Why the US will never leave Afghanistan
President Joe Biden’s decision to continue the U.S. military presence until Sept. 11, might seem like the welcome beginning of the end to a “forever war” that roughly half of Americans believe has been a failure. But there are broader geopolitical forces at play and vital U.S. national interests at risk if the U.S. completely ended its involvement in Afghanistan.
While Biden now appears committed to withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. cannot simply pack up and walk away from Afghanistan as it did at the end of the 1980s following the Soviet withdrawal. That would be a security disaster for Afghanistan, the U.S., and Central Asia. Most important, Afghanistan’s geographic location is central to America’s broader geopolitical competition with China, which over the last decade has evolved from Obama’s pivot to Asia to Trump’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.
The emerging consensus in U.S. foreign policy sees everything through the lens of containing China’s global influence. This includes lessening America’s dependence on China’s mineral wealth production in the competition for next generation technologies.
Afghanistan is one of the richest mining regions in the world, holding untapped mineral wealth and rare Earth elements estimated at roughly $3 trillion. Rare Earths are essential to lithium batteries and computer chips that power disruptive technologies, including everything from laptops and mobile devices to GPS systems, precision-guided weapons, drones, satellites, stealth aircraft, and hypersonic weapons. Geopolitical competition over rare Earths will intensify as their geostrategic importance rise exponentially with countries transitioning to high-technology renewable and sustainable innovations like wind turbines, electric vehicles, advanced communications, and next-generation military technologies.
It is not surprising that at the same time Trump was seeking to remove U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, he was also speaking about the importance of maintaining U.S. leverage in mineral extraction in Afghanistan back in 2017.
Afghanistan presents Biden with an opportunity to end America’s dependence on Chinese minerals and reshape the geopolitics of rare Earths. A 2018 U.S. defense analysis reported a 70 percent decrease in the U.S. share of global production of rare Earths since 2020. Also, China is now America’s top supplier of rare Earth elements. Biden can and should shift America’s production dependence away from China given America’s anxiety about its defense technologies, global communications networks, and push for alternatives being overly dependent on imports of rare Earth elements from China.
This means the Biden administration will find a way to extend America’s stay in Afghanistan. Biden must carefully use diplomacy and America’s multilateral relationships with key allies, namely NATO, as the vehicles through which to extend American national interests in Afghanistan.
Resource exploitation in Afghanistan is a politically risky selling point to an American public exhausted by 20 years of war. However, competition with China over mineral wealth is intensifying and Afghanistan presents China with a new opportunity to expand its mining and transportation projects in the Belt and Road initiative. China has already been pursuing strategic partnerships with Iran and maintains $62 billion in investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Look for Biden to rely on NATO allies, especially Turkey, which is seen as a trustworthy partner in Afghanistan. On April 16, Turkey will host peace talks between the U.S., the Afghan government, and the Taliban to complement Afghan peace talks in Qatar. However, a lasting peace in Afghanistan that secures U.S. interests will depend on whether the Biden administration and Afghan government can cooperate with Pakistan, which maintains significant influence with the Taliban.
Given these realities, while it is likely President Biden may carry out his promise to withdraw America’s remaining military forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. is not going to leave or abandon Afghanistan and concede that vital space to China. The U.S. will not tolerate Afghanistan, and its rare Earth mineral wealth, falling under China’s control. Biden’s challenge will now be to convince a war-fatigued American people that the U.S. will likely never leave Afghanistan.
Chris Dolan is a professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. He is the author of “Obama and the Emergence of a Multipolar World Order: Redefining U.S. Foreign Policy.”