NEW YORK — The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has thrown U.S. President Joe Biden’s effort to focus foreign policy on China into disarray, as criticism of the White House deepens in the face of the Central Asian country’s escalating crisis.
The speed of the Islamist militant group’s advance and the Afghan military’s collapse has shocked many observers in Washington and other western capitals that have just pulled out troops after an almost two decade occupation.
The U.N. Security Council is due to meet on Monday for talks on the crisis, after an extraordinary series of events on Sunday ended with images of Taliban fighters in the presidential palace in the capital Kabul.
As reports emerged of the Taliban entering Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani fleeing abroad, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met by secure videoconference for urgent talks with their national security team. They discussed the security situation in Kabul, the drawdown of U.S. civilian personnel and the evacuation of former translators and their families, a White House official said.
Attendees included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley. Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad were also present.
As the Taliban’s triumph triggered fears of reprisals against its critics, Blinken sought to justify the U.S. administration’s approach.
“Twenty years, one trillion dollars, 2,300 Americans who lost their lives, a massive investment, and the President concluded that it was time to end this war,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press.
“As a strategic matter, there is nothing that our strategic competitors would like more than to see us bogged down and mired in Afghanistan for another five, 10, twenty years. That is not in the national interest.”
Pressed on why the U.S. appeared to have miscalculated the pace of the Taliban’s advance after Biden announced the troop withdrawal in April, Blinken decried the “inability of Afghan security forces to defend their country.”
“The fact is we invested, the international community invested, over 20 years, billions of dollars in these forces, 300,000 of them, with an air force — something the Taliban didn’t have — with the most modern, sophisticated equipment. And, unfortunately, tragically, they have not been able to defend the country, and I think that explains why this has moved as quickly as it’s moved.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken leaves after speaking during a briefing on Afghanistan refugees at the State Department on Aug. 2. © Reuters
Part of the Biden’s domestic calculation is that the Republicans will not be able to forcefully criticize the Afghanistan withdrawal, since former President Donald Trump originally brokered an early exit.
But some Republicans have already launched attacks on Trump’s Democratic successor in the White House.
Republican Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a Trump critic, slammed both administrations. “The Trump/Biden calamity unfolding in Afghanistan began with the Trump administration negotiating with terrorists and pretending they were partners for peace, and is ending with American surrender as Biden abandons the country to our terrorist enemies,” she tweeted on Sunday.
Some analysts pointed to the political calendar as another likely factor in Biden’s thinking. With Congressional elections coming in Nov. 2022, it would have seemed better politically to face the inevitable mess now, rather than next year.
When Biden announced the troop exit, he said he was ending the longest war in American history to turn his attention to countering China and fighting the pandemic.
But America’s withdrawal and the Taliban’s resurgence may make Afghanistan a bigger — not smaller — part of the administration’s foreign policy. It has raised fears of the exact scenario that Biden was trying to avoid: a two-front international crisis involving China.
“The great power competition is off the agenda for now for the near term,” said Asfandyar Mir, Senior Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank. “Biden has to create a new elite consensus about American credibility. His foreign policy team was hoping to focus on China and great power competition. They spent a lot of time studying how to contain China. Yet, the opposite has happened. They will now be compelled to manage [Afghanistan].”
Analysts warn that a U.S.-China crisis could materialize toward the end of the year, when Biden hosts a Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9 and 10.
A Taiwanese official said last week that the territory, which China considers a breakaway province, was negotiating with the U.S. over its attendance at the summit. In March, Secretary of State Blinken, asked whether Taiwan would be invited, said he was “absolutely committed to working on it.”
China’s hawkish Global Times newspaper, affiliated to the Chinese Communist Party, warned last week that if Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was invited to and appeared at the summit, Beijing would interpret it as a violation of the status quo in U.S.-China relations. Washington’s officially follows a “One China” policy under which it recognizes Beijing as the sole representative of China.
“We have repeatedly warned that if the U.S. and the island of Taiwan cross the red line, the PLA fighter jets will fly over the island,” the Global Times said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army. While the PLA has increased the scale of incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, flying over the main island of Taiwan would push tensions to a new level.
The editorial said such a flyover “will unmistakably declare China’s sovereignty over the Taiwan island, overwhelming various word games and plots from the U.S. and the island.”