The incumbent administration led by President Joe Biden prioritized the need to set right the tarnished image that the US was perceived to carry abroad and for which the preceding administration was blamed largely. However, the Biden administration exposed the hollowness of American intervention and twenty years of engagement at one stroke by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
The rationale for two decades of American engagement in Afghanistan collapsed with the eruption and surge of insurgency leading to a quick fall of the Afghan Army as well as with the unraveling of the irrelevance of democratic values and institutions for the country. This would raise more questions on the American credibility as the lone superpower than what President Trump did during his entire tenure. No gainsaying the fact that the tenure of President Donald Trump witnessed American withdrawal from major international agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal.
Along with this, the Trump administration’s hard-line stance on immigration and trade had not only indicated Washington’s lack of trust in soft power as an effective instrument to enhance influence through attraction, this also invited new challenges to the great power’s credibility before and commitment to allies in the long-term. President Trump also demonstrated a lackadaisical attitude towards multilateralism which became apparent when he did not attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ meeting in 2018 and the East Asia Summit meetings in 2018 and 2019. Further, the administration asked for more burden-sharing by traditional allies in the region such as Japan and South Korea towards stationing of US forces in the countries which, in turn, weakened the possibilities of robust alliance and partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Biden administration ever since it assumed office sought to reverse many of the policy missteps of the previous administration so that the US could restore its lost faith among its allies. It was quite apparent that the Biden administration was keen on reversing the Trump administration’s coercive and unilateral strategies such as trade war and sanctions with strategies based on values, democracy, multilateralism and human rights.
The Afghan Challenge
Based on a glance at President Joe Biden’s earlier stance on American troops’ presence in Afghanistan when he served as Vice President during Obama’s Presidency or for that matter his speeches in the run up to Presidential elections, it could be surmised that the incoming administration’s strategy would be just to continue phased withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan irrespective of success and failure of peace talks primarily because the protracted nature of Afghan insurgency had taken a huge toll on American lives, resources as well as will power and the legitimacy of the war had been facing serious challenges at home.
Further, he must have concluded withdrawal from Afghanistan would enable the administration to focus on areas of more strategic significance such as the Indo-Pacific region. This was the path that the Trump administration was already committed to. Still the Biden administration’s preference for values, human rights and commitment to allies in foreign policy making generated different hopes that the new administration might be propelled to develop strategies either to rework the old agreement with the Taliban or persuade or coerce the group to meet key conditions of the agreement including pledges to reduce violence as well as secure basic human rights of Afghans.
It was expected that the Biden administration might work with other stakeholders and regional powers in order to bring in their contacts with and influences over the Taliban and persuade the group to accept the key conditions of the deal with the US, pursue peace and respect human rights and carry forward talks with the Afghan government in the interests of peace and stability of Afghanistan.
The Afghan turmoil which ensued soon after the Biden administration withdrew most of the American troops from Afghanistan leading to a quick takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in August brought 20 years of American engagement to a naught. Promotion of democratic institutions and values that the Biden administration was insistent on pursuing as foreign policy strategy had no clues in Afghanistan and years of investment in such institutions and values have become meaningless. Violence continues unabated as civilians are trying to escape the Taliban offensives, Northern Alliance in Panjshir Valley is committed not to submit to the Taliban rule and increasing factions within the Taliban also indicate civil war like situations may continue for a long time.
While many reasons are being ascribed to the American failure especially in strengthening democratic institutions and army in Afghanistan, its inability to stem the reverse tide and twenty years of its commitment and engagement in Afghanistan coming to an abrupt zilch will nevertheless help American credibility sink before its allies, partners and many other countries which look up to US for assistance. The rationale for American withdrawal from Afghanistan maybe to save American lives and resources but great powers are expected to look beyond narrowly defined national interests as they may run the risks of losing credibility among allies and partners and second, they base their great power status on certain values and ideologies so they eagerly guard their actions lest their actions would run contrary to the values and ideology they promote.
While saving American lives and resources are no doubt significant foreign policy choice but plausible strategies must have been considered before withdrawal which could have minimized violence and paved way for democracy in Afghanistan. The Biden administration needs to remain engaged with the regional players and consider ways by which a strong message can be sent back to Afghan insurgents to put a halt to violence and violation of human rights and it needs to keep the military options still open especially of special operation forces. Second, the administration needs to facilitate the process by which the Afghan citizens will find shelter in the US as well as on the soil of its allies and partners. These can be certain moves which the administration can consider to maintain credibility of a great power in the eyes of many countries of the world.