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The Afghanistan withdrawal: a pivot, not a retreat

Although the departure of the United States (US) from Afghanistan should not have come as a surprise, the manner of leaving – amidst the collapse of the Kabul government – shocked the world and triggered a round of speculation on its broader meaning. However, questioning Washington’s broader resolve and the credibility of the free world is not only alarmist, but is actually misleading. 

A look at the bigger picture shows that a new coalition of unprecedented power, with the US playing a leading role, is forming to confront what each of its members identifies as the main strategic challenge of the twenty-first century: the rise and geopolitical revisionism of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

Before coming to that, it is important to explain why withdrawal from Afghanistan is not indicative of decline, isolation or a retreat for the cause of freedom:

1. Cold War comparisons to Korea, Japan, Germany do not fit.

Some critics of the withdrawal and advocates of an open-ended war in Central Asia  argue US staying power in Afghanistan should be judged in the same category as its postwar presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea, which continues to this day. The main problem here is that the Global War on Terror just doesn’t rank on the same level of importance as the Cold War. While some of the early post-9/11 rhetoric about a monolithic and multi-generational Islamist threat may have suggested such an equivalence, that view had already changed when Barack Obama recognised in his first administration that the US needed to ‘pivot’ away from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region. Subsequent policy under Donald Trump and Joe Biden affirmed that confronting the challenge of the PRC, not terrorism, had become their main strategic priority.

Another obvious problem with this argument is that the US military in Japan, South Korea and West Germany was not opposed by a deadly insurgency, reflecting the fact that its presence was broadly accepted by host governments and societies as a defence against communist aggression. 

The irony of this reaction to the US withdrawal is it fails to see that the very reason Trump did a deal with the Taliban to quit Afghanistan – the deal Biden fulfilled – was that the US was re-focusing its attention to compete in a new cold war in which Afghanistan plays no discernible role.

2. Beware of instrumentalist framing 

Some reactions to these events come across as wishful thinking about the trajectory of American or Euro-Atlantic power. There are various reasons to use the situation in Afghanistan to advance this narrative of US or Euro-Atlantic decline. Those who have long distrusted American power draw satisfaction from its apparent humiliation. Others see this as an opportunity to question US credibility as a basis for urging American allies towards greater independence or alternate partnerships. In the marketplace of punditry and lobbying, there is nothing unusual about reframing events to advance prior interests, or interpreting events with confirmation bias. However, to the extent that they reflect wishful assumptions about America’s role in the world and a selective reading of history, these assessments are of little use as a guide to broad trends in the global balance of power.

The only way to draw grand conclusions from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is to look at it wearing blinkers that shut out countervailing evidence from elsewhere in the world. Islamist militancy is widespread, as is unfortunately the abuse of rights and liberties. Two decades of war in Afghanistan has not altered that much.  The level of attention given to this story is understandable, given the sacrifices made and professional investment in this war for an entire generation of political, military and media leaders. But as the basis for drawing strategic conclusions, it is myopic. As an article by one of the UK’s most distinguished strategist put it: ‘Afghanistan was a 20-year distraction from the free world’s real troubles: The Taliban are small fry compared with an increasingly assertive China and a hostile Russia.’

3. Don’t look in the wrong direction

Finally, viewing the withdrawal as a sign of American or “Western” decline leads to the wrong conclusion because it is looking in the wrong direction. Step back for a wider view and compelling evidence comes into the picture showing that America is neither down, nor out, let alone heading into isolation. Together with the UK, the historic leaders of the free world are re-positioning themselves in a more extensive community organized around the protection of liberty in various forms – free navigation, free trade, freedom to make security associations and alliances. Looked at in this context, far from declining, withdrawing and isolating, a broader coalition of nations with a flatter, more distributed leadership structure can be seen rising, extending and strengthening. 

In the same week that America ended its war in Afghanistan, an extraordinary total of six naval groups from free and open countries, allies and partners were underway in the Pacific:

  1. The Royal Navy HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group (CSG); 
  2. The US Navy’s Carl Vinson CSG;
  3. The Japan-based American Expeditionary Strike Group;
  4. The Australian Defence Force Indo-Pacific Endeavour task group;
  5. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Indo-Pacific Deployment force and (vi);
  6. The Indian Navy Eastern Fleet task group. 

These groups made up of like-minded partners are coming together. Exercise Pacific Crown 21-1 took place off Okinawa at the end of August between the two JMSDF ships and UK CSG. The American Expeditionary Strike Group, including the 31st US Marine Expeditionary Unit, had just come off an intensive 12-day exercise and engagement period with the Royal Navy CSG and JMSDF ships including Large Scale 21 and Exercise Noble Union

Indeed, over the course of this year, navies from the UK, US, Netherlands, France, Canada and Germany are exercising with allies and partners in the region including Australia, India, and many others. The Indo-Pacific has not seen European vessels and aircraft training with their Asian partners with this intensity for a generation. Britain appears to be leading on the integration of NATO allies in the region, with a frigate from the Royal Netherlands Navy sailing in the group that also includes jets from the US Marine Corps and a US Navy ship. 

Interoperability – the precursor of operational alliance -is being facilitated by an increasingly dense set of diplomatic frameworks. In recent years the Royal Navy and French Marine Nationale signed trilateral naval agreements with Japan, the US and India and a host of agreements enabling mutual logistical support are being struck with the same set of coalition partners. 

So if the news stories over the last couple of weeks raised the question of where the US or the free world is headed, perhaps events that did not make the front pages suggest the answer lies in the east. There a strengthening multilateral coalition of partners can be found, bound together by a commitment to freedoms that transcends geography and cultural differences.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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