The year 2021 will most likely go down in history as one of the pivotal years in the post-Cold War period. It may be too early to say how the American withdrawal from Afghanistan would shape regional geopolitics in Asia and the great power contest between the United States and its competitors. But it is certainly one of those developments that will have a far-reaching impact on global politics. There are two dominant narratives about the American withdrawal. One is that the U.S. exited the country on its own will as it is undertaking a larger realignment in its foreign policy. This argument rejects any comparison between the American pull-back from Vietnam in 1975 and its retreat from Afghanistan this year. The other one is that the U.S. failed to win the war in Afghanistan and, like in the case of Vietnam, was forced to withdraw from the country. This writer, who wrote in these pages in February 2019 that “America has lost the Afghan war”, shares the second view. The reorientation that is under way in American foreign policy, focused on China, certainly played a role in the Afghan withdrawal. But that does not obscure the fact that the world’s most powerful military and economic power failed to win the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban even after fighting them for 20 years.
Examples from history
Superpowers suffering military setbacks at the hands of weaker forces would create a perception of great power fatigue, if not weakness, that would prompt both their allies and rivals to rethink their strategic assessments. There are ample examples in history. Take the post-War world. Britain, whose imperial glory came to an end with the Second World War, took time to come to terms with that reality. Joined by France, it backed Israel’s misadventure in the Suez in 1956, only to be repudiated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Despite making military advances, the Anglo-French-Israeli troops had to withdraw from the Suez and Sinai of Egypt — a development that many historians believe marked the end of British influence in the region. Britain has never got West Asia back.
In the 1970s, the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was read in Moscow as a weak moment for the Western bloc in the Cold War. It prompted the Soviets to act more aggressively. In 1978, communists, backed by the Soviet Union, seized power in Kabul and a year later, Moscow sent troops to Afghanistan, orchestrated a coup and installed an ally in Kabul’s presidential palace. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989, after failing to defeat the Mujahideen and Islamist guerillas who were backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, dealt a fatal blow to the Soviet power. Within months, communist regimes in Eastern Europe started crumbling, eventually leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
This is not to argue that the U.S. is facing an immediate threat to its superpower status. With seamless access to the world’s two vast oceans and definite borders and a continent under its command, the U.S. is far more powerful and agile than the U.K. of 1956 and the Soviet Union of 1989. But the gradual erosion of the U.S.’s ability in shaping geopolitical outcomes in faraway regions has already shaken up the structures of American unipolarity. The Afghan withdrawal was not an isolated incident. In Iraq and Libya, it failed to establish political stability and order after invasions. It could not stop Russia taking Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. In Syria, it was outmanoeuvred by Vladimir Putin. Finally, the way American troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power strengthened this perception of great power fatigue and emboldened America’s rivals to openly challenge the U.S.-centric “rules-based order.”
The three challengers
Almost four months after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. is already facing intense geopolitical competition from three of its rivals. Russia has amassed about 175,000 troops on its border with Ukraine. Western intelligence agencies claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin could order an invasion of Ukraine, which the Kremlin sees, as scholars at Carnegie observed, “as a Western aircraft carrier parked just across southern Russia”. Mr. Putin has also backed Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko over the refugee crisis on the Polish border of the European Union. From the migrant crisis in Belarus to the troop mobilisation in Ukraine, Mr. Putin is unmistakably sending a message to the West that the region stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a Russian sphere of influence.
Cut to West Asia. Iran, which has stepped up its nuclear programme after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal, has refused to hold direct talks with the U.S. The Biden administration has promised to lift nuclear sanctions on Iran if the Islamic Republic returns to the deal. But Iran insists that the U.S. should first remove the sanctions and give assurance that a future President would not violate the terms of the agreement. As both sides stick to their positions, the attempts to revive the agreement through talks in Vienna have hit a stone wall, with risks of a collapse.
Enter the South China Sea. China is sending dozens of fighter jets into the so-called Taiwan Air Defence Identification Zone almost on a weekly basis, triggering speculation on whether Beijing was considering taking the self-ruled island by force. As the U.S. is trying to shift its focus to the Indo-Pacific region to tackle China’s rise (Mr. Biden announced the AUKUS partnership — trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — within two weeks of America’s Afghan pull-out), China is becoming more and more assertive in its periphery, seeking strategic depth.
The U.S. is facing tough choices. The pivot to Asia has limited America’s options elsewhere. For example, what could the U.S. do to deter Mr. Putin from making the next military move in Europe. Mr. Biden has understandably ruled out a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. What the U.S. and its European allies could possibly do is to impose harsher sanctions on Russia. But sanctions slapped on Russia after the Crimean annexation in 2014 did little to deter Mr. Putin from taking more military steps. Economic sanctions will also drive Russia further into the Chinese embrace, strengthening the Eurasian partnership, which the U.S., during the Cold War, saw as a critical challenge to American interests. With regard to Iran, if the U.S. blinks first and lifts the sanctions, it could be read as another sign of weakness. If it does not and if the Vienna talks collapse, Iran could continue to enrich uranium to a higher purity, attaining a de facto nuclear power status without a bomb (like Japan), which would be against America’s declared goals in West Asia.
The Afghan withdrawal and the downsizing in West Asia suggest that America’s strategic focus has shifted towards China. Ideally, the U.S. would not prefer to get involved in another conflict as the structures of the new Cold War are taking shape — this explains the reluctance to use hard power. But the inconclusive wars the U.S. fought in recent years and the associated great power fatigue have opened up space for its regional rivals, who are trying to maximise their influence, even at the risk of triggering more conflicts. This transition, from American unipolarity into something that is still unknown, has put America in a strategic dilemma: Should it stay focused on China, preparing itself for the next bipolar contest; or continue to act as a global policeman of the liberal order that is under attack from multiple fronts?