How the Afghanistan Withdrawal Costs the U.S. With China

The benefits of the withdrawal in terms of promoting competitiveness with China aren’t as compelling as they seem.

A collage of the Afghan and Chinese flags.
The Atlantic

Announcing the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan two months ago, President Joe Biden invoked the need to focus on Washington’s No. 1 foreign-policy priority: China. Ending the war would, the president argued, permit America to redirect its energies toward new, more pressing challenges, foremost among them “extreme” competition with an assertive Beijing. As a rising authoritarian superpower threatens to eclipse the United States technologically, militarily, and economically, the thinking goes, we can hardly afford to be tied down in an endless war.

The idea that the U.S. needs to extricate itself from the greater Middle East to get serious about the Indo-Pacific has a natural appeal. It is also not new. The Obama administration similarly justified its withdrawal from Iraq as part of a pivot to Asia.

Yet as details of the Biden administration’s post-withdrawal strategy for Afghanistan emerge, its benefits for American competitiveness against Beijing look nebulous. In fact, the U.S. departure from Kabul could end up undermining, rather than strengthening, America’s strategic hand against China.

In practical terms, advocates of withdrawal offer three major ways that leaving Afghanistan could strengthen Washington in its intensifying rivalry with Beijing. It could liberate military resources currently tied down in Afghanistan, allowing them to be redeployed to the Indo-Pacific theater. It could free up the diplomatic and bureaucratic bandwidth of U.S. senior officials, permitting them to devote to China the time and attention otherwise consumed by the Afghan quagmire. And finally, it could save the U.S. government money, unlocking billions of dollars better devoted to fund initiatives that boost America’s standing in its competition with China.

Each of these arguments is intuitively compelling. None, however, holds up.

Begin with the military situation. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan had already been whittled away to less than a brigade’s worth of soldiers by the time Biden took office. A few thousand U.S. troops may have been enough to keep the Afghan government from falling to the Taliban, but their redeployment will do virtually nothing to alter the global balance of power. Shoring up America’s eroding military edge in the Indo-Pacific should be the Pentagon’s foremost priority, but the capabilities being withdrawn from Afghanistan represent a drop in that ocean.

Still, if the U.S. were to cease all fighting in Afghanistan, one might argue that moving those troops and capabilities to the Indo-Pacific could signal heightened American commitment there. Yet the current plan is not to stop operations in Afghanistan but simply to launch them from outside the country.

The Biden administration cannot end U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan for the simple reason that the terrorist threat there has not gone away. On the contrary, as an unclassified U.S. Treasury Department report this year bluntly warned, “al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” Moreover, while terrorist sanctuaries have multiplied since the September 11 attacks, a “significant part” of al-Qaeda’s leadership is still based around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, according to a United Nations report issued this month, underscoring the region’s special significance for the extremist network.

To deal with this challenge, the Biden administration has pledged to adopt an “over the horizon” counterterrorism strategy. At least initially, that will entail launching operations from Persian Gulf countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—several hours of flight time from Afghanistan. These long, fuel-consuming transits will leave U.S. aircraft with little time left to loiter over Afghanistan. And because effective counterterrorism requires persistent overhead presence to uncover and track targets, the Pentagon will need to devote more aircraft to the Afghan mission. It is also likely to come under pressure to keep an aircraft carrier more or less permanently in the waters off Pakistan to supply additional firepower; already, the USS Ronald Reagan is reportedly steaming from the South China Sea for that purpose.

The new U.S. approach to Afghanistan thus risks redistributing the burden of the counterterrorism mission there, away from the ground forces that are not especially needed in a China contingency and toward the kind of long-range air and naval platforms that would be.

To make matters worse, few U.S. allies can meaningfully contribute to this “over the horizon” strategy. Until recently, American troops represented only a fraction of the foreign presence inside Afghanistan, which was made up of a broad international coalition. Now, however, the premium will be on high-end aerial surveillance and strike capabilities, the kinds of assets that America possesses but that most of its allies do not. Withdrawal thus also seems likely to transform the Afghanistan mission from a multinational one—in which NATO ground troops ultimately came to outnumber Americans two to one—into an undertaking much more disproportionately borne by Washington.

What, then, of the idea that leaving Afghanistan will liberate U.S. leaders from a diplomatic and bureaucratic morass? Here, too, at least thus far, anecdotal evidence suggests that the withdrawal is having the opposite effect.

The decision to pull out has set off a foreseeable cascade of crises that have been consuming ever greater bandwidth among the senior ranks of the U.S. government. These include a mad dash to untangle Special Immigrant Visas for Afghan allies whose lives now hang in the balance; a thus-far-unsuccessful bid to secure new basing arrangements with hard-bargaining Central Asian states; a push to persuade the Turkish government to maintain its forces in Kabul in order to keep open the international airport, and with it, foreign embassies; and a scramble at the Pentagon to figure out how to keep training Afghan forces (and servicing U.S.-furnished equipment), in particular the Afghan air force, without American soldiers or even contractors left in the country to support them.

That leaves the issue of money. There is no question that ending the U.S. ground presence will yield savings—but, it turns out, significantly less than one might think. After all, U.S. troops still need to be housed, fed, and paid regardless of whether they are based in Afghanistan, Qatar, or Texas. The Biden administration has also pledged to keep financing the Afghan army to the tune of several billion dollars a year, and has actually proposed to increase budgetary support to the government in Kabul. Then there are the operational and maintenance costs for aircraft making the long-distance commute to Afghanistan, which will be eye-watering, as will any new basing arrangements. Add it all up, and the supposed windfall of savings from leaving Afghanistan starts to look more illusory than real.

There is still a theoretical path out of these problems. The U.S. troop withdrawal might be followed not by the collapse of the Afghan state but instead by a peace agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Or perhaps a major terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan will not materialize even if the Taliban overruns the country—or if it does, possibly others will step up to deal with it, relieving the U.S. of the responsibility. In all of these scenarios,the Biden administration would be able to shift its energies, resources, and funds to the great game with China.

Yet history suggests that hoping for the best in the greater Middle East rarely works out well for the United States. It also reveals how unrest there can upend Washington’s best-laid designs. The Bush administration entered office expecting to devote its foreign policy to—you guessed it—the rise of China, only to be derailed by the 9/11 attacks. Twelve years later, the Obama administration likewise began its second term resolved to focus on Asia, only for the emergence of the Islamic State to end those ambitions. In this respect, an effective counterterrorism strategy in places like Afghanistan is not the enemy of a strong China policy, but the precondition for it.

To avoid a repetition of this history, the Biden administration now has little choice but to scramble for military and diplomatic work-arounds as a result of its own withdrawal policy. Hanging in the balance is not just homeland security against terrorism and the fundamental human rights of millions of Afghans threatened by the Taliban, but America’s own capacity for strategic coherence.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see how Washington will be able to sustain the case that countering Huawei and the Belt and Road Initiative ought to be its foremost national-security priorities in a world where transnational jihadists are once again on the march and millions of refugees are fleeing across international borders. Even with the threat of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State seemingly at an all-time low, in public polling Americans still consistently, on a bipartisan basis, identify countering terrorism as an equal if not greater foreign-policy priority than rivalry with Beijing. If Afghanistan again falls into instability, America’s ambition for great-power competition with China may prove among its many tragic and unnecessary casualties.