Peter Apps, Reuters
As US President Joe Biden defended his actions in Afghanistan, Russian and Chinese state media were using chaotic scenes in Kabul to argue that the United States would one day similarly abandon its allies in Ukraine and Taiwan.
The Biden administration and many of its allies had hoped its first year would reverse isolationist narratives from the Trump era and show that “America is back”. Instead, events of the last week —and the perceived tone deafness to them from the White House — may have damaged Washington’s image overseas as badly as anything under the last president.
Even America’s most reliable allies such as Britain have been unusually open in their public and private criticism of the Biden administration, both of its decision-making and its limited engagement with partners amid a ruthlessly domestic focus. On Wednesday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed that aside from a call to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night, Biden had not spoken to a single other world leader on Afghanistan as the situation there unravelled.
British Vice Admiral Ben Key, Chief of UK Joint Operations and responsible for the British evacuation, was quoted by the Times newspaper on Tuesday as saying Britain had no visibility of ongoing discussions between the United States and the Taliban and “no idea” of likely timescales under which the United States and the Islamists were intending to keep Kabul airport open.
The poor short-term optics, of course, are set against an equally stark longer term picture. The Afghan state and security apparatus on which the United States and NATO spent more than $1 trillion during two decades of effort collapsed in a weekend, what should have been up to 300,000 Afghan security forces melting away in the face of perhaps 75,000 Taliban.
Both Moscow and Beijing have their own very real worries about a Taliban takeover, not least the potential security implications for Moscow in central Asia and for China in its majority Muslim Xinjiang region. But they also see clear opportunity. As of Wednesday, the only four embassies still operating normally in Kabul were those of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan.
In an Aug. 16 editorial, China’s Global Times said events in Afghanistan had “dealt a very heavy blow to the credibility and reliability of the US”. Taiwan in particular, it said, should notice how quickly the Afghan government had been abandoned.
The last year has seen a substantial increase in rhetoric from Beijing towards the island, which it regards as a rogue province and wishes to regain control of. The United States has long been deliberately ambiguous on how it might respond to a Chinese invasion, but Beijing is now clearly pushing the narrative that whether Washington fights or not, such support will inevitably lead to defeat, failure and America’s Taiwanese allies being similarly abandoned.
“From what happened in Afghanistan, (Taiwan’s leaders) should learn that if war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defences will collapse within hours and the US military won’t come to help,” warned the Global Times, suggesting Taiwan’s authorities would have to surrender while “high-ranking officials may flee by plane”.
US officials were swift to reassert their commitment to Taiwan. But events in Afghanistan have inevitably reinforced narratives being pushed by Russia, China and others that the United States is unreliable and those it chooses to partner with in foreign countries are simply in it for themselves.
Biden clearly appears to believe the events of the past week prove that he was right, and that Washington’s Afghan nation-building was always doomed. We will never truly know if that is true, but America’s foes are likely to do what they can to turn the manner of its departure into a wider narrative of failure.
The Biden administration’s surprise announcement of an unconditional troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 appears to strip the Taliban and the Afghan government of considerable leverage and could ramp up pressure on them to reach a peace deal.
Like thousands of Afghan translators who served with NATO forces, Nazir Ahmad fears for his life as the US-led alliance scrambles to pull out of the country in the coming weeks. “The situation is deteriorating now as foreign forces leave,” he told AFP in Kabul. “We are scared of the
Amid the chaos in Kabul, politicians and pundits have declared the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan a defeat from which US influence may never recover. “Biden’s credibility is now shot,” wrote Gideon Rachman, chief oracle of Britain’s Financial Times.
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