ASH: US pulls out of Afghanistan to focus on China problem, but that is harder now

ASH: US pulls out of Afghanistan to focus on China problem, but that is harder now
US president Joe Biden pulled out of Afghanistan to fully focus on his rivalry with China, but the pull out was too fast and ended in a debacle that will undermine his support in the wider showdown with Beijng. / Wiki
By Tim Ash of BlueBay Asset Management in London August 16, 2021

I held back from commenting as did not want to get pulled into the 24 hour news cycle, but herein are a few thoughts given it was raised in the mainstream media.  

First, the fact the Biden administration pulled the plug on allies and friends in Afghanistan, and against the advice of allies in NATO, just affirms its all encompassing focus on China, in foreign policy.  

I think there was a perception that under Biden, there would be a softer stance there than under US president Donald Trump. Actually Trump was never ideological on China, he was always willing to cut a deal, the best deal ever, but Biden is ideological. His team have a huge issue with China - human rights, threat to US hegemony, etc. It means more tensions, risks around the US - China relationship, whether around trade, IP, Cyber, Taiwan, HK, Xighurs. And it is really hard to see where there could be a deal. The Biden guys really do see it as a fight for survival with China.  

Second, while the domestic political consequences of this for Biden might be limited, as polls show 70% supportive of the Afghan troop withdrawal, make no mistakes this is a huge foreign policy defeat for the US.  

The phased withdrawal was one thing, but the chaos of the departure, and the subsequent collapse of the Ghani administration is on Biden’s watch. I know Biden said all US troops out by September 11 (with the ground work laid by Trump), but I think rather like Trump and Syria and Iraq, the assumption was that some minimal level of US troops would remain in small scale for training and logistics to support NATO allies and the Afghan army, to at least hold the line with the Taliban.  

The fact that the US pulled air and logistical support for the Afghan army was the straw that broke the camels back. Just think that the US only had 3,000 military personnel in the country, which compares with the like 30,000 in South Korea, and the bang for buck there in terms of holding up the country, countering Islamist terrorism was huge.  

The US foreign policy and defence establishment is pretty much united that this is a really dumb move - most DC friends in the Biden team I talk to are in total shock and lock down - one State Department DAS expressing her shock on Twitter before deleting the post. The US had got to a position in Afghanistan which was pretty sustainable at a relatively modest cost - few US guys were dying, similar in many respects to the casualties for example in the Sahel or East Africa, doing similar operations.  

I don’t think many people actually thought the US would go to zero on September 11, which seems to be the reality. That has been the shock, and caused the chaos.  

The widespread perception is that the US has shown, again, it is not a reliable partner or ally - and coming back of the Biden team decision to screw the Ukrainians on Nord Stream 2.  

The US wants allies to back it in the bigger battle with China, or perhaps Russia, but why should they? If the Biden team want to convince people that the US is back, they have now made that task much harder.  

Remember here that most NATO allies - Germany, the UK, France, Turkey – are incredulous over this move. They were ok with their existing commitments in Afghanistan and saw them as sustainable when set against the risks from terrorism and migration coming out of Afghanistan.  

Question what this now means going forward - what about other places which depend on the US - Iraq, Ukraine, Baltic states. On the latter Baltic leaders must be asking whether the US/NATO will come to their defence if attacked by Russia (Article 5 trigger), which is a pretty incredible turnaround.  

Does it mean the Biden administration will want to exert itself elsewhere to show it is tough? I would watch China and perhaps Russia - albeit note there that the NS2 climb down and the Geneva summit suggested that Biden does not want difficult relations with Putin because it wanted to focus on China. The other way to look at this is will US adversaries see this is an opportunity to go on the offensive, knowing that the US is weak, indecisive and unwilling to act in defence of allies. Watch there perhaps Putin in Ukraine, etc.  

Third, hard not to see the pull-out as increasing risks of larger migrant flows, and terrorism. Likely that means multiples more migrants from Afghanistan, with a population of 30m. That means problems for the likes of Turkey, Europe, maybe North Africa.  

What happens if there is another big terror attack, coming out of Afghanistan? How will US policy react then?  

Fourth, likely increases the geopolitical importance and influence of neighbouring states - Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in particular. The US will need bases from which to launch attacks on terrorists still operating out of Afghanistan, and I guess Pakistan is still important therein. It’s still a conduit for US - Taliban talks, even though the US feels aggrieved that often it was pulling the other way in terms of its approach towards Afghanistan.  

Pakistan always disliked the Western involvement in Afghanistan as they saw it as opening the way for Indian influence, and I guess with the Taliban back that channel will be closed. China will have decent relations with the new Taliban, through Pakistan, and we might see investment therein in the energy sector, in particular.  

The fact that the US withdrawal opens the way for China, is another reason making the US pull out that much more difficult to understand.  

Note Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan  secured leverage from Biden by agreeing to do security for the US at Kabul airport - guess they don’t need that now. So does this mean Biden can go back to being tough on Erdogan?  



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