In the larger context of the Cold War, following the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, the US with the assistance of Pakistan and China strengthened Afghan insurgency and spawned jihadi groups and it left the country in the lurch (civil war) once the Soviets were out. American military forces were not involved and merely a hundred CIA operatives were involved in the Afghan effort then.
For the US, containing the Soviet threat was the priority and not Afghanistan. It was merely a theatre where both superpowers confronted each other. Now President Biden has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan because the American perception of threat, priority and interests has changed.
President Biden’s prompt and unilateral withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan may have surprised as well as antagonized many but his action is grounded in hard facts which underline that confronting the menace of international terrorism is not the American priority anymore whereas China has emerged as its primary geopolitical rival in the Indo-Pacific region. His action is a gamble even as President Biden looked to leverage from the Afghan withdrawal, a bold decision to take a unilateral step towards withdrawal that could bring a humanitarian catastrophe could not come easily and such decision may turn out to be a wrong one as events unravel themselves with the passage of time.
Since 9/11, the US has developed sophisticated intelligence and surveillance mechanisms which substantially reduced the cases of terror attacks within US. The Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan have been liquidated and the Taliban are not considered a direct threat to the US so far as their modus operandi is concerned. Withdrawal from Afghanistan would also mean an end to the danger of many insurgent groups that targeted the American presence in/occupation of the country. However, concerns have been expressed by many American scholars that the existing networks that the Taliban share with other groups may help Al Qaeda bounce back with international terror networks getting solidified.
The facts on ground nevertheless point at the difficulties that Taliban are encountering to form an internationally recognized government and salvage the country’s economy from collapsing. Financing of projects by the World Bank has been paused and loans from the IMF cannot be available until the Taliban get international recognition. Thus, the Taliban will invest their energies more in developing diplomatic capital and getting international recognition than strengthening their surreptitious networks with other insurgent groups. President Biden’s Afghan gamble is likely pay off the US by reducing imminent threats to the American presence in Afghanistan notwithstanding criticisms against such unilateral approach and humanitarian problems ensued post-9/11.
Unstable Afghanistan and China
Since the preceding administration led by President Donald Trump, the American focus has shifted to contain China and strengthen the Indo-Pacific strategy. The US was concerned with its overstretching military since the Iraq operations began in 2003 and instabilities in the Middle-East continued henceforth with the challenges posed by ISIS and crises such as Syria and Libya. While Washington realized Beijing’s free ride on its military presence and strive towards fostering geopolitical interests in Afghanistan much earlier, President Biden took the bold step to impose an unstable neighbor on China.
While the preceding administrations wanted a strong presence of Washington to deny opportunities to Beijing in Kabul such as access to mineral resources and implementation of Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI), Biden calculated otherwise and considered to force an unstable Afghanistan on China. The US presence had deterred Kabul’s full participation in the BRI which could not take off earlier due to the close relationship between the US and the Afghan government.
It is worth recalling that its interest in protecting and extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as well as its concerns over Uyghur insurgency in Xinjiang province led Beijing to host a Taliban delegation including Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban representative in Qatar. After regaining power, the Taliban have already assured Beijing that it will not allow the Uyghurs to use Afghanistan in any way that would endanger China’s security.
However, China can leverage its relationship with the Taliban, explore mineral resources and implement BRI in the country, only if it can take Afghanistan out of the financial morass which is unlikely when major sources of financial assistance such as World Bank, IMF and funding from US are not available. Second, until the Taliban regime gets international recognition and stability of governance is ensured, Beijing cannot attain intended objectives.
Further, the continuing instability in Afghanistan can only find a similar reflection in Xinjiang province for the fact that the Taliban cannot have control over all the jihadi groups within Afghanistan given the geographic inaccessibility of many regions nor can it focus on taming pro-Uyghur insurgency groups so long as chaotic conditions prevail in the country. Operatives of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, which seeks to establish a Uyghur state in Xinjiang (ETIM) have derived support from al Qaeda, Jamaat Ansarullah, and Jamaat al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad will possibly find their havens in Afghanistan without any single entity possessing monopoly over power.
Thus, the Biden administration has apparently played a masterstroke by his surprise and unilateral withdrawal which can entangle China in an unstable Afghanistan while the US would be more capable to invigorate its Indo-Pacific role by escaping the Afghan trap.