The war in Afghanistan is over after 20 years, according to a defiant speech by President Joe Biden, but the withdrawal has left him and his administration wobbling.
Biden’s personal poll ratings are now at 36%, down from 50% previously, while those of his vice president Kamala Harris are only 46% and she is failing to make political headway.
He faces strong domestic challenges. The House and Senate have passed two bills to fund infrastructure and a huge $US3 billion bill to fund a rang of measures from healthcare through education to social welfare. The latter is mired in internal Democratic party struggles, largely because Biden wants to fund it largely through raising taxes from an average 23% to 28% and capital gains to 43%.
This sticks in the craws of moderate Democrats and most Republicans and is unlikely to proceed in its current form.
Later in 2022 the US will hold mid-term elections and already the parties are gearing up. The Democrats need lose only five seats in the lower house to surrender control to the Republicans (and end the career of Speaker Nancy Pelosi) while the Republicans need to gain only one seat in the Senate to control the upper house. This would leave Biden a lame duck.
On past results over 60 years, the party holding the White House also loses the lower house.
But let’s get back to the war.
Biden was dealt a bad hand by President Donald Trump who, in February last year, negotiated a US withdrawal with the Taliban and explicitly excluded the Afghan government.
The evacuation would have been completed by May 1 this year. Biden extended it to August 31 although the last US troops departed a day earlier.
In yesterday’s speech Biden dumped heavily on the Afghan government and its military forces for capitulating to the Taliban.
This was hardly fair on the 45,000 Afghan servicemen and women who were killed during the fighting from 2015.
He didn’t mention the corrupt government or the president who fled the country.
Biden accepts responsibility for the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan which resulted in 123,000 civilians being extracted but left behind some 200,000 Afghans who had served the US and allies.
New Zealand’s modest contribution of one Hercules plus airmen and soldiers, including the SAS, managed to extract hundreds without injury and the team returns to NZ shortly.
NZ’s Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Air Marshal Kevin Short, says if it hadn’t been for the terrorist attacks last week which killed at least 170 civilians along with 13 US military troops, two more mercy dashes by a RNZAF Hercules would have brought more people out. As it is, 372 New Zealanders or visa holders have been withdrawn and 65 remain.
How does the chaotic withdrawal affect New Zealand?
US sources say the NZ contribution was appreciated and builds on NZ’s overall contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have bolstered the country’s standing. It should play well in our relationship with the US.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is understood to be considering a speaking engagement in the first half of 2022. This would likely include a call on President Biden at the White House. They have spoken candidly and warmly before.
The NZ government does not expect to be offered negotiations on a free trade agreement, given the Biden administration’s indifference to free trade. Trade minister Damien O’Connor is due in the US later this month and his calls will include a session with the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
He will find she, too, is not a proponent of free trade.
NZ nearly had a visit last month by Vice Ppresident Kamala Harris, but the government baulked at the demand for pre-visits by a 200-strong advance party to prepare the way. The Australian Government took a similar view.
The US would not contemplate something simple like an airport visit and call on the prime minister.
Biden, meanwhile, faces great problems internationally. He has offended allies on all sides.
NATO is upset that he failed to warn them of the August 31 departure. The withdrawal was the culmination of his announcement in April to get all US troops out of Afghanistan before September 11, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that triggered America’s longest war.
The Wall Street Journal says the “stunning meltdown in Afghanistan” frustrated and angered many American allies, inflicting considerable reputational damage. Yet the US remains a dominant military and economic force—and its withdrawal from the country creates new complications for China and Russia.
Writing in the WSJ, John Bolton, a former national security adviser, says America’s retreat from Afghanistan is ending tragically — and this has sweeping strategic implications.
One major misjudgment underlying the “ending endless wars” mantra was that withdrawing affected only Afghanistan. To the contrary, the departure constitutes a major, and deeply regrettable, US strategic realignment.
China and Russia, the USA’s main global adversaries, are already seeking to reap advantages.
They and many others judge the abandonment of Afghanistan not simply on its direct consequences for global terrorist threats, but also for what it says about US objectives, capabilities and resolve world-wide.
In the near term, responding to both menaces and opportunities emanating from Afghanistan, China will seek to increase its already considerable influence in Pakistan.
Russia will do the same in Central Asia’s former Soviet republics and both China and Russia will expand their Middle East initiatives, often along with Iran. There is little evidence that the White House is ready to respond to any of these threats.
Over the longer term, Beijing and Moscow enjoy a natural division of labour in threatening America and its allies, in three distinct theatres: China on its periphery’s long arc from Japan across Southeast Asia out to India and Pakistan; Russia in Eastern and Central Europe; and the Russian-Iranian-Chinese entente cordiale in the Middle East. US planning must contemplate many threats arising simultaneously across these and other theaters, Bolton says.