The news from Afghanistan is not good, but what did anyone expect? As the U.S. and other NATO forces withdraw, the Taliban are attacking, killing enemies, taking over the country, including stockpiles of U.S. supplies provided for Afghan government forces.
President Joe Biden has said the Afghan government has to stand up for itself and survive on its own. For many reasons, ranging from the strength of the Taliban and the support it’s receiving from Russia and Iran, among others, to the inherent weakness of a regime riddled by corruption and inefficiency, its days in power in Kabul appear numbered.
Disappointment over Afghanistan mirrors other setbacks for the U.S. No one should forget the U.S. failure to stand by the Kurds, left on their own in Syria when former President Donald Trump, in one of the more controversial acts of his presidency, ordered U.S. troops to pull out. Now we wonder about the U.S. commitment to the Persian Gulf, defended by the U.S. Fifth Fleet and supported by U.S. airpower, against Iran, supported by Russia. Will we be pulling out of the region?
That’s not likely for a number of reasons, notably the U.S. commitment to Israel, by far the largest recipient of U.S. military aid. But what’s going on in the Middle East has huge repercussions for Asia, especially China and the Korean peninsula.
One rationale for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is the renewed emphasis on Asia amid acrimony, if not enmity, between the U.S. and China. Barack Obama, when he was president and Biden vice president, touted the U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Now Biden is picking up on the same theme.
The U.S. military establishment may appear incredibly strong, but U.S. forces have been stretched thin since waging war on behalf of the wobbly Iraqi government that took over after the demise of Saddam Hussein. Committed to vast expenses on rehabbing America’s overstressed “infrastructure,” Biden cannot be deploying U.S. forces everywhere. Americans don’t welcome “endless war” in the Middle East any more than they wanted to keep fighting in Vietnam, from which U.S. troops withdrew in 1973 two years before the demise of the Saigon regime.
The shift to Asia presents challenges all around China, from the Yellow Sea and North Korea to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Pentagon has to worry about defending South Korea while President Moon Jae-in looks for resuming dialog with the North. The U.S. is making a show of endorsing this ambition even as U.S. military people worry about the effect of much reduced joint exercises with South Korean forces. They say these are essential while South Korea prepares for OPCON, taking full control of the defense of the South in case of a North Korean attack.
Actually, now might be a great time to get around to talks with the North. Regardless of the rhetoric, North Korea is in no condition to fight anyone. Kim Jong-un has made no secret of the dire state of the North’s economy and remains extremely worried about COVID-19 while denying the existence of any cases. The stuff we’re hearing from the North, including seeming rejection of dialog by little sister Kim Yo-jong, may not preclude sitting down again for more talks. No, the North won’t be giving up its nukes and missiles, but it won’t be threatening to use them either.
Then there’s Taiwan. Signs are growing that China may be gearing up finally to try to recover the island province to which the forces of Chaing Kai-shek fled in 1949 as Mao Zedong’s Red Army was completing its takeover of the mainland. We’ve been hearing so long about China’s claim to Taiwan that it’s easy to ignore the latest clues to China’s intentions. There are good reasons, moreover, for China not to do a thing, most notably China’s enormous trade surplus with the U.S. It would really be foolhardy for President Xi Jinping to risk funds that he needs to fuel China’s forces everywhere else, including the South China Sea.
You never know, though. Washington, like most other countries, has long since recognized the Communist government in Beijing but maintains an American Institute in Taipei as a de facto embassy. For the U.S. to turn its back on Taiwan would be an act of betrayal that would immediately raise questions about America’s willingness to defend South Korea in a showdown with the North.
Let us hope these questions never have to be answered as the U.S. increases its strength in Asia after running out on Afghanistan.