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The Defeat in Afghanistan — a Watershed in the Cycle of Atlantic Decline

In crises and wars there are events which leave their mark on history because of how they make a decisive impact on the power contention, or because of how, almost like a chemical precipitate, they suddenly make deep trends that have been at work for some time coalesce. This is the case of the defeat of the United States and NATO in Afghanistan, which is taking the shape of a real watershed in the cycle of Atlantic decline.

For the moment, through various comments in the international press, it is possible to consider its consequences on three levels: America’s position as a power and the connection with its internal crisis; the repercussions on Atlantic relations and Europe’s dilemmas regarding its strategic autonomy; and the relationship between the Afghan crisis and power relations in Asia, especially as regards India’s role in the Indo-Pacific strategy.

Repercussions in the United States

Richard Haass is the president of the CFR, the Council on Foreign Relations; despite having served in George Bush Jr’s Republican administration, he is to be considered as the interpreter of a bipartisan orientation in the American community of foreign policy analysts and officials. Haass writes in Project Syndicate that abandoning Afghanistan was a withdrawal of choice, which may be just as disastrous as a war of choice, as was the 2003 Iraq war. The cost for the United States and its allies was enormous, but after 20 years, America had reached a level of limited involvement commensurate with the stakes in Kabul, i.e., averting the collapse of the Afghan government. Joe Biden, on the contrary, preferred to honour the deeply flawed agreement reached by Donald Trump in Doha, which cut out the sitting government of Afghanistan, and, as was widely predicted, momentum dramatically shifted to the Taliban. The grim aftermath of America’s strategic and moral failure will reinforce questions about US reliability among friends and foes far and wide

In The Economist, Francis Fukuyama concentrates on the domestic origins of the end of American hegemony, which, in his opinion, has already been going on for some time. The peak period of American hegemony — writes Fukuyama, echoing the dubious theses of a unipolar moment for the United States — lasted about 20 years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the global financial crisis in 2008. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States overestimated the effectiveness of military power to bring about fundamental political change, and in finance it under-estimated the impact of its free-market economic model on the imbalances of globalisation. The final effect of the Afghan affair on strategic relations is likely to be small: America had already survived a humiliating defeat when it withdrew from Vietnam. The much bigger challenge to America’s global standing is domestic: American society is deeply polarised, and has found it difficult to find consensus on virtually anything.

There is more apparent consensus regarding China, but a far greater test will be Taiwan: Will the United States be willing to sacrifice its sons and daughters on behalf of that island’s independence?. And similarly: would the United States risk military conflict with Russia should the latter invade Ukraine?. These are serious questions with no easy answers, but for Fukuyama a reasoned debate will probably be conducted primarily through the lens of how it affects the struggle between political factions.

In The Washington Post, David Ignatius wonders about the future of the administration. The Afghan disaster has shaken Biden’s foreign policy team. It may not recover completely, as happened to John Kennedy’s team in the case of Vietnam. Figures like Blinken or Sullivan are America’s best and brightest, as stated in the title of David Halberstam’s famous book. They had never known failure, but they ended up colliding with a stubborn enemy from another century.

The parallel with Vietnam is present in all international sources. We find both aspects the consequences of the defeat on America’s strategic position and questions about the cohesion of internal consensus — in the dilemmas of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s administration, which were recalled in Barry Gewen’s book The Inevitability of Tragedy. In the vexing question of how to wrest a decent interval between American withdrawal and the fall of Saigon, it was feared that a sudden departure would push splinter groups of the South Vietnamese army to side with Hanoi. The question of American credibility, only apparently imperceptible, hovered over everything; repercussions in Asia, especially in Japan, which could be driven to guarantee its own security by providing itself with a nuclear deterrent, were feared. Finally, there were fears about the reaction of American public opinion should withdrawal seem to be an unconditional rout.

We observe that it cannot be said that that decent interval, which cost 20,000 further American military casualties, really served subsequently to exorcise the image of failure. It is true, as Fukuyama argues, that the United States recovered its hegemony, but it overcame the Vietnam syndrome only thanks to the collapse of the USSR in 1989-91 and the war fought in the Persian Gulf by George Bush Sr. China today is not the same idol with feet of clay as the former Soviet Union. In any case, it is precisely Vietnam that Biden takes as his yardstick. On the one hand, in order to distance himself, he states that he does not want to sacrifice other lives in a conflict which is no longer one of America’s vital interests. On the other hand as Richard Holbrooke’s diaries report regarding the discussions throughout the Obama presidency, in the same vein as those of Nixon and Kissinger — he refused to consider the defence of human rights and democracy in Afghanistan as moral ties. The myth of a liberal order and its values falls apart, repudiated precisely by those who had held that flag up high.

Atlantic relations and Europe

In The Wall Street Journal, Russell Mead writes an abrasive piece about Biden’s Chamberlain moment, and denounces the consequences of the worst-handled foreign-policy crisis since the Bay of Pigs and the most devastating blow to American prestige since the fall of Saigon.

In Europe, where America’s allies had no say in either the substance or the timing of the American decision, this looks like yet another instance of the incoherent US unilateralism that marked President Obama’s reversal of his Syrian red line and much of Trump’s policy. After 9/11, America’s allies invoked Article 5 of the NATO mutual defence treaty to come to the aid of the United States: they deserved some real input into the decision to end the war, and they are right to resent the arrogant incompetence that presented them with a fat accompli.

Here Mead grasps an important point in the question of transatlantic reciprocity: the 2001 decision was the only occasion in the 70 years of the Atlantic Alliance when Article 5 was applied. This was a high moment in the cooperation between America and Europe, so much so that Kissinger argued Washington should drop its reservations about European defence. If Trump congratulated himself on casting doubt by using ambiguous sentences on mutual defence in NATO, Biden has dilapidated that transatlantic political capital in practice, ignoring specific European interests in the Afghan crisis. The EU will be put to the test: we shall see whether it will have the determination to react to this new glaring demonstration of its own strategic insufficiency.

The Indo-Pacific and the Indian question

Alongside Europe, Mead points out equally relevant strategic implications in Asia. Because of its massive population and economy, India will always be a linchpin of any American strategy 1n Asia, but New Delhi has always seen the world through the lens Of 1tS competition with Pakistan. [...] Now, as Islamabad cements its ties with Beijing, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan hands Pakistan a strategic victory and strengthens the most radical anti-Indian and anti-Western forces in its government. Few in New Delhi will perceive this catastrophe as a sign of Washington’s competence or reliability. If a third-tier country like Pakistan can tie the US in knots, Indians will ask: What chance does Washington have against China?

A comment by The Times of India confirms Mead’s thesis of anxiety about the sudden shift in regional balances. For Indrani Bagchi, its diplomatic editor, a new alliance could take shape, with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan at its heart, including China, Russia, Turkey, with Qatar and possibly Iran playing supporting roles. This would be a growing concern for New Delhi, which iS now closer to the United States and the West and which, together with Japan and Australia, sees China as its main strategic challenge. India could find itself face to face with an extended neighbourhood in which Pakistan would have a bigger arena to play against India, aided by Turkey, also hostile to India, under support from China and Russia. At the centre would be an inevitable rise in terrorism against India.

The fact is that the crisis openly displays the conceptual deficit of United States’ idea of a pivot towards Asia, which would consist in reducing its commitment to the Middle East and Central Asia, or in abandoning them, in order to concentrate on the Indo-Pacific as a counterweight to China. There is an objective linkage between regional crises and the different strategic theatres; in fact, the withdrawal triggers a dynamic that strikes in the West, in the US line of expansion towards the Persian Gulf, in India (the partner that the United States would like to engage in the East), and eventually in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. In the debate in New Delhi, reservations about the American vision of the Indo-Pacific were centred precisely on that; they stressed India’s interests towards the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, interconnected with Central Asian balances, which were not reflected in the American doctrine.

It is not only the withdrawal from Kabul that is taking place in confusion.

Lotta Comunista, July-August 2021