By Aqeel Ahmad*
The year 2021 marked the end of the US war on terror in Afghanistan. The US invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks planned by Al-Qaeda. The US led invasion lasted for two decades, and the complete withdrawal ended on 31st August 2021. Why did the US leave Afghanistan, a strategically important region in Asia, and end its war? To adequately comprehend the situation, one needs to see within the lens of offensive realisms significant axiom offshore balancing. The US practiced offshore balancing to deal with world affairs, become a global hegemon, and maintain its regional hegemony. For offensive realists, the ultimate objective of the superpowers is to attain and retain global hegemony. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt emphasize that in reality, no country can attain global hegemony due to the difficulty for projecting and maintaining power throughout the globe and into the territories of other major countries. As a result, powerful countries gain regional hegemony and prevent the emergence of other potential regional hegemons.
By observing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan through the offshore balancing lens, one can argue that the US has been trying to consolidate its dominance in South Asia by obstructing the rise of China. The US policy in Afghanistan was clear – the Bush administration started the war on terror and President Barack Obama, an antiwar advocate, followed the same steps, and increased the number of troops. Later, President Donald Trump unveiled his Afghanistan strategy in his inauguration in 2016. Trump promised during his election campaigns to withdraw the US troops from Afghanistan as quickly as feasible. Unfortunately, during Trump’s presidency, nearly 10,000 US troops and twice as many US contractors as the total number of US troops remained in the war-torn region. Things changed when the Biden administration took charge of the country, and an exit plan was completed on August 31, 2021.
Numerous observers and actors are alarmed by the planned yet instantaneous withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, a strategic area for US policymakers. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan without foreseeing the return of the Taliban posed some serious questions to the US foreign policy. However, the US is recalibrating its foreign policy priorities for the century ahead. Although the US withdrew its ground troops from Afghanistan, its policy of offshore balancing remains intact.
Moreover, the US believed that their peacemaking activities in Afghanistan are directly being used by China to control the vast mineral resources. Likewise, for the US the Chinese rise needs to be slowed down by any means. By withdrawing and ending the support to the Afghan government, the US paved the way for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan. The takeover of the Taliban and fall of the Panjshir can escalate the civil war within Afghanistan. A country cannot be a hegemon if its region is not in order and the US deliberately left Afghanistan for dragging China in Afghanistan issue. The US militarization in Afghanistan was an indirect on-shore counterweight against China. The ongoing policy shift grants the US more time to focus on the China’s rise and to secure its fading global power rather than spending billions on Afghanistan.
Furthermore, alliances like Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US (AUKUS) are used to keep check on China’s growing influence in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and North Pacific Ocean and on the land. The US withdrawal has already left a significant power vacuum. As concerns are raised that how the Taliban regime would rule, regional actors are expected to assist in order to prevent any political crisis. Russia, Iran, Turkey, India, and Pakistan have their reasons to intervene. However, the biggest question remains that is whether China will depart from its longstanding “non-interventionist” policy to get involved in an area historically known as “the graveyard of empires’”.
To conclude, the US will push China to shift its foreign policy of non-intervention to intervention by using regional security threats, QUAD and AUKUS. The policy of offshore balancing eventually will pose threats to China and its neighbors. To an extent the US policy of offshore balancing will force China to intervene in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is an Achilles’ heel for Chinese growing power, as no country likely to be a regional hegemon if there is a security threat in its neighborhood. All the neighboring countries of China may share the burden of the US offshore balancing policy. The region might get divided into blocs as the world powers compete for supremacy.
China might focus enhanced economic cooperation with Afghanistan keeping the defensive posture towards its counterparts, and would try to bring peace in order to secure its One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI). Keeping in view the Chinese history of non-confrontational politics and use of soft power, Beijing may go for engagement with the stake holders in Afghanistan. Moreover, unlike the US, it may invest more on infrastructural development with mutual benefits in sight for both Afghanistan and China rather than opting for confrontation.
*Aqeel Ahmad is a Research Assistant at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN).