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Understanding the U.S. Debacle

Aug 24, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

Almost no one could imagine the swift victory of the Taliban and the quick collapse of the Afghan government’s forces. The U.S. government was also caught off guard by the rapid changes in the country. President Joe Biden admitted in a recent speech that the United States did not expect the Taliban to seize control so quickly, and U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said there was no indication from intelligence that the Afghan army would collapse in 11 days.

The Afghanistan debacle will strengthen the negative mood in U.S. foreign policy but it won’t necessarily alter America’s current strategic course. On one hand, given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaos of Afghanistan, the domestic agenda will be the top priority of the Biden administration, especially since Biden’s approval rating has dropped dramatically to its lowest point so far after his inefficient response to both issues.

The U.S. public’s support for the country’s foreign policy will decrease, while domestic pressure for certain outcomes will increase — which will prompt Biden to focus more on economic and social issues. The Biden administration will continue the policy of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, to use force with caution and will put more emphasis on “smart power” with “values diplomacy” at the core.

But this does not mean a radical shift toward isolationism in U.S. foreign policy. The situation in Afghanistan remains uncertain. While U.S. interests there will be narrowed and centered on counterterrorism, the U.S. might intervene in regional affairs in the form of offshore counterterrorism by depending more on regional allies and partners to pursue U.S. strategic goals.

The U.S. will continue to shift its strategic resources from the Middle East and Europe to the Indo-Pacific region. As Biden said, the withdrawal from Afghanistan will allow greater focus on strategic competition with China and Russia. It is not yet clear that the failure in Afghanistan will be an inflection point in the decline of U.S. hegemony, but it is clear that the U.S. has been unable to carry out great power competition alone and needs the support and cooperation of its allies and partners.

That said, the U.S. failure in Afghanistan does undermine America's ability to lead it allies in any great power competition. Biden’s remarks on Afghanistan only strengthen the world’s negative perception of the U.S. as an unreliable and declining superpower, and its allies and partners will reassess the credibility of U.S. security guarantees.

With the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, NATO allies have leveled the criticism that NATO as a whole has been weakened by abandonment of the principle of “in together, out together” on Afghanistan. They have also raised questions about Europe’s security dependence on Washington. Europe might have to speed up its push for strategic autonomy in the future and safeguard its own security to a much greater extent than before.

Under these circumstances, the U.S. should jettison the “great power competition” narrative to avoid making another strategic mistake. Instead, it should find ways to cooperate with countries like China and Russia on Afghanistan. Both China and the U.S. already expressed their political willingness to cooperate on the issue during their Anchorage talks and during Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s visit to China. The fact that State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken by phone at Blinken’s request shows that the U.S. seeks China’s understanding and cooperation on Afghanistan.

The two countries should continue to use diplomatic channels, including the possible G20 summit, to maintain communication on Afghanistan and avoid turning the issue from a point of potential cooperation into competition. At the same time, exchanges at the working level and Track II level should be encouraged to clarify each other’s policies on Afghanistan, to mitigate differences caused by misunderstandings and miscalculations and to send out positive signals through a coordination of positions.

Above all, China and U.S. should be pragmatic about cooperation on Afghanistan, since many challenges lie ahead. It will be hard for the Biden administration to drop the framework of “great power competition” in regard to Afghanistan, as the U.S. will most likely perceive any Chinese policies on Afghanistan as a counterbalance to U.S. influence or an effort to gain the upper hand in geopolitical competition.

As for specific issues, such as counterterrorism, China and the U.S. have consensus on cooperation but differences on priorities. The U.S. is concerned about the presence of al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan but not worried too much about the impact of chaos in that country on the security of the U.S. homeland. For its part, China is more concerned that Afghanistan’s chaos could spill over into Central Asia and pose challenges to its security.

How to fill the gap on the issue will be another challenge for the two countries as they seek practical and meaningful cooperation.

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