Biden’s Afghanistan Legacy
Last August’s final US departure from Afghanistan was geopolitical chaos, typified by the images of young Afghan men falling to their deaths from US planes whilst trying to flee. US President Biden was roundly criticised by political allies and opponents alike for bringing the American presence in the country to such a hard stop. The Taliban returned and despite some hope that they may have evolved politically have demonstrated the same combination of hard-line incompetence that characterised their last time in power. Ordinary Afghan people have suffered desperately.
Yet at a global level Biden’s decision to fully end operations may be more vindicated considering the Russian invasion of Ukraine this February. Arguably since 9/11 the US adventures overseas and attempts to remake Iraq and Afghanistan have left them exposed to rivals who seek to undermine their plans. Even the less assertive policies from Washington to support the Syrian opposition or back factions in Lebanon, have led to a counterpunch from countries like Russia and Iran in particular.
The relatively low levels of political capital and resource needed to undermine an opponent’s ambitious plans is an attractive prospect indeed. The idea of US soldiers, money and political bandwidth being ‘bogged down’ is one who history goes back over a century. Even if it is true that the size of the US presence in Afghanistan and their role was a fundamentally different one to earlier incarnations, the very fact they were there brought with it a huge series of responsibilities and expectations that lasted across the several presidents and generals who oversaw it.
Russia channelling money, arms or giving political support to factions fighting against America is arguably one of the lowest investment, higher return strategies with little in the way of risk associated with it. Today however, the Ukraine conflict has turned that scenario on its head and then some. Whilst we can’t suggest a fundamental different in what US policy to Ukraine would look like if Washington was still in Afghanistan, it would have not only given them less geopolitical bandwidth but also represented an Achilles heel where the Russians could apply counterpressure.
Now it is the Russian embassy in Kabul that is experiencing attacks. One earlier this month resulted in the death of two Russian Embassy staff and the injury of several locals. Meanwhile in Ukraine Russian standing as a military power is taking an absolute battering with a large part down to the US support to the Ukrainian government. Washington has given billions of dollars of military aid to Kiev including the anti-tank systems that helped push back Russia from the capital’s doorstep in March and the long-range artillery systems that have supported the hugely successful counter offensive that started this month.
Russia has now been forced to call for a partial mobilisation of its population for the third time in its modern history and President Putin has resorted to having to make more explicit threats of the use of nuclear weapons in order to address such loses. Freed of its Afghanistan responsibilities but conscious of the lessons of its failures, the US is also providing strategic and intelligence support that has allowed a nimble and motivated Ukrainian army to expose the inadequacies of a poorly equipped and commanded Russian force. The US has thus gained strength from the exposing of relative Russian weakness, quite the opposite of what Moscow had been able to do in previous decades in the shadow of the US reversals in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of bandwidth when it comes to political leaders’ ability to successfully prioritise. President Biden, like his predecessors, had been under huge pressure to reduce the body bags coming back from Afghanistan which he’d been largely successful in, but also the monthly cost of operations. Let us not forget that Afghanistan was the longest war in the country’s history and had cost, when combined with the Iraq occupation, over $2 trillion dollars.
No doubt the ability to free Washington’s hand in Ukraine, Taiwan and elsewhere has been done at the expense of the Afghan people who are the greatest losers in this paradigm shift. The country is now on the brink of ‘universal poverty’ and stories of parents having to sell children in order to feed the rest of their family are becoming all too frequent. Yet for President Biden himself, the short term hit to his reputation and polling may be fully restored if the Russian experience in Ukraine continues to be so catastrophic.
BY: James Denselow