How the Afghan Withdrawal Impacts U.S.-China Competition

Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, boards a C-17 cargo plane at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Maj. Gen. Donahue is the final American service member to depart Afghanistan; his departure closes the U.S. mission to evacuate American citizens, Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants, and vulnerable Afghans. (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Alex Burnett)

Each time the world’s most powerful country admits some degree of failure, it is inevitable that such a decision will have sweeping — and lasting — consequences. The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending a two-decades-long presence, will be no exception. The decision undoubtedly sets a dangerous precedent for the future.

The Afghanistan withdrawal — and abandonment of the Afghanistan government and civilians to the Taliban’s onslaught — has been publicly justified as a means for the United States to focus on other arenas of concern, namely great power competition with China in the Indo-Pacific region. While China might indeed be the graver threat, it is myopic to believe that the United States’ ability to address that challenge will be unaffected by its disastrous exit from Afghanistan.

The most immediate and devastating consequence of the United States’ exit is the fall of Kabul and the takeover of the country by the Taliban, as Afghan government troops fled the Taliban’s arrival or surrendered. In their sweep through the country, the Taliban have carried out organized executions, closed schools, and forced unmarried girls and women to be paired off with Taliban fighters.

Though this might seem like a tragic plight for Afghans, but one far away from American shores, the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan will have both direct and indirect consequences for U.S. national security.

The result of the Taliban instituting an Islamic emirate in the totality of Afghanistan will be a murderous regime that may well end up being an epicenter of terrorism in the region. Twenty years ago, the Taliban allowed Afghanistan to serve as the planning and training hub for global terror attacks. With their return, another wave of terror, and maybe another significant attack on America, once again becomes possible. As the U.S. Treasury Department wrote earlier this year: “Al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate … under the Taliban’s protection.”

Through diplomatic channels, the United States must emphasize that we will not tolerate a sanctuary for terrorists to exist anywhere in the world, including in the Taliban’s nascent regime in Afghanistan.

But the long-term geopolitical consequences of U.S. withdrawal vis-à-vis China are becoming increasingly apparent, as well. If the objective is to refocus U.S. resources on besting China, our withdrawal does the precise opposite by providing fertile ground for China’s expansionist ambitions. The U.S. departure from Afghanistan creates a large opening for Beijing to execute on its geostrategic aims, which range from capitalizing on Afghanistan’s supply of rare earth metals, estimated to be worth $1-3 trillion, to undermining perceptions of a U.S.-led world order.

It is no surprise that China has been busy constructing thoroughfares between China and Afghanistan in order to absorb Afghanistan into Beijing’s larger Belt and Road Initiative.

Though China remains wary of Taliban control, the lukewarm relationship between the Taliban and Beijing signals China’s initial efforts to bring Afghanistan into its orbit — and to use the growing chaos and violence (which our withdrawal quickened) as a justification for doing so. To counter these efforts, the United States should be conducting a strong messaging campaign against China, communicating to the Muslim world that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs shows most emphatically that Beijing is not a friend to those of the Islamic faith, as most of the ethnic group identifies as Muslim.

Finally, the U.S. withdrawal sends a sobering message to allies and partners of the United States in Central Asia and the Middle East: America has become increasingly unreliable. Countries that count on the United States as part of their larger national security strategy, which often includes the deterrence umbrella of the United States, may infer from America’s Afghanistan “bugout” that the United States doesn’t have the stamina to fulfill its long-term security commitments.

It makes little sense to perturb lasting allies at a time when U.S. strategy demands the maintenance (and development of) alliances to contain China, especially in the instance of Taiwan and Israel (U.S. partners that routinely face different forms of political and economic pressure from China). Furthermore, others may think twice before adopting and assisting us in our geostrategic objectives. In the worst-case scenario, our unreliability may send countries straight into the orbit of China.

We must reassure our allies, especially those in NATO, that they will continue to have our support and that their security remains a top priority, and we must reenforce such statements by maintaining our forward-deployed presence globally.

The immediate consequences of instability and violence, combined with the long-term consequence of casting doubt on America’s credibility, suggest the U.S. withdrawal will serve only to thwart its goal of checking Chinese expansionism by quickening Afghanistan’s descent into chaos and alienating historically committed U.S. partners and allies.

“America is back” has frequently been touted when emphasizing that potentially fractured relationships with U.S. partners will be restored. But the overwhelming message of our Afghanistan withdrawal likely will be that America does not have its partners’ backs.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills served as commander of NATO’s Regional Command Southwest in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. He participated in the 2019 Generals and Admirals Program with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, where Erielle Davidson is a senior policy analyst.

Originally published in Defense News