Old-fashioned civil war had resumed in Afghanistan by about mid-August 2021. Overt internationalization of the war there had ended, but discreet internationalization of the war returned to the battlefield in a new framework. The gritty civil war — the new “guns of August” — presaged a greatly changed global balance of power. Events of 2021 did not merely awaken the slumbering “Great Game” for Central Asia, but something impacting the entire world.
The US became in an instant but a chimera in Central Asia. This was the same region which, in 1991, had welcomed Washington, the great new ally, as the region’s member states embraced revived independence.
But the United States of America had gone into its Afghan War in 2001 without the resilience, romance, and reverence of a laureate such as Rudyard Kipling to guide it.
It went into Afghanistan, and forced its allies along to accompany it, as an act of vengeance for the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. The US had no strategic objectives of a geopolitical or historical nature. So it left the war neither learning nor achieving anything.
With few exceptions, it fought the war as a process and didn’t bother its curly head with dreams of outcomes.
It fought a one-year war 20 times over, but failed even 20 times to learn a single strategic lesson. It squandered its own lives and treasures, and those of its allies and adversaries, without a philosophy, and without even the goal of a selfish strategic interest. It went into the realm of the Great Game insensitive to the interplays that had been in progress for centuries.
And it squandered the hard-earned banners of its national prestige of moral, technological, and sociological examples which once had earned it allies and pilgrims.
As I said in The Art of Victory: “If you don’t know where you’re going, every road will lead to disaster.” And, for the US and those allies whose voices Washington would not heed, its misadventure in Afghanistan indeed led to disaster.
Within Afghanistan itself, it was by no means clear at the end of August 2021 that the Taliban which had entered triumphal into the capital, Kabul, would remain in control of the country. Or at least all of it. But that was almost a side-issue in the bigger strategic tapestry.
What was clear was that the United States under its new President, Joe Biden, had suffered — by the manner of the US departure which he ordered from Afghanistan — its greatest strategic setback since the end of the Cold War.
That meant, too, that “the West” — essentially the allies of the US — also suffered one of its greatest collective reversals since, say, the end of World War II, 76 years earlier. The Western states quickly recognized in mid-August 2021 that the new US Administration had proven too proud to coordinate with its traditional allies. Pres. Biden, contrary to his promises, consulted not a single ally on the timing and method of his termination of US (and therefore Allied) engagement in Afghanistan.
The Central Asian states, the new allies of the West, also suffered a significant setback.
The biggest beneficiaries of the collapse of the US position in Afghanistan (and Central Asia) were Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), India, Iran, and Islamic jihadist movements.
Washington, at a stroke, gave Russia its opportunity to re-establish authority over what was the one-time Russian Empire in Central Asia. The “new Russian Empire” would not take the same form as the old Russian Empire, which the Soviets lost in 1990-91, but, then, the world had changed and “empire” had new meanings in the 21st Century.
With this, Washington gave — more than a century after the putsch which overthrew Tsar Nicholas II — the opportunity for Russia to resume its strategic growth.
Russia was confirmed on the path to global power status in a way that was not feasible under the Soviet control of the Kremlin. The Soviets had forsaken economic growth by limiting the freedoms of its people. Economic growth and food security, however, became the hallmarks of post-Soviet Russia, as well as the Central Asian states which had broken free of the Russian and Soviet empires.
But these Central Asian states were, by mid-August 2021, facing the reality that Moscow once again was emerging as a key determinant of their future.
Of more immediate concern for the US in the wake of its self-inflicted strategic defeat in Afghanistan was the reality that the shattered prestige of the United States had destroyed Washington’s credibility as an alliance partner at a time when it needed to build alliances to contain and constrain the PRC.
It became clear, with the collapse of US influence in Afghanistan in August 2021, even to those who failed to see it before, why the Communist Party of China (CPC/CCP) valued the election to the US Presidency of Joe Biden: because that was what would give the CPC a brief respite from the harsh competition imposed by former US Pres. Donald Trump.
Little of the magnitude of the US watershed reversal of August 2021 was evident in the US media. The Biden Administration itself seemed to accept the Afghanistan débâcle with a shrug of the shoulders, hinting that the affair would have passed into history before the mid-term Congressional elections in the US in November 2022. If, indeed, the watershed was to have slipped from voters’ minds a year later, the strategic ramifications would not be so easily forgotten.
The massive collapse of US prestige, and therefore authority, which occurred with the US’ shambled departure from Afghanistan in August 2021 was a gift on a scale which Beijing, Russia, and the radical Islamist movement, could never have anticipated. US prestige and strategic energy decline were balanced by the relative rise in prestige and strategic energy of the radical Islamist movements, Russia, Iran, and the PRC. This posed a problem for those moderate Muslim states which had delighted in the decline of the radical Islamist movements, and which now faced a revival in energy by the jihadists.
Only Turkey among the major Muslim states welcomed the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban, because the Turkish Government had, in the days since al-Qaida fragmented, assumed the great sponsorship of Sunni jihadism, teaming with its key ally, Qatar. Indeed, the economically- strained Turkey of Ottomanist Pres. Reçep Tayyip Erdo?an was fishing in troubled waters wherever it could to gain strategic reach before it ran out of cash.
The US collapse reintroduced strategic ambiguity — in a manner unfavorable to the US — into the US-PRC strategic competition. And it showed that the US had strategically withdrawn — intentionally or otherwise — from the competition with Russia and the PRC on the Eurasian landmass. And just as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91 would force the post-Soviet Russian Government into three decades in the wilderness, so the US collapse was likely to require considerable time for recovery, if it chose to recover.
The manner of the US departure from Afghanistan opened a new field of strategic maneuver for Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and India, in particular, as well as for Iran and Turkey. The “Great Game” for dominance of the Eurasian heartland, underway since the 18th Century and even earlier, has clearly resumed with alacrity; awoken from its stasis.
This report looks more at the consequences and future directions than on causes of the August 2021 Watershed, but it is worth stating à priori that attempts by US Pres. Joe Biden to blame the security situation solely on the Afghan National Army (ANA) were seen as another example of a betrayal by the US of an ally, something which would produce an enduring distrust of the US going forward.
What are the factors on the ground which have some portent for the immediate and long-term future?
- Re-Drawing the Lines of the Global Strategic Balance
Communist Party of China leader Xi Jinping won, with the collapse of the US in the tableau of chaos at Kabul, an 11th-hour respite in his battle to preserve his party and its control over mainland China.
It was already an empty bluster when Xi, in 2018, declared war (his words) on the US and said that a “new Thirty Years’ War” would result in the “global hegemony” of the PRC and would result in a new “rules-based world order”, this time determined by the CPC. And although the PRC was no longer in an economic position to impose its writ on the world — its economy was declining and its control of the domestic populace at a tipping point — its fortunes were improved as smaller states and allies of the US began to falter in their trust in Washington.
Even in Australia, one of the most consistent middle power allies of the US, the plummeting US prestige meant that a great faction of Australians was strengthened in its support of appeasement and obeisance to the PRC. This, in turn, would impact on the strength of the opposition by the Federal Government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Beijing’s strategic projection, and give Xi Jinping even more breathing space in the South-West Pacific.
The progressing, de facto US withdrawal from Central Asia, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America over recent years — emphasized by its “loss” of Central Asia in August 2021 — has already re-drawn the strategic architecture of the world. Until now, in the post-Cold War world, this was largely immaterial, in that there was no other power capable of inserting itself fully into the US’ global space, although the stealth transformation of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe was already paving the way for an evident return to classical balance of power frameworks.
When, on June 9, 2021, Pres. Biden told the leaders of the G7 nations, meeting in Cornwall, UK, that “the United States is back”, he presumably meant back in about 1913, when the US was an incipient global power. But even then, when the maxim “prestige is the credit rating of nations” applied, US prestige was high and rising. In August 2021 it was declining.
One immediate impact of the collapse of US prestige in August 2021 was on the alliance structure which Washington had for so long taken for granted. Most US alliance partners were careful not to further exacerbate the problem in public — because their own security also depended on US strategic influence — but privately, at very senior levels, all felt the need to re-assess their security arrangements. Some, like India, moved rapidly to emphasize links with Russia to share a vision in the short term of the stabilization and exploitation of Central Asia. This was a new twist in the Great Game — competition between British India, essentially, and Russia — for the first time since the Game began in the 18th Century. But it could not disguise the fact that, underlying it all, the Game itself was back in a dynamic phase after almost a century of stasis, and it would ultimately entail a resumed race for influence over Central Asia by Moscow and New Delhi.
Only India and Japan, in the post-Kabul framework, seemed motivated and unified in their determination to contain and constrain Beijing. The changed circumstances meant that strategic coordination between Tokyo and New Delhi would be stepped up, and greater dialog undertaken with the Republic of China (ROC: Taiwan). That meant that the so-called Quadripartite Alliance (the “Quad”) to confront the PRC, had been reduced to a bipartite alliance.
To paraphrase George Orwell in his novella, Animal Farm: “Two legs bad, four legs good.” But the Quad was being cut down to two strong legs, like it or not, given that Australia and the US showed no real signs of strategic revival.
Related: Oil Rebounds On Mexico Production Outage To be fair, Australia’s strategic isolation began before the Kabul collapse; its unanticipated swerve toward totalitarian-type suppression of its population and the isolation of the continent began as a response to the COVID-19 crisis, and that, too, fell neatly into Beijing’s lap.
In Central Asia, if the situation was handled well, the “new Great Game” could be resolved amicably and mutually profitably between Russia and India. And in the meantime, with the collapse of US influence in the region, the CPC had every right to think it had acquired more breathing space in its race to re-structure itself to meet the strenuous challenges to its continued control of the Chinese mainland.
- The State of Alliances
It is not only the basic architecture of the balance of power and the condition of the Afghan people which were altered by the Afghanistan Watershed. It was the impact it had (and will have) on the level of trust and reliability within every major alliance, and not just those engaging the United States.
UK-US “Special Relationship”: Weakened. But, then, it was never the relationship that the British believed it to be. The “Special Relationship” was a concept of World War II UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, more to convince the US polity than anything else to support the Allies who were fighting the Axis.
Later UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997-2007) has, in recent years, been coming under increasing attack in Britain for his unquestioning support for the US Bill Clinton wars in then-disintegrating Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But the latest Biden handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal has led to cries in the UK Parliament (and in public) of “what special relationship?”.
Pres. Biden has, apart from his failure to consult the UK (or any other allies with forces in Afghanistan) on the US approach to withdrawal of forces, consistently worked against the present UK Government because of his (Biden’s) opposition to UK withdrawal from the European Union (EU), and in favor of Scotland’s withdrawal from the United Kingdom. The loss of two UK nationals and the child of another in the DI’ISH-K attack at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 26, 2021 (the suicide bombing killed some 18 US troops, and almost 200 Afghans), added to growing British disenchantment with the US as a security partner.
CANZUK: Strengthened. The Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom bloc, which has been emerging as a strategic entity, has begun to take on the connotation not just that it would be a cohesive ally of the US in “rebuilding the West”, but that it may now be the significant entity which provides global security for “the West” in the event that the US fails to maintain the security of the West.
The CANZUK bloc, however, does have hurdles to overcome, despite the growing recognition of the importance of its historically common factors: common head-of-state; common legal and parliamentary systems; common language; common defense structuring; deeply integrated intelligence systems, and so on. The bloc has been moving toward internal free trade agreements (FTAs) which ensure not only open trade but free movements of peoples, but these are offset by the reality that two of the states (Canada and New Zealand) have heavily left-wing governments which temporize with the PRC, while two (Australia and the UK) have more-or-less conservative governments which have held a harder line against Beijing.
Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): Strengthened considerably. Significantly, the SCO’s July 15-16, 2021, Summit clearly anticipated the scale of the impending Afghan crisis, even if Washington did not. Moreover, Afghanistan was a candidate for membership in the SCO, and the Taliban-controlled Islamic Caliphate would almost certainly pursue that.
The SCO grew out of regional cooperation understandings in Eurasia from the 1950s, but it crystallized as an organization in 2002. This watershed of the US retirement from the region, however, brings the SCO out of the shadows to become a significant coordinating body for Eurasia. This specifically adds strength and credibility to Beijing’s and Moscow’s dominance, once again, over the historical khanates of Central Asia.
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS): Strengthened considerably.
Russia founded the CIS in December 1991 to provide cohesion among former member states of the Soviet Empire, now — as with the SCO — comes out of the shadows with a working mechanism in place for trade, security cooperation, and other coordination.
Georgia withdrew from the CIS in 2008, and Ukraine effectively does not participate in it, but Moscow must be expected to find ways very soon to entrench mechanisms to bind the CIS states more closely.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO): Weakened considerably. It was weakened in proportion to the extent that NATO and NATO member countries contributed to the security program which the US-led in Afghanistan, and to the extent that NATO leaders were pointedly not consulted on the US withdrawal planning (despite Pres. Biden’s appearance at the NATO summit on June 14, 2021). The NATO leaders agreed that the Afghanistan withdrawal should occur, but were then surprised when the Biden Administration failed to coordinate the action.
There is widespread belief among NATO states that the Biden Administration had actually refused to allow comprehensive withdrawal plans to be discussed for fear that this would engender panic. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In any event, after Pres. Biden’s attempt in June 2021 to indicate that “America is back”, the events of August 2021 were to effectively bring NATO to its lowest point of mutual confidence since the founding of the Alliance in 1949.
This will reinforce the trend by many Continental European member states to pursue independent, European Union-linked defense and defense-supply options.
Australia-New Zealand-US Treaty (ANZUS): Weakened considerably. ANZUS, which Australia regards as its principal security alliance, was already weakened over the past decade by some elements of miscommunication, despite the fact that, at a military level, Australia and the US became engaged in greater operational integration.
The humiliation of the US in the manner of the ending of Coalition involvement in Afghanistan was taken as an Australian humiliation and caused increased questioning in Australia as to the value and wisdom of continuing to be a junior partner in the ANZUS alliance. The New Zealand Government had already made its choice in choosing to temporize with the People’s Republic of China on ideological and trade grounds. The August Watershed merely reinforced the NZ Government on this path.
UKUSA Accords (“Five Eyes”): Weakened, but stable. The intelligence exchange alliance between the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, was already suffering because of bureaucratic bloat and a failure to share common intelligence appreciations at a strategic level. All members have recently committed to a continuation of the process, but “Five Eyes” lacks a common perspective on strategic threats and opportunities.
Quadripartite Alliance: Weakened. The emerging bloc of India, Japan, the US, and Australia — designed to contain strategic expansion by the People’s Republic of China — recognized that the US prestige collapse significantly affected the cohesiveness of the bloc.
There were, by late August 2021, indications that India and Japan were becoming increasingly committed to unilateral steps to increase their visible commitments to military, economic, and other actions to deter PRC actions in East and Central Asia. What is significant is that Japan and India are moving increasingly to make decisions on the basis of their own perceptions, rather than to rely on the Biden Administration.
Japan’s commitment to the independent military support for the Republic of China (Taiwan: ROC) in the face of PRC military action was a significant watershed in the Japan-US relationship, bearing in mind that such a move automatically committed the US to any major military action, once a formal conflict was joined by Japan against the PRC.
Australia, still deep in malaise because of authoritarian responses to the COVID-19 crisis, has yet to take on board the Quad ramifications of the US actions in Afghanistan, at a policy level, and would need to find ways to shake off the strategically damaging lockdown of the nation before it could respond effectively to the changed regional security situation.
- The Re-Commencement of the Afghanistan Civil War
Events of August 2021 showed how flawed the US approach to seeking “peace” in Afghanistan was, even during the latter part of the Trump Administration, when it believed that the Taliban alone was the part of the equation which needed to be addressed.
In essence, the US signaled, by excluding the Afghan Government from initial “peace talks”, that it essentially had abandoned the Government in the belief that a “return of the Taliban was inevitable”, and that Pres. Ghani — and therefore the Afghan National Army (ANA) — had no future. Little wonder that Pres. Ghani departed as soon as US Pres. Biden indicated that he, too, had fled from Afghanistan.
The US even acknowledged in its negotiations that the Taliban would be referred to as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, implying de-recognition of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
So the manner in which the US began negotiations with the Taliban, without the involvement of the Afghanistan Government which had essentially been structured and emplaced by the West, actually empowered the revived confidence of the Islamist group. So keen was Washington to achieve a stable Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Coalition forces that it allowed the Taliban to dictate the structure of talks.
By failing to include the Afghan Government, and the major Dari-speaking groups, and the Shi’a and non-Pushtun Sunni Afghanis, Hazara, Turkmen, and Tajik groups, the US ensured that no single group — not even the cohesive and zealous Taliban — would be able to step smoothly into office when the Coalition forces departed.
This was exacerbated by the presence of “foreign” jihadist movements, but particularly DI’ISH-Khorasan, (also known as ISIS-Khorasan) which has been bitterly opposed to the Taliban and therefore to the Taliban’s ally, al-Qaida.
And so it was to be.
The vacuum which Washington created in Kabul in August 2021 was immediately filled in the short term by the Taliban, which had won a series of rapid successes in many towns and cities across Afghanistan as dispirited Government troops evaporated. But the Taliban’s Islamic Caliphate was immediately challenged by the rump of the Government of Pres. Ashraf Ghani, which had been assumed — incorrectly — would have to give way (and legitimacy) to the Taliban.
First Vice-Pres. Amrullah Saleh, the former Interior Minister and intelligence chief (and a Tajik), automatically became Acting President of Afghanistan when Pres. Ghani fled his post and went into exile (ultimately in the United Arab Emirates).
Acting Pres. Saleh moved back to the safety of his homeland in the Panjshir Valley, in the North, and the protection of the Tajik-dominated National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, which resumed its military operations and began to retake towns and cities which the Taliban had occupied when the Afghan National Army (ANA) had, with the absence of political leadership and operational support, evaporated.
And by late August 2021 the National Resistance Front (NRF) forces under Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Northern Alliance leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, were poised to be able to pressure Kabul. Ahmad Shah Massoud — assassinated on September 9, 2001, in Takhar, Afghanistan — created a legacy now being taken up by his son, whose NRF works with former Northern Alliance fighters of the Second Front to oppose the Taliban.
There is a twist, potentially, in the way the principal combatants in this conflict could reach a partial agreement. Both Iran, which may have some influence with the National Resistance Front, and the PRC, which has bought influence with the Taliban, have an overriding interest in seeing a major set of gas and oil pipelines reaching from Iran across Afghanistan to the PRC’s Xinjiang Province. This would require both of the main Afghan warring factions to agree to safe transit of the pipeline, presumably for a price.
Conceivably, the pipelines could cross entirely in areas controlled by Dari speakers, perhaps touching on areas controlled by Uzbeki speakers, through to the Wakhan Corridor's narrow isthmus which takes Afghanistan up to the Xinjiang border of the PRC. This would, if achieved, be a major victory for Beijing, and Tehran, quite apart from the prospect of exploiting Afghanistan’s rich mineral resources, in which the PRC has already been investing.
The revived Afghan Civil War will be shaped by the significant upgrade in military technologies used by the combatants, to a large extent the result of abandoned US-supplied military equipment for the ANA. Some $83-billion worth of equipment, including at least 208 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, were abandoned (although appr. 43 aircraft were flown out of the country during the collapse) and more than 76,000 vehicles and artillery pieces.
The real impact, however, comes from the abandonment of some 600,000 small arms and light artillery weapons.
These will almost certainly stimulate a revival of the Taliban-inspired jihadist insurgency in Uzbekistan (the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: IMU), which the present Government in Tashkent had spent years eliminating.
The advanced systems, such as the combat and transport and intelligence aircraft and the helicopter fleet (including Mi-17, MD-530, and UH- 60 helicopters), may never be effectively used by the Taliban, except where former ANA officers can be induced into Taliban service, but they could be sold to raise funds.
The loss of personnel files on ANA personnel and Afghans who supported the Coalition forces was, by late 2021, already being felt as targeted searches were mounted by Taliban units to find those trained enemies.
- The Resumption of Russian Influence Over Central Asia
If anyone was ready for the August 2021 Watershed of Afghanistan it was Russian Federation Pres. Vladimir Putin.
He had witnessed the fluctuating rises and falls of US interest in, and penetration of, Central Asian states in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the loss by the Soviets of the historical Russian Empire in Central Asia. In that regard, Pres. Putin was aware that the re-election of US Pres. Donald Trump in the November 2020 elections would have seen the US further consolidate its alliance with the five Central Asian states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.
Russia had, even through 2020, been continuing to build back its military links into the Central Asian states, largely to strengthen Russia’s position vis-à-vis the PRC. It had also “learned its lessons” from the Soviet military experience in Afghanistan, and had carefully begun to rebuild ties with the Taliban and with groups opposed to the Taliban.
Pres. Putin has, since mid-August 2021, made explicit commitments of support to the Central Asian states to help protect them from radical Islamist activities which could spread across the Afghan borders. But, as importantly, Russia would help protect against the flood of small arms and other light weapons which would now almost certainly flood into the region from stocks abandoned by the ANA and US forces in Afghanistan.
Significantly, the new Russian relationship with the Central Asian states will not attempt to replicate the old Russian and Soviet empires but should be expected to clearly offer security support and expanded trading and social connections as a means to consolidate influence and to keep US and PRC influences out, to the extent possible.
In the longer term, Russia continues to have “blue water” objectives in its southward thrusts, and ultimately hopes its links with Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan could further its ability to trade into the Indian Ocean. Would this also include consideration of strengthened links with Pakistan in the face of Indian attempts to further dismember its neighbor?
For Russia, the new situation after the August 2021 Watershed holds opportunities but requires nuance and delicacy.
- The Perception of Declining US Will, Capability, and Reliability
Was, in fact, the ill-considered manner of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan an indicator of declining US will, capability, and reliability?
Certainly it caused a massive decline in the prestige of the US, as perceived by the outside world, and even within the US itself. And the 2020 election year in the US also demonstrated that the country had been distracted from any sense of global purpose. Declining productivity in the US economic sector and the reliability of the US as an alliance partner were definitely in evidence.
History has shown that the US has had the ability to rapidly consolidate its views and capabilities in the face of threat. Recent activities are not an indication of future performance, in other words.
The question is, however: What would it take to trigger a political galvanizing of US will and clarity of objective? Would it be, for example, a PRC military move against Taiwan or against Japanese interests in the East China Sea?
And, even in the face of a “clear and present danger” — to a greater degree than already exists — could the US political and bureaucratic establishment mobilize the appropriate responses?
Related: Oil Could Rise Further As OPEC Suggests Keeping Output Cuts In Place
The primary strategic factor which enabled the US to respond rapidly and flexibly to challenges in the past was its greater quotient of individual freedom than existed elsewhere in the world. This enabled entrepreneurship, creativity, and productivity in the formation of capital, ideas, and action.
So, to the degree that this sense of individual liberty has declined in the US in recent decades (as it has declined elsewhere in the West), so, too, has the ability to respond rapidly and creatively to threats and opportunities. And given that the erosions of individual freedoms, sacrificed to the rise of unproductive “entitlements”, would be difficult to reverse, it must be assumed that the US/West faces a declining ability to respond when compared with, say, several decades (or a century) earlier.
Statistics in the US for productivity, life expectancy, and relative wealth in the world on a per capita basis, all show declines. Similarly, the occurrences of the creation of watershed disruptive technologies have marked a significant decline over the past two decades, and this particularly impacts the US. Added to this are the short-term concerns about the US Biden Administration’s durability.
Has the Afghanistan Watershed limited the ability of the Biden White House to re-frame itself? Or has Pres. Biden become a political liability to his own party? Given the overwhelming lack of popularity of Vice-Pres. Kamala Harris within the Democratic Party leadership, there is a reluctance to promote an early transfer of power from the President to the Vice-President.
But will the Afghanistan Watershed lead to the loss by the President’s Democratic Party of control of the US House of Representatives and Senate in the November 2022 elections? Quite probably, despite statements by Democrats that the embarrassments of August 2021 will have faded within the year or so before the next election.
It is less a matter of whether US voters will remember the anguish of the humanitarian disaster of August 2021 but whether a lingering distrust in government will still exist in November 2021. It probably will.
- The “New Breathing Space” for Xi Jinping: Real or Illusory?
Nothing which has occurred in the past few months or years shows any sign of impacting the continuing slide in the strategic fortunes of the People’s Republic of China and therefore of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Afghanistan Watershed provides the opportunity for some eventual relief for the PRC in achieving overland oil and gas supplies from Iran and the Middle East, but even that will require several years of investment and work. Yes, the Afghanistan events reduced the immediate pressure of US engagement in Central Asia, on the PRC’s Western flank; and, yes, the 2020 US elections removed the immediate pressures from the Trump Administration.
But the underlying pressures on the PRC remain its lack of sufficient indigenous food production; its lack of clean water; its aging (and therefore less productive) population; its risk of discontent from the PRC’s ultra-rapid urbanization of its population; the rising costs (and commensurate lack of competitiveness) of PRC labor; and so on.
Yes, within the Communist Party, Xi’s fortunes were improved by the decline of US fortunes as a result of the Afghanistan collapse. But Xi shows no sign of abating his need to suppress potential opposition from the rich private sector of the PRC population and the influence which oligarchs have within some of the party leadership.
Xi Jinping is aware that he and his “ultra-maoist” faction has little option other than to begin closing down the PRC’s borders and relying less on the global markets. The opportunities for greater trade in Central Asia because of the US’ effective withdrawal (not just from Afghanistan) merely buys some more time to manage the trend of decline facing the PRC.
It may also allow Pres. Xi to reduce the volume of his “wolf warrior diplomacy” aimed at shouting down those states which resist the PRC (Taiwan, Australia, etc.), although any bluster regarding Taiwan should at this stage be considered merely a strategic probe to determine the responsiveness of the US.
- The Status of the US Dollar
The US dollar retains global pre-eminence because no other currency exists with the dollar’s acceptance level, psychological support (prestige), and distribution variables (money supply).
Attempts by Russia and the PRC to promote replacement currencies have gone nowhere, and the PRC’s renminbi will likely decline in appeal except among Beijing’s close trading allies. Beijing’s attempts to introduce a new digital currency are more for the purpose of controlling the PRC domestic population than in any realistic expectation that it would facilitate external trade.
But none of this means that the lifespan of the US dollar in international trade is infinite. Still, with the declines or weaknesses apparent in most economies, the US dollar retains its workhorse utility and seems likely to see a stable trading pattern for the immediate future. Even the massive and rapidly-growing US debt is not in a position to collapse the US economy, although continuing declines should be expected in the US economy.
The debt specter, however, must eventually be addressed deliberately if history itself does not address it in its own inexorable march.
- The Prospect for Irrational US Actions to Restore Control
Pres. Joe Biden, on August 27, 2021, ordered the first of what would be a series of US unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) strikes against DI’ISH-K sites in Afghanistan.
That was anticipated, given the President’s need to show some decisiveness in defending the US position as it withdrew from Afghanistan. It was clear, however, that this was an “underwhelming” response to the humiliation the US was suffering. As a result, the President was expected to face pressure to make more decisive expressions of US resolve and capability.
The question was whether Pres. Biden would escalate actions to a dangerous level which could precipitate a broader conflict. And, if so, what could that escalation entail?
There was no indication that the President had the desire or ability to undertake any “prestige elevating” actions abroad which might lead to security instabilities. Clearly, the UCAV strikes and the visit by Vice-Pres. Kamala Harris to Singapore and Vietnam were perceived (again) as “underwhelming”, so additional options were being considered in Washington.
These could include reserving “the right” to intervene with air power in the future in Afghanistan, but this would probably mainly be in support of Taliban objectives in suppressing DI’ISH-K. It could also include harsher US military actions in Syria or the Persian Gulf, as well.
What is possible, however, is that the Biden State Dept. will continue seeking United Nations-sanctioned military intervention in Ethiopia on alleged “human rights” grounds. From the Biden State Department’s perspective, this would show a “heightened moral cause”, although the US Biden Administration approach to breaking up its old ally, Ethiopia, is not shared by many and not supported by intelligence on the ground in the Nile region.
The decline in respect for US strategic leadership may, in fact, cause the current attempts by the Biden Administration to escalate pressures on Ethiopia to backfire. Similarly, the Biden State Department’s attempts to re-open the Clinton and Obama administrations’ “unfinished war” against Serbia may find little international support.
Another important question, then, is whether the Afghanistan Watershed could merely compound the malaise within US national security operations?
Most probably it has compounded the malaise, while the Biden White House moves its focus, urgently, to merely retaining Democratic majorities in Congress in the 2022 elections.
- A Major Beneficiary: India
India, although disquieted by the setback to its security partner, the US, recognizes that its broader security options have been opened.
There is growing confidence in New Delhi that it can confront and contain the PRC; that it can make gains in Central Asia; that it can develop its own strategic relationships; and that it can continue to improve its economic situation.
It is now firmly “the rising power”.
The opportunities of Central Asia will probably not cause the Indian Government to diminish its focus on expanded maritime capabilities and strategic reach into South-East Asia, however.
In broader terms, August 2021 should be seen as the start of India as the new rising power. After all, India’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 was double that of Russia ($2.708-trillion versus $1.473-trillion), and almost parallel with the UK ($2.710-trillion). Not that GDP figures alone tell the strategic reality. The PRC’s claimed 2020 GDP of $14.723-trillion is substantially fictitious and does not describe the hollowness of the PRC economy.
Nonetheless, India has gained great confidence from the Afghanistan Watershed, even though the event would likely bring challenges as well as opportunities.
It did bring forward the prospect of a renewed conflict with Pakistan as part of the Indian necessity to cut off the PRC’s landbridge through Pakistan-controlled Azad Kashmir and, once and for all, gain its own landbridge to Central Asia.
So a primary takeaway from the Afghanistan Watershed is that it does bring forward the prospect of that new Indo-Pakistan war. It is possible that this could be considered for the Spring of 2022.
The Afghanistan Watershed was foreseeable and was foreseen. Only the humanitarian scale and the revelation that the Emperor, Joe Biden, had no clothes came as a news event.
It was, however, the “news event” which created the strategic consequence: the sudden decline in US prestige and regard for its military competence. As with the force multiplication in 2020 of the COVID-19 crisis, the rapid spread of “news” created a viral mass psychosis. In the case of the US and its allies, that psychosis was expressed in widespread shock and depression, causing political and strategic paralysis.
It reinforced the Napoleonic maxim that, on the battlefield, “the moral is to the physical as two is to one” (ie: psychological factors on the battlefield are twice as important as physical aspects). But as I noted in The Art of Victory, in the strategic context, psychological factors are perhaps a hundred times more important than physical factors.
But the loss to the US of significant strategic access to Central Asia after 30 years of opportunity is a physical consequence of the mishandling by Washington of the Afghanistan situation. Significantly, it all stems from the absolute lack of grand strategic objectives of the US with the end of the Cold War, and particularly the lack of strategic objectives with the US initial encroachment into Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.
The old US maxim, Failure to plan means planning to fail, can be interpreted into the grand strategic framework as Failure to develop a strategic plan means planning to have a strategic failure.
By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.
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