It is a cliché to believe that the USA has left Afghanistan as it was defeated by the Taliban and that another tomb has been added in the graveyards of empires. This is not an entirely true analysis.
The USA has withdrawn because of its changed priorities and after getting assurances that the Taliban would not threaten its national interest.
A realistic analysis would reveal that the main aim of the USA in Afghanistan had always been to pacify its public opinion that wanted revenge for the September 11 terror attacks. The objective was achieved in the first few months; the Taliban government toppled and Al-Qaida was routed out of Afghanistan. That is why the USA became distracted by a separate war in Iraq that started on March 20, 2003.
What were the US intentions behind these operations?
President Barack Obama wanted to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan but the debate that ensued about Osama bin Laden – the main suspect – still at large forced the USA administration to maintain its footprint on the ground and hunt down bin Laden. The USA finally succeeded in killing him on May 2, 2011. Since then the withdrawal of USA troops from Afghanistan was the foregone conclusion.
Nation-building of Afghanistan was never an objective of the USA as is visible by the breakdown of expenditure that was incurred in Afghanistan during the last two decades.
A study at Brown University estimated that the USA has spent around $2.26 trillion in Afghanistan since 2001. The biggest chunk of nearly $1 trillion was spent on military expenditure followed by $530 billion that is paid to the creditors as interest on the money that was borrowed to fund the war. The study shows that merely $130 billion has been spent on the reconstruction activities in Afghanistan since 2002.
This is less than $7 Billion a year as compared to more than $200 billion spent on the food, clothing, medical care, and other benefits of its troops. Moreover, the majority of the $7 billion was wasted in corrupt practices that is why Afghanistan has still one of the smallest economies in the world; ex-President Ashraf Ghani said that 90 percent of its people are living below the poverty line or less than $2 a day.
Another argument is given for the USA withdrawal from Afghanistan and is that the human cost was becoming unbearable for the USA. That is not correct either.
Since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, there have been around 2406 casualties of USA soldiers. However, in the last two years, the casualties due to combat have been zero. The last causality recorded was in Nangarhar on Feb 8, 2020, when two soldiers were killed by an Afghan National Army soldier in friendly fire. Taliban did not claim responsibility for that attack.
The human cost was thus negligible and the USA could have easily maintained its presence in Afghanistan like it is maintaining in South Korea or Japan for many decades.
US and China: a power politics game
The matter of fact is that like any other nation, the USA’s engagement is determined by her self-interest rather than by altruism. Bigger challenges were emerging in the Asia Pacific where China was flexing its muscles; and if not countered timely, it would have drafted the events that are now unfolding in Afghanistan. China is fast reaching a stage where it will take over and become the sole economic superpower of the world. And that was alarming for the USA. Therefore, the USA merely shifted its energies and focus from counterterrorism to great-power competition in the new theatre i.e. from South Asia and the Middle East to China and the Indo-Pacific.
Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in which massive infrastructure across Eurasia and Eastern Africa is being constructed is undoubtedly Beijing’s strategy to reshape the regional and international order and hence challenging the USA’s dominance.
The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) project, proposed by Japan and adopted by the USA in 2016, can be seen as a strategic countermeasure against the Chinese BRI. Similarly, holding of quadrilateral summit meeting (Quad) by the USA, India, Australia, and Japan on March 12, 2021, to formulate a strategy to counter the rise of Chinese power in the East and South China Seas is the step in the same direction.
Philippines restoring the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the USA thus allowing its military aircraft and vessels free entry and operations from its bases signed on July 30, 2021, is also considered a big move in the region. All these steps are a message to China that the USA still thinks of itself as a dominant power in the Indo-Pacific region – through which as much as $3.3 trillion in global trade passes annually.
Napoleon Bonaparte is believed to have said, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” The withdrawal of USA forces from Afghanistan must be seen in this context; the Chinese dragon is awakening and this will have far-reaching effects around the world and the country most affected will be the USA. That is the main reason why the USA did not want to be tied down in an endless war in Afghanistan and needed to redirect its energies and efforts toward new, more pressing challenges that are emerging in the new theatre of the Indo-Pacific region.
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Manchester, UK. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.