The war in Ukraine is shaking the European security system and also influencing Washington's strategies in the Indo-Pacific. With the focus on Europe, the US has slowed down its diplomatic and political activity in Asia while keeping a close eye on Beijing's moves. The latest moves such as Beijing's ratified security agreement with the Solomon Islands has alarmed Canberra, a close US ally, as well as the Americans. For Washington, the move is seen as an attempt by Beijing to strengthen its diplomatic and politico-military position in the South Pacific. Another hot dossier concerns the thorny issue of Taiwan. With the Russian invasion Washington is analysing how it can support Taipei in terms of military aid without bothering the People's Republic of China.
In fact, within the US federal agencies, preparations are being made for a possible war confrontation with Chinese forces. Despite the tension within some Chinese academic circles, it is theorised that a kind of competitive coexistence could be found with Washington, which would aim to exclude a warlike confrontation. In January 2022, Professor Wang Jisi , lecturer at the School of International Studies and President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, wrote and published an essay entitled 'A Hot Peace: Is a Paradigm in U.S.-China Relations Emerging?'. In this short essay, the academic theorises that despite the mistrust between Washington and Beijing on various dossiers ranging from the Hong Kong issue to the mistrustful view of international relations via Taiwan, it is necessary to maintain and consolidate a channel of communication between the two leaderships in order to cooperate when the interests of both the People's Republic and the United States converge. According to Wang Jisi, this would lead the current status of Sino-US relations not towards a new 'Cold War' but towards a so-called 'Hot Peace', in which Beijing and Washington, despite competition in various fields, mutual mistrust and different visions concerning the status quo of the international chessboard will necessarily have to cooperate in certain dossiers of global importance.
The war in Ukraine puts Beijing in front of a dangerous strategy: on the one hand it publicly pushes both Moscow and Kiev to find a point of convergence to open a diplomatic mediation table; on the other hand it wants to avoid being included in possible economic sanctions. Moreover, it adds that there could be a remote hypothesis that is at the moment difficult to realise: with a severely weakened post-war Russia, China, in exchange for financial aid, would ask the Kremlin for possible access to military technology in the experimental phase in order to study it and acquire know-how.
At the moment, however, China is focused on other dossiers and preparing for the Party Congress, but with an eye on the economic consequences that the conflict could bring globally.
In this second event of "The View From: Voices from South East Asia" conceptualised and moderated by ITSS Verona members Arslan Skeikh and Arnaud Sobrero, Dr Richard Bitzinger and Dr Fitri Bintang Timur share their immense experience on issues regarding international security, great power competition, trade, diplomacy, and conflict in greatly strategic South East Asia.
America’s longest war is worth analysing when in possession of an accurate chronology ofevents, from the very start to the newest events.
Tracing the beginning of US involvement in Afghanistan in 2001 might not be the right starting point. Going all the way back to the 1950s would help understanding much more of the conflict. At that time, Afghanistan was invested with many modernizing projects financed from the West in order to rebuild the country into a modern nation state.
Throughout the Cold War period, the US and the Soviet Union, being sworn enemies, would fight over any share of territories that might be useful for their cause. Afghanistan was one of them, representing a strategic area for the Soviets and having been the main actor during the Great Game between UK and Russian forces once century before.
The Cold War fight for Afghanistan initially began with soft war measures, such as investments from both parties, only to result much later in an actual military conflict.
The US and the Soviet both got involved in the modernizing of the country through infrastructure building.
In the 70s, Daoud Khan, then President of Afghanistan, began to establish closer alliances with the URSS. In 1978, the Saur Revolution, a marxists-leninist coup overthrows Khan and gives birth to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The newly-established government engaged in some progressive policies, such as land redistribution, enhancing gender equality and expanding education. Regardless of their efforts though, they ended up upsetting autonomous leaders. At this point, the U.S. started to fuel some revolutionary groups who did not approve of the communist switch occurring in the country. By deploying money to put a stop to the spreading of communism, engaged in massive fundings of both tribalist and islamic groups well before the Soviet invasion in December 1979.
The period of time that goes from 1979 to 1992 is characterized by massive involvement of US forces in the region resulting in America investing 3 billion dollars, channeled into various mujahideen groups fighting the Afghan regime.
The Reagan administration managed to increase US spending in the country by using lobbies as a couverture (e.g. Afghan American Educational Fund).
In 1999, the United Nations Security Council, in light of the recent events, decided to proceed with the adoption of Resolution 1267. By making this move, the Council aimed at creating the Taliban Sanctions and the al-Qaeda Committee, containing more than 300 names, all identified as suspects.
After the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in the financial district of New York City, the US response was going to fuel the longest ever war fought by the United States of America.
U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in order to proceed with their War on Terror policy, ideated by then-President Bush. Following the Tora Bora cave bombing, in December 2001, where Osama Bin Laden was thought to be hiding, on December 6th the Taliban government was defeated and left Kabul.
Operation Anaconda, a major ground assault launched from the US against al-Qaeda and Talibans, results in a failure. The Pentagon begins to convey US resources (both intelligence and military) in Iraq.
In 2003, the US’s attention completly switches to Iraq, in order to overthrown former President Saddam Hussein, invading the country and leaving the Taliban and other islamist groups the time to regroup in the southern regions of Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan.
The 2004 elections after the fall of Kabul are considered to be part of the “Reconstructing Afghanistan” project, consisting in various efforts brought alive by countries, ONG and OIG after the U.S. invasion.
Intensive investments in the country were made after the fall of Kabul. World Bank statistics show huge investments made in the country, with 0,5 billion dollars in 2001 to more than 4,2 billion in 2015.
In the 20 years since 9/11, the US has invested more than 2 trillion on Reconstructing Afghanistan and Nation-Building in the area. That makes it 290$ everyday, for 7.300 days.
Eventually, the money invested in the country went on to fuel a number of projects which in most cases remained incomplete. As for the rest of the money, according to Ryan Crocker, US ambassador in Afghanistan, it has gone into a vortex of endemic corruption.
After Afghanistan’s elections in 2004 and Taliban’s insurgency in the south, the area witnessed an increase in the presence of NATO troops, given the fact that US troops were still deployed in Iraq. This leads to various more insurgencies from the Talibans and to the deployment of British forces.
In 2009, newly-elected President Obama proceeded with the doubling of US troops, bringing the number to 68.000 only to reach 100.000 a year later.
Washington’s intelligence errors regarding Afghanistan, with an eye on Beijing
In the assessments of US intelligence agencies, the scenarios regarding Afghanistan posed a worrying scenario. In the months leading up to August 2021, most intelligence reports analyzed that the Afghan government and its government forces would not be able to offer adequate resistance to the Taliban forces, which in those months were advancing rapidly, without the air or ground support by US or NATO forces.
The report, however, will be denied when between 14 and 15 August the Taliban forces surround and enter Kabul, after the Afghan government, President Ghani himself flees the capital to take refuge in the Arab Emirates, capitulates to the Taliban forces occupying Kabul without any resistance from the government armed and security forces.
The errors of assessment, however, were accompanied by the willingness of President Joe Biden to want to withdraw his forces from Kabul, to end the twenty-year war that began in 2001, without considering the consequences of a speeded up withdrawal, which began in early 2021, but confirmed by the Doha agreements of February 2020 ratified by the previous administration led by President Donald J. Trump.
In the plans of the Biden administration, the scenario of the immediate collapse of the government forces in Kabul had been excluded from the beginning, as they assessed that they would be able to counter effective resistance to the Taliban militias, an assessment that the US intelligence itself had not analyzed in depth, given that the forces of Kabul, it appears some units of the Afghan special forces, withdrew from the urban centers, without resisting the advance of the Taliban.
In Washington's assessments of the strategic interests of the new administration, Afghanistan was no longer part of the plans. Washington is now looking to reinforce its forces (economic and politico-military) in the Indo-Pacific area to contain the rise of the People's Republic of China and its aggression, especially in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait area.
On the Afghan events the same Global Times, the English edition of the main Chinese Communist Party newspaper, stated that Taipei must now reflect on the ability of the United States to protect its allies, both in Europe and in Asia. Even if Washington, on Taiwan, both on the part of the White House and on the part of the Congressional leadership, the ideas are clear and precise.
In the recent decades India has become a major power in the Indo-Pacific region which has increased its importance for the United States. China, the second largest economy, aims to establish hegemony in competition with the United States. This provides an opportunity both for the United States and India to find a common path and deepen their partnership to balance China. However, India’s intentions are still unclear and even more sophisticated, due to the changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. Will a traditionally neutral India be willing to support the United States in its effort to counter China?
Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy proved that Asia became the top priority of US Foreign Policy during his Administration. However, under Trump, the focus was reduced by merging East Asia with South Asia, calling the whole region as Indo-Pacific. President Trump’s February 2020 visit to India and the subsequent signing of Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement in October 2020 allowing the two states to exchange geospatial intelligence are symbolic events in highlighting India’s rising status in the U.S. Foreign Policy strategy. Additionally, the two states are engaged in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue along with Japan and Australia. The Dialogue has become a significant regional cooperation platform led by the United States.
In late March this year, the Biden Administration continued the effort to engage with India by sending the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to visit India. During his first Asian trip, besides visiting America’s two closest allies Japan and South Korea, he also visited India, a symbolic step towards highlighting India’sincreased importance for the United States. Biden is generally viewed as an India-friendly politician, particularly due to his contribution towards the United States-India Civil Nuclear Deal in 2008. Additionally, the fact that his administration comprises of a higher percentage of Indian Americans than any other administration, in particular the vice-presidential pick Kamala Harris, carries a great symbolic significance. Biden considers the bilateral relations with India as the “defining relationship” of the 21st century. This makes more sense as China is seeking to become a regional hegemon, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) mega-project giving Beijing greater influence and military and geopolitical advantage in the region. The BRI mega-project would allow Chinese investments in several participating, vulnerable countries surrounding India, such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India’s traditional adversary, Pakistan. China is developing the ports in these countries which will allow it to gain access to the Indian Ocean. This raises concerns in New Delhi of geopolitical encirclement, thereby giving the United States a great opportunity to engage with India.
However, the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system by India raises concern in the United States. New Delhi was a traditional partner of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and afterwards, with Russia. It is unlikely that India will give up these ties on America’s insistence. As India’s External Affairs Minister,Subrahmanyam Jaishankar argues, India has no intention of fully aligning either with Russia or the United States, rather will continue to be neutral as it has been for the last 70 years. Further, he points out: “This is a time for us to engage America, manage China, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play … and expand traditional constituencies of support. … A longstanding trilateral with Russia and China coexists now with one involving the U.S. and Japan”. However, the former Indian Ambassador to the U.S. Arun Singh has a different vision on India’s role, where he says, “In the framework for China, U.S. sees India as a very important partner. I think that would be ... the defining parameter for the relationship going ahead.” Narendra Modi the Indian Prime Minister described the basic pillars of the bilateral relations: “India stands for "freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce and adherence to international law." Certainly, India welcomes these efforts and see the potential in it, but will consider all options and act in accordance with its national interest.
It is uncertain how long India can remain neutral in a dynamically changing regional landscape. Will the United States be willing to accept India’s military ties to Russia as it engages with India to balance China? It is hard to answer which military alliance is more important for India, but it is certain that the United States is making serious efforts to engage India to counter China. The U.S Secretary of Defence stated, “...it's clear that the importance of this partnership (US-India), and its impact [on] the international rules-based order will only grow in the years ahead." While the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh described the future of the US-India relations: “keen to work together to realize the full potential of the India-US comprehensive global strategic partnership." With four consecutive US Administrations in favor and bipartisan support for the US-India relations, it can be assumed that the bilateral relations will remain stabIe for the time-being. In case that India decides to align fully with the United States, the balance in the Indo-Pacific region will be reshaped and will accordingly prompt shift in policies on both sides, between the US-led group of countries and the China-led one.