While the world watched horrific images coming out of Afghanistan during the Taliban takeover, some foreign policy analysts found an upside: America’s withdrawal would help the United States in its great power competition with China and Russia. Americans might hope for this possible outcome, but they should be cautious and avoid an overoptimism that clouds their understanding. The Afghanistan crisis may cause problems for America’s rivals, but these countries also have opportunities and could avoid the possible pitfalls.
Some of these analysts argue that the US can divert military resources from Afghanistan to the East Pacific, hurting the People’s Republic of China (assuming that the US wants a meaningful pivot to East Asia, instead of a pivot to expensive domestic programs). But as one question during a Providence event last month shows, others doubt that moving a few thousand or fewer troops out of the country might make much of a difference. Moreover, retaining Bagram Air Base, the equivalent of an unsinkable aircraft carrier near China’s border, could have benefited the US, as Rebeccah Heinrichs noted during a podcast interview with me. Besides, America will still use resources to conduct over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, even though these will likely be less effective than previous operations and perhaps counter-productive. For example, instead of killing an ISIS-K member, a drone strike on August 29 wrongly killed an aid worker and seven children, which the Department of Defense admitted on Friday after calling it a “righteous strike” initially. So ultimately, any military gain from abandoning Afghanistan may be relatively small for great power competition, which Jon Askonas noted during the Providence event while defending the US withdrawal.
A more convincing argument suggests that the mayhem following the Taliban’s takeover will create strategic headaches for China and Russia. Instead of focusing on Eastern Europe or the East Pacific, these countries must divert military, intelligence, and diplomatic resources to Central Asia to stop terrorist networks from threatening their assets and people. They therefore risk getting entangled in “another Vietnam” in the “Graveyard of Empires.” Thus, they will have more difficulty responding if the US military presence increases in Europe or Asia.
In 2015 when Russia began its military campaign in Syria, commentators made a similar argument. They suggested that Vladimir Putin risked creating his own Vietnam and wrongly forecasted that Russia would get bogged down defending the Bashar al-Assad regime. True, Russia endured costs. But these critics forgot that Russia had a vote in how it operated and could benefit from the campaign. Over the following years, the Russian military cycled troops through Syria, giving them valuable combat experience they otherwise could not have, and now Russia can teach China lessons they learned on the battlefield. So, far from becoming another Vietnam, the Syrian civil war gave the Russian military capabilities it can use in operations that undermine or threaten the United States and its allies.
Therefore, Americans should not assume that every long or difficult war—whether in Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere—is “another Vietnam.” Because that war dominates the memory of America’s older generations, the US is perhaps more prone to have what looks like another Vietnam. But that is more a self-fulfilling prophecy than reality. Meanwhile, other countries can benefit from military campaigns, baffling analysts who fail to recognize that the Vietnam War happened in a geopolitical context that doesn’t exist for other conflicts.
Besides expecting that any involvement in Afghanistan could turn into another Vietnam, some argue that Afghanistan is unconquerable and uncontrollable, which made America’s mission impossible and the withdrawal’s consequences tolerable. Likewise, China and Russia by default cannot manage the region. But this notion that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires” is a flawed myth. If foreign policy analysts are too devoted to this narrative, they will make flawed forecasts. Even if Afghanistan does not become fully peaceful or economically stable, it is not destined to become the graveyard of America’s adversaries. Turmoil emanating from here may not burden China or Russia significantly enough to affect great power competition. They may even find opportunities.
China remains concerned about increased terrorism now that the US has left Afghanistan, particularly after an attack in July killed Chinese workers in Pakistan. But if the Taliban can control its territory well enough to stop or limit attacks, then the US withdrawing its military away from China’s border may prove beneficial. Hence, the PRC is seeking cooperation and dialogue with the Taliban. Because Beijing does not currently have Moscow’s spirit for military adventurism, this outcome may be satisfactory. But there may be other, relatively smaller economic and prestige boosts that could help China. For example, Beijing could expand the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Afghanistan, perhaps turning the place back into the highway of empires that it was for centuries, or humiliate the US and its democratic “Western model.”
Even if in a possible worst-case scenario where the Taliban cannot control the country and China must send in troops to support the group, the conflict may not be a catastrophe for the PRC. Just as the Russians used Syria to give its forces real-world battleground experience, the People’s Liberation Army could learn from a campaign in Afghanistan. Then if it must fight India, Taiwan, or some other actor, Chinese veterans would be better prepared.
Russia also has opportunities. Some observers suggest Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) joint military exercises between Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan near the Afghan border in August indicate that the Kremlin worries that turmoil in Afghanistan may cause instability elsewhere in Central Asia. Last week, the Russian government also announced the deployment of T-72B3 battle tanks to Tajikistan, where it is building up its military base. But the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) notes how, instead of being a burden, these exercises and deployments help Russia expand its influence. Moscow has long wanted to turn the CSTO into an effective military alliance akin to NATO, but other members have been wary of their large neighbor. Now that smaller members worry about instability in Afghanistan, they are turning to Russia and the CSTO for help. As ISW Russia expert George Barros writes, “The Kremlin will likely increasingly leverage the CSTO and expanded military exercises to advance longstanding Russian efforts to integrate the militaries of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia into Russian-controlled structures.” So the Kremlin is using the current instability to partially rebuild its Soviet empire in Central Asia, even if its rhetoric sounds more alarmist.
Besides, if Russia was worried about the Taliban takeover, Vladimir Putin would not have refused the Biden administration’s request to base US counterterrorism forces on Afghanistan’s border in one of these Central Asian countries. This refusal suggests the Kremlin is satisfied with the withdrawal and the geopolitical opportunities it provides.
Last week the CSTO and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—a loose alliance that China dominates and just admitted Iran—held back-to-back summits in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. During the CSTO summit, members emphasized concerns about instability in Afghanistan, while some participants at the SCO summit wanted dialogue with the Taliban. One trend to watch in the coming years is how the CSTO and SCO respond to the Afghanistan crisis, and whether China and Russia use this opportunity to strengthen these alliances. If so, Russia, China, and Iran could cooperate to gradually control an eastern Eurasian bloc to counter the US and its allies.
After the disasters in Afghanistan, Americans may want to comfort themselves by thinking that at least turmoil in Central Asia will hurt China and Russia. Maybe those rivals will make mistakes there. But Christian realists who recognize the world as it is should be clear-eyed about possible outcomes and should avoid an overly rosy view that blinds them to possible downsides. Assuming China and Russia will fumble the Afghanistan crisis would be just as foolish as assuming that America’s allies in Kabul could stop the Taliban after the US abandoned them.