BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill
President Biden’s Afghanistan blunder has spawned the greatest victory for terrorists in the modern history of global jihadism. Notwithstanding his claim in a defiant speech on Tuesday that the exit from Afghanistan will allow the United States to counter China and Russia, Biden knows that the Afghan security and humanitarian catastrophe he unleashed has weakened his hand against America’s adversaries.
In fact, the U.S. defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan, while highlighting the irreversible decline of American power, have created greater space for China’s assertive global expansion, for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and for Iran’s continued defiance. The calamitous U.S. withdrawal also threatens to destabilize the wider region extending across the Indian subcontinent.
The Taliban’s victory over the “Great Satan,” meanwhile, is inspiring other Islamist and terrorist groups across the world. By serving as an unparalleled recruiting boost, it is promising to deliver the rebirth of global terror.
Biden not only facilitated the Taliban’s sweep of Afghanistan but also is now seeking to strike a Faustian bargain with this Pakistan-reared terrorist militia. Biden kept his promise to the Taliban, including a complete U.S. withdrawal by Aug. 31, but not his word to U.S. allies in Afghanistan or to partner countries.
Historians will be flummoxed that the world’s mightiest power expended considerable blood and treasure in a two-decade-long war to ultimately help its enemy ride triumphantly back to power.
This is a watershed moment that will go down in history books as marking the beginning of the end of American preeminence. After the way the U.S. betrayed the elected Afghan government, other allies can scarcely rely on Washington to support them when the chips are down. The erosion of American credibility will cause lasting damage to the interests of the U.S. and its friends.
America’s close partner India, with its location right next to the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, is likely to be one big loser from Biden’s Afghan debacle. The rejuvenated epicenter for terrorism next door will leave India less space to counter an expansionist China. Nuclear-armed titans China and India have been locked in a Himalayan military confrontation for the past 16 months following Chinese border encroachments.
The void created by America’s retreat is a strategic boon for China, which will now shore up its interests in mineral-rich Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. The retreat will also embolden Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expansionism.
Indeed, Biden may have made Taiwan Xi’s next target by acknowledging, “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” The statement conveys a great deal about U.S. objectives and resolve. No wonder Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, responding to Chinese warnings that the U.S. will abandon it like Afghanistan, declared, “Taiwan’s only option is to grow stronger … It is not our option to do nothing and only rely on others for protection.”
Illustrating his weakened position, Biden has just bowed to China’s demand to stop tracing the origins of the COVID-19 virus by announcing that the intelligence inquiry he ordered has ended, even though the probe failed to uncover the genesis of the world’s worst public-health catastrophe in more than a century. By not extending the inquiry’s 90-day deadline, Biden, in effect, is letting China get away scot-free over its cover-up of the virus’s origins.
The president could have ordered the U.S. intelligence community to keep searching for the true origins of the virus until a definitive conclusion was reached. Instead, as if to underline that he can ill-afford a crisis in relations with China at this stage, Biden has pleaded with a recalcitrant Beijing “to cooperate with the World Health Organization’s Phase II evidence-based, expert-led determination into the origins of COVID-19.” But China, as the intelligence inquiry’s declassified summary states, “continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States.”
Had Biden extended the term of the inquiry, it would have scuttled the ongoing effort to set up a meeting between him and Xi on the sidelines of the G20 Rome summit in October. To make matters worse, Biden’s Afghan disaster has undercut U.S. leverage to pressure China to share information relevant to determining the virus’s origins, including lab records, clinical samples and raw health data from the earliest COVID-19 cases.
The upcoming 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should be an occasion to reflect on how the U.S., by facilitating the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, has made its homeland and its friends less safe. The seeds of another 9/11 may have been sown.
One forgotten lesson of 9/11 is that the U.S. must not draw specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists. The Biden administration, while quick to blame a local ISIS affiliate for the Kabul airport massacre, has sought to build a partnership with the Taliban, including, strangely, on “counterterrorism,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledges. It has also refrained from striking Black Hawk helicopters and other U.S.-made assets parked in the open at Afghan bases.
In the first ever case of a terrorist organization acquiring an air force and sophisticated land-based capabilities, troves of U.S.-made weapons, helicopters, planes and armored vehicles worth many billions of dollars have fallen into the Taliban’s hands. The terrorist capture of Afghanistan will come back to haunt U.S. security sooner or later.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).