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Afghanistan collapse hits American prestige The Excelsior 24 Aug 2021
The collapse of the democratic government in Afghanistan resulted in President Biden addressing the nation and defending his decision stating that the US could not stay there forever and the Afghan government and army, which it funded, equipped and trained, were responsible for their own country. His own intelligence agencies had forewarned the fall of Kabul, though not at such an early date. The takeover of Kabul was compared to the collapse of Saigon in 1975, when helicopters lifted the last Americans from rooftops of the embassy. Both were flights in disgrace.
Within the US, politicians and Afghan veterans criticized the government for abandoning the country, despite huge sacrifices of American lives. While in Vietnam, the US lost over 58,000 soldiers and in Afghanistan almost 2,500, the impact of abandoning Afghanistan was geopolitically far greater with Pakistan, Russia and China being the gainers. US reputation is currently in doldrums, many claiming that the US is an unreliable ally.
Historically, US interference for its own interests have created more problems than benefits. Its invasion of Iraq, supporting the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, and attempts to impose democracy in nation’s divided by tribal and religious loyalties, failed miserably. The rise of the ISIS in Iraq led to massacres of innocents. The world has yet to witness the demise of the ISIS. Its suppression in one region results in its rising elsewhere. Its ideology is here to stay. Libya is in the throes of a civil war. This war has destroyed a nation which was once a major oil exporter and drawn in neighbouring countries into the quagmire.
The same may be the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban government was supported by multiple terrorist groups. It is unlikely that they would be suppressed despite its claims. It is possible that they could be compelled to lie low currently and permitted to resume activities after global pressure recedes. Resistance to the Taliban has begun to rise and could result in increased violence. The world remains uncertain of the future of Afghanistan. The legitimacy given to the Taliban by the US when it signed the peace agreement last year, ignoring the Afghan government, may be its undoing.
The US’s unilateral decision to withdraw also brought out cracks within the NATO, which was not consulted. NATO attempted to create an adhoc grouping to maintain forces in Afghanistan but without support from the US airbase in Bagram it was not feasible. Armin Laschet, successor of Angela Merkel, as Germany’s Chancellor, termed the troop withdrawal as, ‘the greatest debacle that NATO has experienced since its foundation.’
The Time, in an article ‘Rely on America? The lessons for Asia as Biden deserts Afghanistan’ of 15 Aug stated, ‘As in Vietnam and Iraq, Afghanistan again serves as a reminder of America’s capacity for mayhem with its ill-thought-out interventions and reckless retreats.’ It adds, ‘America’s irresponsible abdication of Afghanistan comes at a time when it is trying to reassert its leadership in Asia and persuade countries in the region to pick a side in its great-power competition with China.’ In the overall scenario, instead of proving itself as an ally of weaker nations against China, Biden did the opposite.
China was quick to exploit this failure of US policy. Its mouthpiece the Global Times stated in an article of 15th Aug, ‘Its (US) defeat in Afghanistan will have major implications across the world; It brings into question the competence of its (US) political and military leadership, its willingness to engage in further military entanglements, and its reliability and commitment as an ally. If it can make such a huge miscalculation and suffer such a catastrophic defeat in Afghanistan, then who is going to trust its judgement in East Asia, or the South China Sea.’
Hinting at Taiwan, another article stated, ‘In the past two decades, the Kabul government cost over 2,000 US soldiers, $2 trillion, and the majesty of the US against the ‘bandits.’ But how many lives of US troops and how many dollars would the US sacrifice for the island of Taiwan.’ China is insisting that the US cannot be a trusted ally.
To offset global criticism and reaffirm its status as a trusted ally, while countering China’s growing influence, the US Vice President, Kamala Harris, will be visiting Singapore and Vietnam this week. She will be seeking to delink Afghanistan with US ties to Southeast Asia. How much will she succeed is yet to be seen.
There is no doubt that the decision to withdraw and leave Afghanistan to its fate will haunt the US and impact its standing as a reliable ally to weaker nations. The US reputation for dumping allies is also not new. In 2019, the US abruptly abandoned its Kurdish allies in Northern Syria, leaving them at the mercy of Turkey. In the case of Afghanistan, the US left the country to the mercy of Pakistan backed Taliban.
It may not be fair to blame Biden alone for this decision, as actions leading towards dumping Afghanistan had already been initiated by Trump, who post signing the agreement with the Taliban, compelled the Ghani government to release 5000 prisoners. Biden had stated at the time of his swearing in, ‘We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.’ However, a few months later he changed and ordered withdrawal, dumping Afghanistan to the wolves.
On the contrary, the Biden administration is concentrating on strengthening the QUAD, of which India is a major ally. This implies that the US emphasis has shifted from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia and China. Will this remain a priority for future US administrations or would US interest move elsewhere will always be a question mark with nations whom the US seeks to partner with.
India seeks no support from any nation in handling its territorial disputes. Its armed forces possess these capabilities. It desires strategic partnerships to enable it to technologically enhance its military capabilities and support nations which are its partners in the Indo-Pacific. Hence, Indo-US relations would endure events like Afghanistan.