Will Biden get away with Afghanistan withdrawal?

In the first part of the Coen brothers’ Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Buster meets his match when a stranger rides into town. When he lies there with a bullet through the head, Buster’s last thought is, “I should have seen this coming. Can’t be top dog forever,” as the stranger sings about a “faster gun coming over yonder when tomorrow comes”, and “singing your last cowboy song” before long.

This is the United States’ predicament in a nutshell after the fall of Kabul. The period of intense involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq under George W. Bush was followed by the beginning of disengagement by Barack Obama, which was intensified by Donald Trump and now completed by his successor, Joe Biden. In fact, what we are witness to is a paradigm shift, where both China and Russia loom large in U.S. priorities. Not to forget, of course, North Korea and Iran.

This strategic realignment begs more questions than answers, particularly among U.S. allies. Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy not only led to the deal last year with the Taliban in Doha but also the deal with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in October 2019, which allowed Turkish forces to sweep into northeastern Syria in a bid to overwhelm Washington’s allies, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

This not only rattled NATO allies but also U.S. allies in Southeast Asia, Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan. Particularly Taiwan has good reason for concern, as British historian Niall Ferguson believes that in the event of a Chinese invasion most Americans will probably echo Neville Chamberlain, who in 1938 ceded the Sudetenland to Germany.   

Before his election, Joe Biden touted America’s role as the champion of liberty and democracy and assured that the United States’ commitment is sacred, not transactional. Furthermore, that NATO, “an alliance of values”, is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal.

At the Munich Security Conference in February Biden also declared: “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back.” There was almost a collective sigh of relief. But Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan resembles more a pratfall.

A month before Trump’s inauguration I posited the need for a common Washington-Brussels policy towards Turkey, which it didn’t take me long to understand would be pointless.

After the fall of Kabul, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s chief of staff, Morgan Lorraine Viña, argued that Biden’s administration should build a concerted strategy with the European Union, including coordinated sanctions, to push back against Erdoğan’s belligerence in the Mediterranean. In the current atmosphere, I wouldn’t count on it.

General John Allen, a former commander in Afghanistan and now president of the Brookings Institution, states that rallying allies to residual U.S. humanitarian interests will be difficult, as many European allies feel betrayed. Also that the Biden administration believes that diplomatic, financial and aid-related levers will pressure the Taliban to support human rights.

Philip Stephens, chief political commentator and director of the editorial board at the Financial Times, concludes that the real lesson from Afghanistan is that the purpose of military intervention is to provide a space in which politics, economics and diplomacy can do their work.

Greece and Cyprus, the first a NATO member, have good reason to feel concern about the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, as they both bear the brunt of Turkey’s aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean.        

Richard Ghazai, executive director at In Defense of Christians, has underlined the disparity between Congress and State Department on Turkey policy. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, on a recent visit to Greece in a morale booster, stressed that Greece has a bright future and is an ideal partner for the United States.

When he moved on to Cyprus, Menendez was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Order of Makarios III for his contribution to promoting human rights and democracy.

Turkey has already deployed armed drones to Geçitkale air base in northern Cyprus, so if push comes to shove, one can only hope the juju works.

Erdoğan has assiduously avoided supporting the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan. Now Turkey, together with Qatar, is leading the effort to resume operations at Kabul airport. 

With reference to Afghanistan’s mineral deposits with an estimated worth of $1 trillion, Philip Stephens also notes that if Biden thinks the United States is in a global contest with China, he has just ceded an awful lot of ground.

Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, noted in his diary that when he asked Biden about American obligations to Afghan girls, Biden replied: “Fuck that, we don’t have to worry about that. We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.”    

Next year’s midterm elections will determine whether Biden is right.