On 27 August 2021, Dr. Stephen Walt, a brilliant leader in international relations and Foreign Policy columnist, wrote an article expressing the view that the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was strategically sound, indicating that the decision is unlikely to trigger a crisis of confidence between the United States and its allies.
Walt suggested that the opposite might be true, opining that all forces and countries in need of US protection were deeply concerned about the depletion of American resources in Afghanistan and were gratified by the decision –or are supposed to be so– because the US military will have more resources and time to devote to substantive missions. According to Walt, the withdrawal doesn’t reveal a US refusal of its extraterritorial commitments but rather an insistence on honoring them.
Insofar as the strategic soundness of the withdrawal decision is concerned, Walt’s view seems valid for several reasons, including primarily what General Richard Barrons, a leading UK strategic thinker who served in Afghanistan, stated on various occasions, Afghanistan's geographical location (a landlocked country), its inaccessibility, topographical nature (mountainous), political culture (absence of strong state concept), ethnic and sectarian breakdown, and its strategic insignificance to the United States, all of which means that any success in Afghanistan is not worth the effort, spending, and sacrifices needed to achieve it. This is still true even if the cooperation of its neighbors –primarily Pakistan– was guaranteed, which wasn’t the case.
In addition to Walt’s interpretations, the analysis of Dr. WessMitchell in National Interesttouched upon the changes in the international regime, the ability of the United States to respond to them, and how to tackle them.
Of primary concern here is the central point of this analysis, which states that the United States’ inability –in present and past– to wage a two-front war against Russia and China and the possibility of a Sino-Russian coordination aimed at defeating the United States (given the US poor relations with both of them) or carrying out simultaneous attacks against Taiwan and the Baltic republics require that the United States to abandon some locations.
However, it’s kind of hard to agree with Walt when he precludes the existence of a crisis of confidence in the United States or labels it as unjustifiable –if ever existed. The confidence crisis continues to be the norm across the globe, from the United Kingdom to India, South Korea, and Japan, down through France, eastern European republics, and Gulf countries, among others. Lack of confidence in the United States is present even in countries that Washington's elites unanimously retain a rigid stronghold position on the need to protect them given their relevance to the US interests.
The analysis of Walt as well as others seems logical and understandable: in the long run, the United States putting down the burden of Afghanistan and acknowledging failure of the “Nation Building” and “Greater Middle East” projects will allow the United States to devote itself to taking on new challenges and acquire the political and military skills necessary for the next stage. Arguments by some analysists that the US rival powers (i.e. Russia and China) are unlikely to take advantage of the new situation in Afghanistan as the Taliban ideology remains, in the medium- and long-term, a source of threat to them, seem acceptable. Even if China was capable of availing itself of the situation for the good of the Road and Belt initiative and getting Taliban’s endorsement of some mutatis mutandis for its projects (including acceptance of women’s work, working on reducing in-country sectarian tensions, neutralizing anti-Chinese jihadists, among others), this will not much change the balance of power.
While this view can be mostly accepted, the crisis of confidence is still justified. Acceptance of the strategic side of the withdrawal decision and its orientation does not preclude considering its methods of decision-making, modalities of implementation, and consequences a major disaster. Before addressing the substance of the issue, reference could be quickly made to the negative impact of the US administration media discourse, particularly statements of President Joe Biden whose description of the crisis revolved mainly around defamation of the Afghan military –that sacrificed thousands of its soldiers– doubting its efficacy and willingness to fight. Indeed, many consequences that resulted upon the US withdrawal were purely a product of the US policies and its hasty withdrawal decision. According to dozens of reports, these speeches sparked widespread angerwithin the US and UK military veterans who–like all military veterans across the globe– believe in the military ethos of “leaving no fellow soldier behind in the battlefield”, which made them consider the US administration conduct unethical violating the military honor code. This consideration can hardly be overestimated and I believe other militaries would share the same anger. The US behavior raised questions about the feasibility of alliance with the United States. This problem has been realized by large segments of the American society and considerable efforts by military veterans, civil society, and industry professionals have been made to save their fellow Afghans and urge the US administration to shoulder its responsibilities.
For quite some time, the US administrations have made it a practice not to consult with allies –even close ones– and to occasionally surprise them with resolutions that harm their interests and force them to review their strategies at a too high price. Many Europeans have been trying to convince themselves that the US behavior is “Trump-confined” (although it was typical of Obama as well) and is restricted to the US management of its relations with the third-world countries, but they were taken aback by President Biden going down the same path even more crudely and in a more critical issue with close allies like Germany and the United Kingdom. In response to the US withdrawal decision, the UK’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, described Biden’s decision as “imbecilic”. Likewise, in a powerful moving speech, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the House of Commons –who served in Afghanistan– strongly condemned the US decision.
We can tell that neither Europe nor the United Kingdom can seek breaking with the United States given their extreme military weakness and deficiencies of their military forces. This has beenreflected in Gen. Barrons’ statements to Foreign Policy in which he noted: “In Afghanistan, there was enthusiasm from the U.K. and one or two other European countries to pick up the mantle that the US was putting down, but when they looked at it, they found that even if they could find the infantry they simply couldn’t field the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; the command and control; the logistics; and the training that supported the Afghan army.” This view is confirmed in criticisms expressed by strategic experts over the UK’s plans that define armament policies, nature of threats, and methods of addressing them. According to the UK’s defense equipment plan, future conflicts will not take the form of a traditional war; so, militarization policies neglected purchasing the latest weapons needed for such wars. In the same sense, the French militants easily acknowledge the paramount importance of the US logistical and intelligence support in the Sahel and the Sahara. However, inability to break with the United States doesn’t mean existence ofconfidence or willingness to risk taking, particularly if this takes place outsidetheNATO’s charters’ framework.
Most of the US allied and friendly countries are concerned about the consequences of the collapse of Afghanistan into the hands of Taliban, exacerbation of the Jihadi danger, and the exponential increase in immigration. The US President has given Jihadists a great victory which revived hopes of jihadist groups worldwide and is expected to facilitate activities of promotion and conscription into these groups whether the Taliban provided Jihadists a safe haven –which is probable– or not responding to the international pressures. It is no secret that the Taliban had previously liberated hundreds of Al-Qaeda detainees in Afghanistan. Monitoring those released detainees, tracking their movements, and identifying their agenda will be more difficult without a force on the ground and amid a greater difficulty in recruiting agents. Moreover, the scene of tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing their country rekindled concerns of mass immigration that would be a burden on neighboring countries and on Europe. Overall, Biden's decision disempowered all of the US allies, who will have to redouble efforts and allocate large amounts of money to monitor jihadists’ activity, combat terrorism, and deal with immigrants knocking their doors.
Chaos of Withdrawal
Several observers have touched upon the negative repercussions of the USchaotic withdrawal, consequences of the United States’ thoughtlessness in dealing with reality, the adverse implications of the US administration inability toquestion itself and listen to warnings of a possible dilemma, and the negative impact of how quickly the Afghan ally –formerly the Kurdish– had been abandoned. Justifications of the withdrawal decision provided by a number of US think tanks (not allies but just a tool) made a bad situation worse.
While it may be useful for the United States to sort out countries according to their strategic relevance (i.e. chances of abandoning them) and make a distinction between important and non-important countries, and countries that are a subject of contention in Washington, there is widespread concern that the public opinion disposition –now dismissive of any foreign commitments– might have been the key driver for the US decision.
Despite the rapidly changing nature of the public opinion, the public’s desire to maintain the image of the United States, and the elites’ favoring the common good when push comes to shove, this doesn’t mean that countries aren’t afraid of the American confusion, the United States’ easy way out abandoningof its allies or "tools", and its occasional tendency to change the political systems it doesn’t approve of.
Moving from consequences of the US withdrawal to the United States’ future strategies in the making, we would again make mention of Mitchell’s analysis on the US next grand strategy. Mitchell says that the United States has resolved to devote most of its endeavor to competing with super powers, indicating thatofficial records have been recognizing this since days of Obama’s tenure.
Mitchell adds that authoritative documents have recently established inability of the United States to fight a two-front war against its strongest rivals, i.e. Russia and China. However, according to Mitchell, the strategy developed to address this is deficient.
The US new strategy focus of fighting China by placing different pressures on European countries to strengthen their militaries and be able to counter any military action by Russia in Europe. So, the strategy leaves it to Europeans to defend Europe. However, military operation skills and expertise are not to be built up overnight. Ithas been since 2014 that European countries last updated their armament policy, meaning European militaries will not be likely able to fill the vacuum the US military leaves behind. As such, there is a need for an alternative strategy to be developed.
Mitchell –with broad and deep exposure to strategic planning– suggests that this situation necessitates focusing on diplomacy –I rathercall wickedness, subterfuge, and wit– to avoid a simultaneous two-front war and sequence priorities. Surely, deciding on priorities would entail consequences that aren’t just abstract theory. For instance, if China is decided to be the main adversary, there would be a need to pursue armament policies that strengthen the naval forces and if it’s Russia, attention should be directed to developing the land forces.
Mitchell continues to present alternatives to the US strategy. The first alternative is alliance with the weakest of the two rivals, i.e. Russia, in the same way the United Kingdom has done at the turn of the 20th century when it allied with Russia against Germany. This option, says Mitchell, sounds attractive simply because urging Russia to preserve impartiality between Washington and Beijing will lead to fragmentation of Beijing’s effortsfor its long common borders with Russia. While Putin’s supporters in Europe favor this option, the problem is that Putin doesn’t tend to prefer allying or rapprochement with Washington and currently he is unlikely tomake concessions that would reduce the Russian threat to Europe and even the case might be the opposite, i.e. any concession would mean increasing threats.
The second option is to postpone confrontation with China until a decisive disempowering of Russia is realand to deal with China temporarily as a responsible partner in securing the international regime. Mitchell states that this option would have been viable at the beginning of the millennium and during its first decade, but it is too late now as China has already moved from strategic latencyto expansion and attack. In addition, any concession to China would alarm the US allies in China and might prompt them to abandon Washington.
The third option which Mitchell rules out is involving Russia and China in managing the international regime, similar to what happened in Europe following Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat. This option assumes that all active actors are happy with the current distribution of power, territory, influence, and hegemony while Russia and China are among the powers that seek changing the situation radically in their favor.
The Way Out?
Mitchell believes that the solution will stem from Russia's fear of the Chinese expansion. So far, this is a repressed and ineffective fear but it is rapidly growing and the United States should create a situation that would prompt Russia to abandon its goals in the West. This would require the United States to show a harsher position when it comes to Ukraine and the Baltic states while creating incentives and temptations pushing Russia towards defending its interests in the East and collaborating with the United States, Japan, India, and Korea to counter the Chinese expansion. The United States and its allies should work to convince Russia of the significance of their investments in eastern Russia in preventing the Chinese domination over the Russian economy and the profitability of its collaboration with the West in Asia as opposed to the a clash in Europe which might prove a losing bet. Mitchell is being more specific stating that a crushing defeat should be inflicted on Russia in its cyber confrontation with the West, Moscow’s interference in Ukraine must be stopped, and a US policy combining confrontation in Europe with cooperation in Asia must be adopted.
Enumerating the available options isn’t only intended to shed light on Washington's strategies but to illustrate the challenges the United States faces. The proposed strategy is not the one in place. The current strategy is based on confronting the two rival powers while increasing defense spending assuming it will solve problems if the situation gets any worse. The solution Mitchell suggests seems attractive but it may be impractical for several reasons, chief among them what Mitchell himself mentioned of the substantial risk of Russia reaping the benefits of cooperation with the West and Asian countries in the East while capitalizing on them to strengthen its position in Europe and continue placing pressure on Baltic states and Poland, among others.
In addition to what Mitchell mentioned, these strategies assume that the United States can completely turn a blind eye to events in the Middle East and Africa or leave it to Europe, Turkey, or others to take care of, an assumption that reality belies every day since days of Obama’s presidency. Also, these strategies suppose that successive US administrations are capable of convincing the American public of the need to pursue an active foreign policy and of their ability to adhere to a long-term strategy and to avoid making mistakes when it comes to estimating developments and addressing them. Finally, the proposed strategies take European robustness for granted which, I believe, is not guaranteed. Political forces supporting a “compromise” with Russia on Europe are not few but how to manage the Middle East and Africa so as not to leave it to China and Russia remains a key issue.
Apparently, no regional state is capable oftaking up the task of looking after the Middle East and Africa and building a regional hub that guarantees the region’s stability isn’t possible yet. So, the United States can’tturn its back to it. The United States’ position on the Turkish role is not known yet: Will it urge Turkey to involve in Caucasus and Central Asia or leave it expand in the eastern Mediterranean? Or is the United States able or willing to urge Turkey to go along a specific path? This remains to be seen.
*The writer is the head of the European studies at the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies ECSS