Amid U.S. Afghan debacle, Russia and China know what they are doing: Peter Apps

Both Moscow and Beijing have their own very real worries about a Taliban takeover

  
U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo taken on August 15, 2021 and released by U.S. Navy on August 18, 2021. U.S NAVY/Central Command Public Affairs/Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/Handout via REUTERS

U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to the 10th Mountain Division stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo taken on August 15, 2021 and released by U.S. Navy on August 18, 2021. U.S NAVY/Central Command Public Affairs/Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/Handout via REUTERS

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

LONDON- As U.S. President Joe Biden defended his actions in Afghanistan on Tuesday, Russian and Chinese state media were using chaotic scenes in Kabul to argue that the United States would one day similarly abandon its allies in Ukraine and Taiwan.

The Biden administration and many of its allies had hoped its first year would reverse isolationist narratives from the Trump era and show that “America is back”. Instead, events of the last week – and the perceived tone deafness to them from the White House – may have damaged Washington’s image overseas as badly as anything under the last president.

Even America’s most reliable allies such as Britain have been unusually open in their public and private criticism of the Biden administration, both of its decision-making and its limited engagement with partners amid a ruthlessly domestic focus. On Wednesday, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed that aside from a call to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night, Biden had not spoken to a single other world leader on Afghanistan as the situation there unravelled.

British Vice Admiral Ben Key, Chief of UK Joint Operations and responsible for the British evacuation, was quoted by the Times newspaper on Tuesday as saying Britain had no visibility of ongoing discussions between the United States and the Taliban and "no idea" of likely timescales under which the United States and the Islamists were intending to keep Kabul airport open.

The poor short-term optics, of course, are set against an equally stark longer term picture. The Afghan state and security apparatus on which the United States and NATO spent more than $1 trillion during two decades of effort collapsed in a weekend, what should have been up to 300,000 Afghan security forces melting away in the face of perhaps 75,000 Taliban.

CHINA PROMOTES TAIWAN’S PARALLELS

Both Moscow and Beijing have their own very real worries about a Taliban takeover, not least the potential security implications for Moscow in central Asia and for China in its majority Muslim Xinjiang region. But they also see clear opportunity. As of Wednesday, the only four embassies still operating normally in Kabul were those of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan.

In an Aug. 16 editorial, China's Global Times said events in Afghanistan had "dealt a very heavy blow to the credibility and reliability of the U.S.". Taiwan in particular, it said, should notice how quickly the Afghan government had been abandoned.

The last year has seen a substantial increase in rhetoric from Beijing towards the island, which it regards as a rogue province and wishes to regain control of. The United States has long been deliberately ambiguous on how it might respond to a Chinese invasion, but Beijing is now clearly pushing the narrative that whether Washington fights or not, such support will inevitably lead to defeat, failure and America's Taiwanese allies being similarly abandoned.

"From what happened in Afghanistan, (Taiwan's leaders) should learn that if war breaks out in the Straits, the island's defences will collapse within hours and the U.S. military won't come to help," warned the Global Times, suggesting Taiwan’s authorities would have to surrender while “high-ranking officials may flee by plane”.

U.S. officials were swift to reassert their commitment to Taiwan. But events in Afghanistan have inevitably reinforced narratives being pushed by Russia, China and others that the United States is unreliable and those it chooses to partner with in foreign countries are simply in it for themselves.

RUSSIAN MESSAGING

On Monday, the spokesman of Russia's embassy in Afghanistan, Nikita Ishchenko, pitched in against Afghanistan's outgoing leadership, claiming ousted leader Ashraf Ghani fled with four cars and a helicopter filled with cash. The embassy provided no evidence for the statement.

Russia’s state-owned and pro-Kremlin TV channels and media have been pushing similar lines all week, on Tuesday particularly focusing on the fate of a dozen Ukrainian contractors reportedly caught up in the turmoil at the airport. "They saw for themselves what awaits their country in the very near future," host Olga Skabeyeva announced on Rossiya 1.

Such critiques may be exaggerations, but may have roots in truth. Biden’s Monday address was ruthlessly and unambiguously aimed solely at a U.S. domestic audience, repeatedly stating that the primary priority of the United States was defending its homeland from militant attack – in some respects, amongst the most isolationist speeches given by recent U.S. president.

Some friendships clearly remain. The Balkan states of Kosovo, North Macedonia and Montenegro – all of which rely heavily on U.S. support – were amongst the first to pledge to temporarily home thousands of refugees fleeing Afghanistan. Elsewhere in Europe, however, concerns over a potential new tide of Afghan migrants have policymakers worrying, with the United States inevitably likely to be blamed should this occur.

Biden clearly appears to believe the events of the past week prove that he was right, and that Washington’s Afghan nation-building was always doomed. We will never truly know if that is true, but America’s foes are likely to do what they can to turn the manner of its departure into a wider narrative of failure.

Peter Apps

*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.

(Editing by Giles Elgood) ((giles.elgood@thomsonreuters.com))