US policy paralysis at critical moments in region working to China’s advantage

The bond between US intelligence agency CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is well known and recently declassified British documents reveal MI-6 connived with Pakistan and Taliban in Afghanistan, writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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US - China

In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 28, US General Mark Milley,  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said before President Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed in Afghanistan in mid-August he had felt at least 2,500 US troops were needed to guard against a collapse of the then administration and prevent a return to Taliban rule (before the Sunni Islamist group snatched power). This points the finger at US President Joe Biden for ignoring military advice. 

Earlier in a television interview, Biden had indicated that the military had not urged him to keep troops in Afghanistan. Both Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin did not say whether they gave this specific advice to Biden, but wasn’t it incumbent upon Biden to consult the military?

More importantly, General Frank McKenzie, Commander, US Central Command in his testimony said he recommended the US retain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and early in the fall of 2020 had recommended the US maintain 4,500 troops.

“I also had a view that the withdrawal of those forces would lead inevitably to the collapse of the Afghan military forces and eventually the Afghan government,” he added.

The blame for America's strategic blunder in Afghanistan goes to the Biden administration even as Gen Milley said the US President need not go by military advice. The excuse that the withdrawal was a legacy of the Trump administration and the US-Taliban deal brokered in February 2020, does not cut ice. Biden became president in January 2021 and had powers to reverse decisions taken by Donald Trump.

On assuming the presidency, Trump made the US pullout from the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Paris Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The reason for Biden ignoring the strategic fallout of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan was his obsession to end the war as if US troop deployments in other parts of the world can always avoid conflict and America will not need to deploy troops abroad in the future.

Biden’s blunders, China’s advantage

America has created a Frankenstein in the Taliban which, with its links to terror outfit Al Qaeda. and many other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and abroad will hardly spare the US. America has also lost the right to sermonize on human rights. It has been using proxy forces for decades, helped the birth of Taliban and ISIS, but after consigning Afghanistan to the Taliban can hardly claim to be championing counterterrorism.

Biden’s second major blunder was the sudden announcement of AUKUS (an Indo-Pacific trilateral security coalition between Australia, the UK and the US) on September 15, apparently to salvage some reputation lost in Afghanistan – both personally and also for America as a superpower. Biden’s approval ratings have slipped to 43 percent since August - lowest since he took over the top office - following public dissatisfaction over the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

AUKUS has provisioned Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) technology aimed directly at Beijing, but that has created a massive US-European Union (EU) rift to China’s advantage, especially with the latter being EU’s largest trading partner. The six nuclear-powered submarines to Australia will not be supplied tomorrow and this opens the avenue for China to equip Iran and Pakistan with SSNs.  

China will institute countermeasures and use its economic clout that could also target the UK, which post-BREXIT is battling fuel shortages and seeking trade deals with the US, India and others to tide over its economic situation.

China applied on September 16 to join the Comprehensive & Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an economic agreement of 11 countries including Australia and Japan. China’s economic clout and the interplay of CPTPP with the economies of Australia and Japan would need to be watched.

Biden also announced that India and Japan will not be given SSN technology. What was the purpose? Japan already has a defense pact with the US and it is no secret that American and British vessels visiting Japan at times have carried nuclear weapons. 

So why single out India?

US dithering on Quad, Pakistan

The Biden administration’s pusillanimous behavior will have repercussions, including about any plan to restore The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA   – an agreement between Iran and China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States was signed in 2015 before the US withdrew in 2018 under Trump). This has also been noted by Beijing despite its criticism about AUKUS.

Quad too can be as powerful as AUKUS if the US is willing to share state-of-the-art and futuristic technologies. But that is unlikely even as the US has abandoned multiple weapon platforms in Afghanistan to be reverse-engineered by China.

The next blunder by the Biden administration may be on the anvil. Twenty-two US senators have moved a bill in the Senate seeking assessment of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan before and after the fall of Kabul and in the Taliban offensive in Panjshir Valley. The senators have also recommended sanctions against Pakistan depending on the findings. But this is highly unlikely.

The bond between US intelligence agency CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is well known and recently declassified British documents reveal that UK’s secret intelligence agency MI-6 connived with Pakistan and Taliban in Afghanistan. 

In addition, there is the urge to appease China in the economic field which may be due to personal interests, national or both.

China continues its aggressive behavior - be it the South China Sea, the border with India, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or wherever. The virus 'released' from Wuhan is long forgotten. President Xi Jinping is facing problems within China and beyond with the country’s external debt being half of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP0, but so is the US Congress discussing a cap on the national debt.

There is speculation Xi will show his hand before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds its 20th National Party Congress in 2022 shaking up the top echelon of Chinese politics. But Xi appears sanguine he can continue testing American red lines and at critical moments the Biden administration will dither, leaving the initiative with Beijing.  

(The writer is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal.)