Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This sad country has been brutalized for centuries, with “great power games” by the Mughals, Russians, British, and Americans played out across its harsh terrain, and with tribal and religious divides further fracturing weary populations.
President Biden’s White House announcement in April that the U.S. will be withdrawing completely from Afghanistan marks yet another chapter in the Afghanistan saga, one that is likely to deepen, not ameliorate, the tragedy.
The president has made no secret since at least his days as vice president of his distaste for robust and extensive U.S. engagement in Afghanistan - couched by Biden as opposition to “nation-building.”
From accounts, Biden had pushed during the Obama administration for a smaller U.S. footprint that would support a “counter-terrorism” strategy – nothing more extensive.
Yet the president now eschews even that approach, arguing, in his words from April, that “it was time to end the forever war;” with bin Laden dead and terrorists a denied a haven in country, the president clearly views our purpose there as having been fulfilled.
Unfortunately, radical jihadist networks in ungoverned or Taliban-governed areas remain.
It was precisely this worry that led the uniformed U.S. and NATO militaries to disagree with the president's announcement, particularly given the starkly reduced footprint (roughly 2500 U.S. and 10,000 total NATO) that remained for Afghan training and on-the-ground intelligence collection.
It’s a high-risk decision by the president. General David Petraeus summarized my own misgivings when he wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, “I fear that we will deeply regret this decision and conclude that we should have maintained a sustainable commitment on the ground… to prevent a civil war that may engulf Afghanistan, and to ensure that al Qaeda and the Islamic State are not able to establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan or in neighboring countries.”
I also find the strategic arguments used by advocates of Biden’s decision – that “leaving” Afghanistan frees up assets to focus on the far more critical Chinese threat – to be misplaced.
The White House team has argued that the U.S. will be able to suppress any extremist threat inside Afghanistan “off-shore, from a distance.”
Yet addressing that threat from afar places even greater demands on precisely those assets of greatest need in the western Pacific: naval platforms plus long-range reconnaissance and strike aircraft.
So, what now?
With the president’s decision made and the U.S. military significantly advancing even the September 11th withdrawal deadline, what to look for?
In short, watch the unfolding “mini-strategic game” – not with empires or great powers, but with regional actors, each with important strategic stakes in the region. Indeed, that “mini-game” has already begun. Consider these actors in particular:
Well before 9/11, it was understood, largely because of the porous 1600-mile border between the two countries, that the key to containing jihadists in Afghanistan was Pakistan buy-in to a counter-jihadist strategy. Pakistan leaders over the two decades never bought in.
They viewed, with some validity, that Afghanistan represented indispensable “strategic depth” in the event of an attack by India; hence, they hedged – to preserve options with the Taliban in the event of western withdrawal.
Unfortunately, that hedging strategy continues to cost Pakistan – well over 10,000 civilian and military casualties since 9/11 as a result of attacks by both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fighters inside Pakistan itself.
But, in an encouraging sign of White House diplomatic outreach and Pakistan cooperation, Islamabad earlier this month agreed to a regional cooperation initiative that will hopefully begin to align strategy and economic assistance amongst four countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the U.S.
This four-country initiative is no substitute for an on-scene “kinetic” military response against al Qaeda and ISIS; but it represents a long-overdue approach that looks at Central Asia through a broader regional, not a single country, lens.
The loss of the Central Asian republics following the dissolution of the Soviet Union continues to grate in the Kremlin, and they will compete strongly for influence in Uzbekistan now that Tashkent has signed on to the U.S.-brokered regional deal described above.
But Moscow’s real attention in the wake of the Biden announcement has been with Uzbekistan’s eastern neighbor, Tajikistan.
Russia has maintained over 7000 troops in this country for years; and because Tajik influence in Afghanistan’s northern provinces, especially with warlords, is strong, Moscow will invest heavily in deepening its ties with Dushanbe.
For Putin, this is a low-cost avenue for resurrecting a Russian role as Afghanistan dissolves.
The Taliban have pledged to protect Chinese investments and evidently have barred Uighur separatists from entering the country – a sign the Taliban leadership understands that there’s a “new wind blowing from the east.”
Yet Beijing’s fears of Islamic extremism in their western provinces will intensify as the Taliban moves to seize national governance.
This should motivate China to work with regional neighbors and the U.S. on a stabilization plan as Afghanistan implodes; instead, as David Ignatius wrote last week in the Washington Post, China seems more interested in “gloating over the United States’ troubles.”
Besides Tehran’s obvious interest in what happens with a neighbor sharing a 1000 km border, Iran as the recognized center of Shia Islam grows deeply uneasy when Sunni fundamentalists like the Taliban seize power next door.
In one of the countless ironies in this troubled region, Iran initially welcomed the U.S. suppression of the Taliban in 2001. Tehran’s unease now returns, particularly as the Shia Hazara inside Afghanistan face mounting danger from Taliban advances.
Long discriminated against and now with little help expected from the current Kabul government, Hazara militias are forming to counter the Taliban offensive.
Expect Iran to help their Shia brethren; but don’t expect Iran to contribute to any regional Afghan stabilization plan; they have enough trouble stabilizing their home-front.
Mid-year 2021, two geopolitical hotspots are generating the greatest risks for a U.S. military response: an outright attack or economic strangulation of Taiwan; and a rejuvenation of the globally-focused terrorist threat in Afghanistan.
Of the two, the much greater likelihood over the very near-term is for a U.S. strike - air or a special operations insertion - against terrorist targets in Afghanistan following U.S. and NATO withdrawal.
Much has been made of the comments earlier this spring by the recently retired Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, regarding the likelihood of China moving on Taiwan – “this decade, perhaps in the next six years.”
But despite the blistering and hyper-nationalist speech President Xi gave on July 1st at the birthday celebration of the Chinese Communist Party, he’s unlikely to risk near-global condemnation with a Taiwan attack any time soon.
The Afghanistan scene is very different. There is a chance that a peace agreement might be struck between the current Kabul government and the Taliban, or that regional cooperation will minimize the spill-over effects of an Afghan collapse.
But as authors in a recent article in The Atlantic emphasized, “Hoping for the best in the greater Middle East rarely works out well for the U.S.” That, unfortunately, is likely to be the headline for the next sad chapter in the long history of this troubled land.
* * *
ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN
LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.
He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.