their side job — with the Taliban. Of the 300,000 Afghan government troops, only one in six reportedly remained loyal to the government to the end.
What are the implications of the American retreat and the re-emergence of Taliban rule in Afghanistan?
First, this may well prove to be a strategic godsend for China. The best scenario for China would be the maintenance of a pro-Chinese Taliban regime, which would cooperate with China in eradicating the Islamic independence movement in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and removing radical Islamic forces from Pakistan. This scenario would enable the secure operation of an oil pipeline between the Pakistani port city of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea and China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
In turn, this would free China from its “Malacca Dilemma,” as it would no longer need to rely upon the Strait of Malacca — a critical waterway in the transport of Middle Eastern oil to East Asia. China would thus be prepared to survive a U.S. blockade of the strait in the event of a mainland invasion of Taiwan.
In July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated: “The United States … should act responsibly to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan.” His words were a clear reflection of China’s calculation that, in order to realize this “best case scenario,” it needed the U.S. to continue to play a stabilizing role in the region.
Yet China also fears the U.S. could become a “latent destroyer” in the region. As Dr. Hu Shisheng, director of the Institute for South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, warned: “the U.S. government is likely to … create ‘controllable unrest’ in Afghanistan and even Pakistan, so that it can … carry out a conspiracy to control China and terrorize Xinjiang.”
Already China appears to have supplied the Taliban with Chinese-made weapons. However, Afghanistan’s new rulers also control an arsenal of cutting-edge weaponry left with the Afghan Army by the U.S. China may also try to use economic aid to control Afghanistan, but economic assistance will not prompt the Taliban to give up Islamic fundamentalism. At any rate, it seems likely that China will also be sucked into the geopolitical black hole of Eurasia.
Another dangerous possibility is that the fall of Kabul will make China even more confident of the U.S.’ accelerating decline, and will thus step up its offensive to reunite Taiwan with the mainland.
Chinese Communist Party-affiliated media outlets are doing their best to rattle the Taiwanese public by portraying the U.S. as an untrustworthy partner that abandons its allies. The Taiwanese are being told to heed the lessons of Vietnam in 1974, the Kurds of northern Syria in 2019, and now Afghanistan: Taiwan cannot rely upon U.S. support in a crisis.
The Joe Biden administration has attempted to justify the withdrawal from Afghanistan as part of the U.S. strategy of re-balancing against China in the Indo-Pacific. After all, the Obama administration’s goal of “pivoting” toward Asia failed because the U.S. remained focused on conflicts in the Middle East.
Now, however, the U.S. is no longer encumbered by either Iraq or Afghanistan. And achieving this pivot to the Indo-Pacific is probably the most viable remaining option for restoring American prestige on the world stage.
Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.
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