18th August 2021
The fall of Kabul to the Taliban, and the complete chaos that ensued in the Kabul airport, turned many against President Biden’s foreign policy choice. Watching the Taliban takeover, on television screens and on social media, many around the world, particularly Afghans, furiously expressed their anguish at being left in the lurch. However, President Biden has been standing firm, and justifying his decision as being hard and controversial, but the right one to make. President Biden has been reiterating his intention to not bequeath a 20-year-old war to another presidency, and concentrate more on the clear and present dangers to America’s national security. “I’m now the fourth American President to preside over war in Afghanistan — two Democrats and two Republicans. I will not pass this responsibly on — responsibility on to a fifth President,” Biden said.
As Vice President to Barack Obama, Biden was critical of the troops surge, and was in favour of a leaner force presence focussed more on counter-terrorism and not counter-insurgency or nation building in Afghanistan. When Joe Biden entered the Oval Office as the 46th President, his call for “Restoring America” was quite vocal, and came in accord with the rising call for making U.S. foreign policy deliver for its middle class. In pure foreign policy parlance, it meant stepping away from Trump’s disdain for alliance commitments, and focussing on restoring the cracks in America’s transatlantic and transpacific allies. However, it also brought along an old age American desire for isolating itself from a dangerous world outside. From President George Washington’s call to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world”, to the strong isolationist streak of the inter-war period and to the call for nation building at home, amidst the financial crisis and the “forever wars”, this has been a consistent theme in U.S. foreign policy choices.
From George W. Bush taking American forces into Afghanistan, followed by the fiasco in Iraq, to Obama winning the presidential election on an anti-war campaign, and Trump’s surprise triumph in 2016 promising an “America First” foreign policy to Biden’s promise to “restore the soul of America”, one question has been constant. Does doing good for the American people, mean doing less for the world? Have the people of Afghanistan paid the price for an American foreign policy focussed on restoring its economy, and on countering the most pressing long-term threat to U.S. supremacy from China?
President Biden speaking, after the fall of Kabul, remained steadfast on its decision to withdraw, contending that a delayed pull out would have done nothing to make things better in Afghanistan, and that it was time for regional diplomacy to take over, in Afghanistan. That the United States was going to pull out its forces from Afghanistan, was a foregone conclusion. The dice had been rolled with the Trump administration signing the peace deal with the Taliban sans the Afghan government, and setting a clear timeline for complete withdrawal.
When the Biden presidency took over, a withdrawal was imminent, but the manner in which it has played out has led to an unbridgeable security gap, that the Afghan security forces were never equipped to deal with. Even if President Biden contends that, the United States was never meant to do nation building in Afghanistan that is exactly what it has been doing there in the last two decades following the Bonn negotiations after the ouster of the Taliban regime. The U.S. might find succour in that terrorist groups such as the Al Qaeda stands relatively decimated, and in the hope that the Taliban, in the near future, will not allow Afghanistan to be used to launch attacks against the American homeland.
However, it will be naïve to pat America’s back on a mission accomplished, and whitewash the extent of American involvement in Afghanistan, and its failure to put reins on its ally in the war on terror, Pakistan, for providing safe havens to one of Taliban’s most violent wings, the Haqqani network. The United States has intervened, directly and indirectly, in Afghanistan for its own strategic and national security reasons. During the Cold War, the United States used the Mujahideen forces with Pakistan as a conduit to fight the Soviets, and post the 9/11 attacks, Operating Enduring Freedom brought American boots on the ground to hunt those responsible for the attacks.
The twenty years of international presence in Afghanistan spearheaded by the Americans and investments from different quarters did bring a new era in Afghanistan, and a new generation of young Afghans who had never experienced life under the Taliban rule. However, beyond the rhetoric, did the long-term interest of Afghans and sustainability of the liberal democracy being promised, ever feature, for real, in U.S. policymaking?
So, is President Biden categorically telling, once and for all, what Afghanistan really means for the American beltway? Was Afghanistan merely a zone of conflict, where the U.S. forces were made to sleepwalk through military missions devoid of any strategy? As a former U.S. military commander commented, “We didn’t fight a 20-year war in Afghanistan; we fought 20 incoherent wars, one year at a time, without a sense of direction.” While foreign policy analysts and political leaders in the U.S. and in other countries called out President Trump as inward looking, and devoid of any vision, has President Biden and his foreign policy-national security team also succumb to the overarching belief that more could be done at home, by doing less abroad? Like many predecessors, President Biden and his foreign policy choices stand on the quintessential precipice of U.S. power to restore the fate of its own people while shaping the future of others beyond its homeland.
*Monish Tourangbam is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and Honorary Director, Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies.
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