Is The Afghanistan Foreign Policy Fallout Better Than It Looks?

09/13/21 11:31AM EDT

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 sales@hedgeye.com.

Is The Afghanistan Foreign Policy Fallout Better Than It Looks? - AdobeStock 164038527           

Mark Twain allegedly quipped about music by Wagner that it “was better than it sounds.”

With two weeks now separating the anguish the final days of the U.S. Afghanistan withdrawal, it’s possible to step back and assess at least preliminarily what the pullout actually means for U.S. foreign policy.

In brief, despite written breast-beating from dozens of foreign policy specialists and veterans, and setting aside the humanitarian and moral-ethical implications, which have been horrific, the actual foreign policy fallout, at least so far, has been surprisingly modest; it's arguably “better than it looks!”

Key bilateral meetings continued over the last weeks despite the trauma of Afghanistan - most prominently with the new Israeli PM Naftali Bennett and with Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky.

For Biden the outcomes were positive, with atmospherics and substance largely independent of the Afghan anguish.

What were the key narratives from each meeting? First, for Zelensky:

  • The principal worry was the U.S. concession to effectively green-light the completion of the Nordstream II gas pipeline by not sanctioning the (Swiss but really Russian) company building it. Because the pipeline bypasses Ukraine entirely and would provide natural gas directly from Russia to Germany, Zelensky fears both the financial and strategic marginalization of his country - plus the potential for Putin to use the pipeline as a geostrategic weapon. But Biden gave Zelensky needed assurances on the importance the U.S. attaches to Ukraine strategically; the White House also announced a plus-up in military assistance, including another tranche of Javelin antitank missiles.
  • But what the Ukrainian President really wanted was a commitment from the U.S. to a path for eventual NATO membership for Ukraine. Zelensky didn’t receive that. And candidly, that’s never likely to happen - not with Russian troops indefinitely occupying strategic portions of Ukraine territory, not with endemic Ukraine corruption, and not with the NATO alliance itself sharply split on the merits of such an expansion. It will be a brave U.S. president and NATO Secretary General who try down the line to explain that stark reality to a future Ukrainian leader.

And for the Israeli PM, the narrative with Biden was even more divorced from the tragedy of the Afghanistan withdrawal:

  • Bennett, like Bibi before him, is deeply worried over Biden’s eagerness to fully reinstate the nuclear deal (“JCPOA”). However, negotiations, with Iran are stalled -  “another three months” is the timeframe the new Iranian foreign policy team is now suggesting before talks resume.
  • Increasingly, however, the Biden team appears to be asking: “Is it really in our interest to close a deal?" The White House was clearly disappointed that at least a simple reinstatement of the 2015 deal wasn’t completed before the swearing-in of the new hard-line Iranian leadership. This had to offer at least some short-term relief to Bennett, even though in their bilateral meeting President Biden made it clear he would keep pressing ahead with the new Iranian team.
  • However, Biden did say (without elaborating) that he would “look for other options if diplomacy fails” - inferring cyber, sabotage, or even direct military attacks to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Bennett had to have softly breathed yet another sigh of relief!

The point: these were two productive bilateral meetings of strategic importance where outcomes were largely independent of the Afghan withdrawal debacle.

But two other critical relationships HAVE been impacted: U.S.-German relations, and of course, U.S.-China. Both bear close watching in the weeks and months ahead as the Afghanistan reality sinks in.

Turning first to Berlin:

  • German national elections are scheduled in two weeks, and at this point, it’s unclear who will be succeeding Angela Merkel as Germany’s new Chancellor. Any likely successor to Angela, however, will need convincing that the U.S. is still a steadfast transatlantic ally.
  • It’s no secret that the German electorate and a cross-section of German politicians have been scarred both by Trump’s “American First” policies as well as by Biden’s abrupt Afghan exit. Indeed, a leading German Bundestag leader recently stated that the U.S. withdrawal “does fundamental damage to the critical political and moral credibility of the west.”
  • Biden has tried his best since inauguration to restore U.S.-German “gemutlichkeit” — like waiving sanctions on the NORDSTREAM II pipeline (of critical interest to Berlin) and making one of his first calls as president to the German Chancellor. But especially in light of the years of support Berlin rendered to NATO with its troop and police deployments to Afghanistan, our pull-out was a bitter pill for the Germans to swallow.

And on China, Biden has probably indirectly helped XI Jingping in his “re-election ” bid next fall with the Chinese Politburo. President Xi’s re-anointment as president is all but assured; but the perception of U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan plays perfectly into Xi’s narrative of a U.S. in long-term decline.

And that same perception, which Chinese media organs are amplifying, offsets at least some of Xi’s mistakes globally with his hyper-aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

The key for Biden now, and for years into the future, will be Taiwan and the credibility of U.S. deterrence in keeping the PRC at bay in the East China Sea.

Arguments about Afghanistan signaling a retreat by Biden from Europe and NATO ring hollow; but they ring with greater resonance in Taiwan. Bolstering the credibility of U.S. deterrence there has emerged as one of Biden’s most urgent post-Afghanistan tasks.

BOTTOM LINE: the execution of Biden’s Afghanistan pull-out was an embarrassment, raising serious issues of the basic competence of national security leaders and the efficacy of the national security council system itself.

But as I have written previously, the real worry long-term is the increased vulnerability of the U.S. and our western European allies to reconstituted terror networks in Afghanistan as a result of the president’s decision to withdraw entirely.

There certainly have been foreign policy downsides, and the Germany and China examples are the best illustrations. But the column-inches devoted to analyzing the larger foreign policy implications are overdrawn and overly pessimistic.

The key moments for Biden lie ahead — with China over Taiwan, Russia over Ukraine, Iran over nuclear weapons, and now with new leaders arriving shortly in Berlin and Tokyo.

How Biden and his team handle these challenges will be far more consequential strategically than any near-term fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal.

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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.

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