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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 39, New Delhi, Sept 11, 2021

Where is American foreign policy heading post Afghanistan? | P. S. Jayaramu

Saturday 11 September 2021


by P. S. Jayaramu

September 6, 2021

With President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American soldiers from Afghanistan implemented, which in itself has produced commentaries, for and against, it is time to reflect on where is the American foreign policy heading in the days to come. It is useful to begin by looking at the speech the President made, a few days ago, after the withdrawal of the last soldier from Kabul. Strongly defending his decision to pull back troops, Biden said during his television address from White House:

“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask,: what is the vital national interest? In my view, we have only one interest: to make sure Agfhanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland, with al-Qaeda being decimated”. ( New York Times, August, 31, 2021)

Defending his decision to withdraw troops, the President further said:

“ The fundamental obligation of a President, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America. Not against threats of 2001, but against tbe threats of 2021 and tomorrow. That is the guiding principle behind my decision about Afghanistan.” ( New York Times, op, cit.)

Decalared that ‘the era of wars to remake countries is over’ and that the country had to turn the page on two decades of foreign policy, speaking perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, he further said:

“First, we must set missions with clear achievable goals- not ones we will never reach. And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interst of the United States of America. This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan, it is about an era of major military operations to remake nations being over”. (New York Times, op. cit.)

President Biden admitted that the assumption that training more than 300,000 Afghan National Security Forces over the past twenty years would to be a strong adversary against Taliban turned out to be not accurate. A gross miscalculation and misjudgement. In reality, the Forces offered no resistance to the Taliban ‘militia’ as it marched towards Kabul and captured it, faster than expected. The truth of the matter is, the Afghan forces virtually surrendered without any military cover by American soldiers.
Biden’s statements apart, his decision to withdraw soldiers quickly, taken probably without consulting the NATO allies, has been criticised by both the Republicans and Democrats alike. A survey conducted by the Reuters poll before the withdrawal was completed revealed that less than 40% of Americans approved of the withdrawal of troops, with 49% saying US troops should stay in Afghanistan until all Americans and Afghan allies are evacuated.

Before commencing the withdrawal process, the US Administration should have used its diplomacy to bring the different factions to the negotiating table, which should have included the hardliners and the softliners among the Taliban, the other tribal leaders and representatives of the national reconciliation commission and persuaded them to form an interim democratic government which would respect the rights of Afghan citizens for security, safety and the rights of girl-children and women for education and jobs, which they had enjoyed during the last twenty years. By not doing so and by hastily withdrawing troops, President Biden not only betrayed the Afghan citizens of their expectations of him. They seriously doubts his commitment to the continuance of democracy project in Afghanistan.

It is also time to reflect on what did the United States achieve in Afghanistan during the last 20 years. While it may be technically true that the American purpose in getting into Afghanistan after 9/11 was not for national building, as Biden said in his White House address, but to disrupt the al-Qaeda and capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, with the Taliban not being its main enemy and hence defeating it was not its principal goal. The official argument lacks credibility, as America did not withdraw from the country after Bin Laden was killed in 2011. It stayed on propping up the Islamic Republic because the Bush Administration at that time believed that a return of the Taliban to power would derail the global war on terror. Going by that logic, can anyone in the US Administration now say that the war on terror is over ? The fact that al-Qaeda regrouped itself in various parts of the world post-9/11 and is still operating under different names in the Middle East and parts of Africa shows that the war on terror is far from being over.

As for Afghanistan, it is imperative on the Biden Presidency to extract iron-clad assurances from the Taliban leadership that its territory would not become a sanctuary for terrorists to carry out operations elsewhere in the world. At a more fundamental level, it should reassure Afghan nationals that the American leadership would exert pressure on the Taliban regime to adhere to an inclusive democratic system of government with respect for human rights, specially of women and girl children for education.

Post-Afghanistan, the American leadership would do well to demonstrate its continued committment to the promotion of democracy project elsewhere in the developing world as their citizens and leaders have begun to develop apprehensions. The withdrawal from Afghanistan should not lead to a neo-isolationism, as it happened in the aftermath of the American defeat in Vietnam in April 1975. This is vital as China is going all out to become a global hegemon, specially with its aggressive designs in establishing control over Asia and Africa. European nations seem to be content with continuing their trade/commercial relations with China, not to speak of the growing strategic nexus between China and Russia.

In an interesting article in the Economist about the end of American hegemony, the celebrated author Francis Fukuyama wrote: “The truth of the matter is that the end of the American era has come much earlier. The long term sources of American weakness and decline are more domestic than international. The country will remain a great power for many years, but just how influential it will be depends on its flexibility to fix its internal problems, rather than its foreign policy”. ( The Economist, 18th August, 2021). While handling the internal issues are no doubt paramount, there is no reason to think that America would become inward looking, going by President Biden’s recent decisions about renewed committment to NATO, re-invigorating the G-7 Group and exploring to provide a military component to the QUAD. In fact, the Biden doctrine’s key objective, in the aftermath of Afghanistan, appears to be a return to the Cold War style containment of China and Russia. President Biden knows that any withdrawal from the centre stage of world politics would enlarge the space for China to spread its hegemony in the international system. Viewed in this sense, future American foreign policy behavior needs be keenly watched.

(Author: Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.)

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