Conflict and Leadership
Biden’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan: Consequences for the United States and Russia

America’s image as a “responsible superpower” has faltered, but it is unlikely that American allies in other regions will learn from this story. For Eurasia, the Taliban’s coming to power is fraught with not leaving, but returning the topic of combating terrorism to the current agenda, and the advanced American weapons left in Afghanistan hypothetically bring this struggle to a new technological level, writes Valdai Club expert Maxim Suchkov.

President Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is one of those cases in which commentators are divided into two camps. Some believe that behind this is some well-thought-out strategy designed to continue “controlled chaos”. Others are convinced that the forced withdrawal from that country is a poorly thought-out gamble. The truth is most likely somewhere in between. The decision to leave Afghanistan was made several years ago: Biden did what his predecessors should have done, but for various reasons didn’t do. About 80% of Biden’s speech on leaving Afghanistan could have been Trump’s words — there is a lot about national egoism and very little about the responsibility of a superpower. However, America has long suffered from “Afghanistan fatigue” and most citizens have no regrets about leaving.

Afghanistan After the US Withdrawal: A Security Vacuum Forever?

Biden, an experienced politician, took an important theme from the Republicans: “the end of forever wars”. The decline in his ratings is understandable now — the footage of the departure of the military, the fall of Afghans from American planes and the crumbling of the sand castle of Afghan statehood look too awful. But regarding what is happening now, as Biden himself said, this is “not my problem”. The only continuing interest of American leaders is elections. But it is too early to assess the prospects for Biden’s presidency on this subject. The Republicans, of course, will try to squeeze the most out of this situation and strengthen the argument about Biden’s incapacity as leader. But even if the Democrats lose the midterm Congressional elections, it will not be because of the Afghan tragedy — there are a lot of issues within the United States that are much more important for the American voter. And before the presidential elections, given the dense news stream, the details of the withdrawal from Afghanistan may be forgotten, and the result will be remembered — it was Biden who ended the twenty-year war, albeit not beautifully.

The Afghan crisis has also exposed divisions within the administration and, more interestingly, it appears to have stirred up conflicts of interest within the Democratic elites. While some liberal media “tear Biden to pieces” almost as harshly as if he were Trump, others are trying to rationalise the administration’s decision. If so, it will be curious to see who will be the main beneficiary of these intra-elite “showdowns”. Kamala Harris has the best chances so far; she has prudently stepped into the shadows and, amid the failures of her boss, is trying to recoup some of the support she lost in the spring, when she was held responsible for the failure with migrants on the Mexican border. But it is only the eighth month of this administration, there will certainly be many more crises, as well as chances to stumble again.

America’s image as a “responsible superpower” has indeed faltered, but it is unlikely that American allies in other regions will learn from this story.

Some — as NATO allies — will rely on Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty as a guarantee of the US commitment to their security. Others — like Taiwan — will indulge in a sense of importance in the notorious great game of the great powers. Others — like Ukraine and Georgia — will hope the West will remain loyal because they see themselves as culturally belonging to a higher status in the hierarchy of “civilised peoples” than the Islamic “-stans” — a politically incorrect marker of their own significance in today’s times. Even now, the Europeans (and those who want to see themselves as European) seek to provide Washington with a “last service” by offering their territory to accommodate Afghan refugees — from each according to its ability.

Regarding international relations, Biden’s decision truly ended an era that began with the September 11, 2001 attacks. The fight against terrorism is no longer the defining paradigm of American security and foreign policy. The United States is moving — or returning — to a great-power standoff with China and Russia. It is this, according to Washington, that will determine the fate of humanity in the 21st century. Moreover, by withdrawing the military contingent, the United States does not intend to reduce its intelligence capabilities in the region. On the contrary, the Americans are now motivating the need to deploy additional intelligence resources in adjacent territories by reducing their “presence on the ground”. Officially — to monitor possible terrorist activity in Afghanistan and the nature of the Taliban’s relations with other Islamists.

But such an intelligence infrastructure will come in handy just for that very “great-power confrontation” with Moscow and Beijing in a zone that is sensitive from the point of view of both countries.

Overall, the long-term implications for American global dominance can be palpable. Before our very eyes, the nature of the phenomena of “use of force”, “alliance”, “based on the values of foreign policy” with its demonstrative humanism, which determined this dominance in the 20th century, is really changing toward Trump’s mercantilism.

For Eurasia, the Taliban’s coming to power is fraught with not leaving, but returning the topic of combating terrorism to the current agenda, and the advanced American weapons left in Afghanistan hypothetically bring this struggle to a new technological level. If the United States is convinced that it can afford to no longer see the fight against terrorism as the main line of ensuring its security, Russia does not have that luxury. Of course, the topic of combating terrorism never ceased to be relevant for Moscow for a single day. But, as already noted by profile experts in Russia and the United States, the very victory of the Islamists and the re-creation of the Islamic Emirate is a very dangerous signal to like-minded people around the world. Although the Taliban and conventional ISIS belong to different Islamic movements, this is a matter for the academic and theological discussions of experts. For ordinary people, including young people with a heightened Islamist identity, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, it makes no difference what colour a cat is if it catches mice. What didn’t work out in Iraq and Syria can happen in Afghanistan. It is not so important that the Taliban have a different model of state building from ISIS, different slogans, a different basis of support and a different approach to self-presentation. This is a success story that will tempt dozens of radical groups to repeat it.

It would be reasonable to expect a surge in the corresponding sentiments in certain Russian regions, in Central Asia, and in the Middle East. Cooperation in this area with Western countries is what Moscow has been striving for, from the 1990s right up until the arrival of Trump — it still seems desirable, but unlikely.

In the fight against terrorism, Western colleagues, with rare exception, shy away from cooperation with Moscow.

But a window of opportunity has opened up for working in this direction with those who are also alarmed by the arrival of the Taliban — China, India, and partly Iran, not to mention Russia’s Central Asian partners in the CSTO.

The new situation will require Moscow to exert more resources and focus on the “near abroad” and domestic politics, but on the external circuit, “overheating” can be avoided by “managing responsibility” with the allied countries and delicate diplomacy in relations with the Taliban. While they look negotiable, the appetite for ideological expansion and purposeful geopolitical adventures only grows when you feed it. A striking example of this is another significant participant in the Afghan conundrum who is likely to show himself soon — Turkish President Erdogan.

Conflict and Leadership
Afghanistan: A New Vietnam for the West
Alexander Rahr
The US, NATO, EU and the West – they failed miserably in Afghanistan. The withdrawal from the Hindu Kush and the resulting disaster are comparable to the ignominious defeat of the USA in Vietnam half a century ago.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.