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Now What? The Global Consequences of American Defeat in Afghanistan
An air crew assists evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 21, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images)
(Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images)

Now What? The Global Consequences of American Defeat in Afghanistan

Nadia Schadlow, Robert Greenway, Michael Doran, Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, Bryan Clark, John Lee & Peter Rough

America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent takeover by the Taliban will have grave consequences far beyond the immediate security and humanitarian crises.

In the wake of this, Hudson’s experts weigh in on the geopolitical chain reaction they anticipate in areas including competition with China, the fight against global jihadism, and nuclear proliferation.

Nadia Schadlow on America’s national security

The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan has produced an unmitigated humanitarian and geostrategic catastrophe. The defeat has produced five long-run consequences that will diminish the U.S. role in the world.

First, the bedlam in Kabul has added to the nagging sense of American decline that has been simmering for years. It drove a stake through one of the few remaining illusions about America, that the United States remained a competent nation, one that managed to get things done. This is no longer the case. We “don’t have the capability” to help stranded Americans, said Lloyd Austin, our secretary of defense.

Second, this catastrophe could be the death knell for the idea that America seeks to be a beacon of hope and a partner to those striving for universal values and human rights. Biden’s actions starkly contradict his administration’s empty slogans about “gender equity” and “Build Back Better World.”

Third, our alliances have been damaged by the administration’s careless actions. Biden’s failure to consult our NATO allies—who had forces and personnel on the ground—reveals the hollowness of his claim that “diplomacy is back.” His negligence put allied troops in harm’s way.

Fourth, the debacle has created the conditions for the resurgence of a jihadist state in the middle of Central Asia. Jihadist groups around the world are rejoicing: Under a Taliban government, they will have the resources (including captured U.S. military equipment) and a geographic location to project power and rebuild their operational capacity.

Fifth, Biden’s chaotic withdrawal presents new opportunities for our strategic rivals. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials have already begun negotiating with the Taliban to advance Chinese interests. Beijing will use its bolstered position in Central Asia to further consolidate its Belt Road Initiative and gain control over Afghanistan’s vast strategic minerals deposits, estimated to amount to $1 trillion in minerals.

Robert Greenway on the Middle East

In the near term, the Biden administration’s actions will erode trust in America’s ability to maintain deterrence in the Middle East, which has long ensured uninterrupted energy flow and essential trade to global markets. Iran will interpret this sacrifice of American credibility as an invitation to persist in its pursuit of threshold nuclear capability. With our attention dominated by the precarious evacuation of Americans and Afghan partners, we can offer diminished assistance as Israel faces simultaneous threats from Gaza and Lebanon. The global jihadi movement, fueled by victory in Afghanistan and the release of thousands of detainees to the world’s largest safe haven and arms depot, will be quick to resume external operations targeting the United States and our interests globally, exploiting the void in American resolve and leadership.

Michael Doran on the global terrorist threat

The American surrender to the Taliban will embolden China, Russia, and Iran who are seeking, in loose concert, to undermine the American order in the Middle East. It will also embolden Islamic extremists globally—but to what extent?

The Biden administration hopes that the Taliban will confine its aspirations to Afghanistan and prevent its territory from functioning as a base for anti-American terrorism. It notes that both China and Pakistan (close geostrategic partners that wield the most influence over the Taliban) look with disfavor on the global jihad, and that the Taliban has conducted attacks on the local Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.

However, Beijing and Islamabad will certainly wink at the Taliban as it trains jihadis who threaten India. Experience suggests that those terrorists will not confine their attacks to Hindus alone—Christians, Jews, and secularists worldwide will also be fair game. Attacks on America linked to Afghanistan hardly discomfited China and Pakistan in the era leading up to 9/11. Will such attacks trouble them now, at a moment when security cooperation between the U.S. and India is increasing and China is overtly challenging America’s global leadership role? Unlikely.

Rebeccah Heinrichs on nuclear threats

Nuclear deterrence relies on allies and enemies believing that the U.S. will follow through on its commitments, and that it possesses the resolve to do whatever is necessary to protect its allies and partners. The Biden administration’s failure to prioritize the safety and security of its citizens, NATO allies, and Afghan partners has damaged U.S. credibility. President Biden’s conduct throughout this crisis, and the weakness and gross incompetence it has revealed, has undermined vital relationships and those whom we cooperate with on nuclear deterrence and assurance. Also, the security of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal is a greater concern now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan and continues working with al-Qaeda. India, a necessary U.S. partner in deterring China, will certainly have divided focus with new and pressing threats from Pakistan.

Bryan Clark on the U.S. military

One of the challenges that the U.S. and allied militaries face after withdrawal is preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist haven and base for attacks. With naval forces needed in the Indo-Pacific to counter China, the continued use of aircraft carriers for Afghanistan operations is unwise. Because land-based aircraft must fly around Iran to reach Afghanistan from Persian Gulf bases, they will need long-range or extensive refueling. Affordably monitoring terrorist activity and shutting down imminent threats will depend on cyber and space surveillance combined with long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that can localize and attack terrorists with missiles or electromagnetic warfare.

John Lee on the America’s Indo-Pacific strategy

The flawed intelligence, operational incompetency, and moral failure that led to the catastrophic scenes over the past few days is a humiliation for an administration promising order and adroitness in external affairs. However, a poorly handled legacy issue in Afghanistan, a mission long-burdened by previous multiple failures, is not a precursor of things to come in a very different Indo-Pacific region. In historical, institutional, and material terms, America is much better placed in the Indo-Pacific than it is in the Middle East to exercise leadership. It has formidable and reliable allies in this region. Beijing will have noted President Biden’s stumble but still knows that American eyes—as they were during the Trump administration—will be trained on China.

Peter Rough on Europe

For Western Europeans, the most shocking aspect of the fall of Kabul was not the Biden administration’s incompetence but the president’s stubborn remorselessness. As much as anywhere, his mantra of “America is back” in a contest of “democracies against authoritarians” was aimed at Western Europe. In a few short days, that slogan’s credibility was torn to shreds.

Yet even a catastrophe like Afghanistan won’t prod Europe into self-sufficiency. But whatever temptations already existed for third countries like Germany to hedge their bets, the debacle in Afghanistan will only increase the likelihood that Europe charts a middle way in what matters most: Sino-American competition.

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