Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Biden’s Afghanistan Pullout Could Make the China Problem Harder

No, a complete withdrawal will not ease the U.S. pivot to China.

By , the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University, and , the executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society.
Troops return home from Afghanistan
U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division return home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan at Fort Drum, New York, on Dec. 10, 2020. John Moore/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

There are several strategic and political rationales for why U.S. President Joe Biden decided to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and end the United States’ role in the conflict. Shifting away from overemphasized counterinsurgency operations is logical, it’s self-evident that nation-building as once conceived is unachievable, the costs of maintaining current operations seem high to many, and, perhaps most notably, U.S. public opinion has soured on the war. If there is a single thing Biden and former U.S. President Donald Trump agree on, it is withdrawing from Afghanistan. Trump even put out a press release praising Biden for the decision.

However, there is one argument for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan that is just plain wrong: the idea that retreat will somehow enhance U.S. strategic competition with China. It won’t. On the contrary, it will complicate that problem.

There are several strategic and political rationales for why U.S. President Joe Biden decided to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and end the United States’ role in the conflict. Shifting away from overemphasized counterinsurgency operations is logical, it’s self-evident that nation-building as once conceived is unachievable, the costs of maintaining current operations seem high to many, and, perhaps most notably, U.S. public opinion has soured on the war. If there is a single thing Biden and former U.S. President Donald Trump agree on, it is withdrawing from Afghanistan. Trump even put out a press release praising Biden for the decision.

However, there is one argument for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan that is just plain wrong: the idea that retreat will somehow enhance U.S. strategic competition with China. It won’t. On the contrary, it will complicate that problem.

Withdrawal, the argument goes, is necessary to husband all available means and ways for the challenge from China. By this logic, the assets, systems, forces, and brainpower deployed in Afghanistan are needed elsewhere. The United States simply should not be committing primary resources to what is, at most, a tertiary problem when it needs to commit all it has to China’s pacing threat. Refocusing the entirety of U.S. national security institutions on Beijing is a superhuman effort that must be free from distraction. Whether the result in Afghanistan is protracted civil war or the fall of its freely elected government, the outcome will not significantly impact the U.S. national interest, the argument goes. Resources are zero-sum, even if threats are not. A difficult, yet obvious, choice must be made.

This line of thinking is misguided. In fact, maintaining a modest U.S. presence in Afghanistan would advance, rather than hinder, competition with China. It is bad geostrategy to pull out completely.

First, Afghanistan is part of the broader Asian chessboard the United States is competing strategically with China on. Consider geography: The U.S. air base at Bagram, Afghanistan, is closer to China than any base under the Indo-Pacific Command, and Afghanistan is the only country hosting U.S. forces that shares a land border with China. With withdrawal, the next closest base on the Central Command flank will be 1,300 miles away from China in Qatar. Beijing is already filling the vacuum left by the United States’ planned withdrawal: The moment Trump said he would pull out, China announced the Belt and Road Initiative would extend to Afghanistan. Beijing has leveraged its Belt and Road investments elsewhere to secure dual-use military facilities from Cambodia to Djibouti across the Indian Ocean. It is entirely plausible that in the coming years, a People’s Liberation Army Air Force presence will supplant the U.S. and NATO presence at Bagram as a desperate Afghan government seeks help to fill the vacuum left by the United States. This would significantly enhance China’s strategic influence well beyond Afghanistan into Central and Southwest Asia. Whereas the United States has strong alliances and a distributed presence to shape Chinese behavior in the western Pacific, Afghanistan remains NATO’s only presence remotely close to China’s western region. Just as Beijing wants to shape decisions in the United States’ neighborhood, Washington should not imprudently forfeit its influence in China’s.

This is not an argument for staying the course in Afghanistan but an argument against the U.S. penchant for closing down shop, consequences be damned.

Second, the vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal will undermine India’s security, the United States’ most important new strategic partner to counter Chinese coercion. The Biden administration’s most successful strategic initiative thus far has been the elevation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) to a summit-level grouping that addresses traditional and nontraditional security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. The United States has a clear interest in India’s ability to project power into the maritime domain and be a net exporter of security for the region. If the Afghan government holds after a U.S. pullout, then China’s strategic presence and influence on India’s northern flank will likely increase as the government seeks new partners. If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, then Pakistan’s influence over Afghanistan will increase as will extremists’ influence over Pakistan. Either way, India will be forced to redirect further resources and attention to its vulnerable flank and away from the Indian Ocean and maritime domain. Rather than enhancing India’s position, a U.S. withdrawal ties down one leg of the Quad.

Third, the optics of a Taliban victory will have a powerful impact on U.S. credibility with Asian allies. The Obama administration was stunned by negative reactions in Tokyo and Seoul to Washington’s decision not to enforce a red line against Syria in 2013. So far, Asian allies have been fairly quiet about the Afghanistan withdrawal decision. But if there are images of a triumphant Taliban tearing down residual vestiges of democratic governance and women’s rights, the image of U.S. failure will be indelibly imprinted in the consciousness of allies who also measure—and often question—U.S. staying power and commitment to common democratic values in their own region. Yes, Asian allies would prefer even more resources be shifted to their region to deal with China and North Korea. But as former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once warned, they will not be able to ignore compelling examples of U.S. retreat elsewhere in the world.

Finally, the most likely scenario for a post-U.S. Afghanistan will compel the United States to reengage, including militarily. We know that when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan or the Islamic State controlled parts of Iraq and Syria, these safe havens produced scores of fighters who then struck not only the United States but also key allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia and Indonesia. There is no separating the future of Afghanistan from the security of the U.S. homeland and its most important allies in the Indo-Pacific. Nor will complete withdrawal be a resource saver in the long run. Having foolishly withdrawn all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, then-U.S. President Barack Obama was forced to return U.S. forces two and half years later after a radical Islamist force conquered an area the size of Great Britain, trained and inspired hundreds of European bombers and soldiers, threatened the fall of the Iraqi government and control over its oil, and executed a genocide against the Yazidi people. It would have been smarter and less costly to have maintained a reduced ongoing presence than to leave and then return in force. It was this crisis more than anything that undercut the Obama administration’s much heralded 2011 “pivot” to Asia.

This is not an argument for staying the course in Afghanistan but an argument against the U.S. penchant for closing down shop, consequences be damned. Although a complete shutdown may be compelling for the “anti-endless war” crowd on the political left and right, this should be a strategy with a dial, not an on-and-off switch. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command does not require every intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance or special operations force asset currently in Afghanistan. Indeed, as much as the special operations community wants to join every other service in the China competition game, their most important missions in the coming years will probably not be in the area of the Indo-Pacific Command. The current U.S. presence in Afghanistan is neither draining the force structure nor is it hurting recruitment and retention—the U.S. military has not suffered a casualty in Afghanistan in nearly a year and a half and has suffered fewer than 100 deaths in the last eight years. None of Washington’s Asian allies have asked the United States to leave Afghanistan—this was a decision that reflected U.S. domestic politics rather than panic in the Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility about a residual U.S. presence at Bagram. The U.S. Defense Department should be able to focus on more than one problem at a time. A United States that cannot contend with China while maintaining a small, stabilizing presence in Afghanistan is likely a United States that cannot contend with China at all.

Michael J. Green is the senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University, and a former senior National Security Council official on Asia policy during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @JapanChair

Gabriel Scheinmann is the executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society. Twitter: @GabeScheinmann

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