US and NATO exit 'asianises' Afghanistan problem


31 | 08 | 2021


In the picture

Afghan evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster at Kabul International Airport [US Air Force].

With the departure of US troops and other NATO allies, Afghanistan will cease to be a Western problem and become more Asian, especially in the event that China tries to take advantage of the US withdrawal. Afghanistan is likely to become more embedded in Asia, given China's expected greater role, the renewed implications for the Indian subcontinent, the risk of contamination of the Central Asian republics and the strategic prospects it opens up for Asia Minor and the Persian Gulf. It is not that Afghan instability will not continue to affect the United States and Europe, especially if it remains a focus of Islamist radicalisation, but without a government in Kabul put in place and sustained by Washington, all the other relevant actors, basically in the region, now have the opportunity to try to play their cards strongly.

Joe Biden's decision leaves China as the written request of reference letter in the area, possibly assisted by Russia due to China's disinclination to get involved in the conflict itself. Beijing is being pushed into Afghanistan by the vacuum left by the Americans, just as the US replaced the USSR there and the USSR replaced the British Empire. A further spread of Chinese power, in this case into Asia, would trigger reactions from all those who need to counter any expansion of Chinese hegemony. Thus, China's increased weight in Afghanistan would force India to strengthen its attempts to project influence in Central Asia, always with an eye on the close relationship between Beijing and Islamabad. If India's priority was already an Afghanistan that was not marked by fraternity with Pakistan, now the risk could seem greater, as there would be a possibility of a Chinese-consenting rapprochement between the two countries on its north-western flank.

Any Chinese rapprochement with Kabul, however pragmatic and limited to trade or mining, will increase Indian concerns. And an increase in Beijing's influence in Central Asia would be met by increased pressure on China in the Indo-Pacific as a whole, where other powers, such as Japan and Australia, as well as India and the US, are trying to condition China's rise.

China-Taliban relationship

Some predict intense Chinese activity in Afghanistan, focused on the exploitation of strategic minerals and rare earths; the two countries are likely to increase their relationship and mutually benefit from each other, but do so cautiously. The Taliban may aspire to credit from Beijing, but Afghanistan's unique history will prevent them from submitting to further colonisation (the Chinese "debt trap" that other nations are experiencing).

For China, new overland connections of its Silk Road along Eurasia are always interesting, in this case through the Wakhan corridor, the language land route that runs from eastern Afghanistan to the Chinese border, making the two countries neighbours. But if the corridor through Pakistan already has a rather relative, if not scarce, prospect of Chinese traffic, the route through Afghanistan and its high Hindu Kush mountains makes little sense for a route to Iran. At least the Pakistan corridor connects China's "back" to the Indian port of Gwadar, but this would be a "silver bridge" for Muslim extremism (such as that of the Turkestan Islamic Party, present on Afghan soil) to encourage Uighur resistance in China's adjoining Xinjiang province. Chinese companies are already active in extractive activities in Afghanistan, and will logically increase the volume of their operations, provided they can move without too much risk (the attacks on staff in Pakistan by Balochistan rebels force Beijing to tread carefully, although it is presumed that the Taliban regime will be able to better control its territory).

Easier for the US

The US's hasty exit from Afghanistan is not so much a problem of American credibility as a further indication of the lack of vision in Washington about what strategy the country should follow at the global level once the brief unipolar moment (the three decades following the dissolution of the USSR) has come to an end. This lack of vision is not just a US problem: NATO is also failing to find its role, while the European Union is drowning every time it has to define the lines of what its grand strategy should be (Josep Borrell has come to recognise, in the wake of the Afghan crisis, that without consolidated military power the EU is hardly credible, even less so, arguably, than the US).

It may take the United States some time to find a way to confront China, as it did with the USSR in the early post-war years. The exit from Afghanistan, in any case, should allow Washington to concentrate on the big geostrategic game of the decade we have just begun.

It has often been pointed out that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were a distraction for the United States: twenty years that China has been able to take advantage of to make its great leap forward. Now, in reality, things are simplifying for the United States, as Afghanistan is no longer a scenario strictly linked to the Middle East, from which the US has long wanted to disengage, but is somehow inserted into the Asian puzzle, especially if the Afghan problem finally moves into Beijing's orbit: all the more reason for Washington to execute its longed-for shift to Asia and concentrate on China-bashing.

The US first became involved in Afghanistan in the late 1970s as a way to counter the USSR, a land power. Today, to counter China, whose rivalry is taking shape as a maritime power, the US may find it worthwhile to withdraw from the Eurasian continent to put its firepower in the Indo-Pacific, the region where the new world order is being fought out.