America’s longest war is officially over.
However, the end of the United States’ 20-year presence in Afghanistan — and the way the Biden administration largely botched the withdrawal — comes with grave risks, and at a steep cost to global democratic and anti-terrorist objectives.
These risks are evident when we consider three separate situations: the inevitable spread of terrorism in the Middle East, threats to Ukraine’s eastern front, and most of all, Beijing’s undemocratic actions in Taiwan.
The remaining U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan on Aug. 31 following two weeks of chaos and destruction. The world watched as Taliban militants overpowered Afghanistan’s civilian government as the U.S.-backed president, Ashraf Ghani, fled. Then, last Thursday, the Islamic State’s regional offshoot took responsibility for a terrorist attack outside of the Kabul airport, which killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghans.
Following the attack, President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Methane fee faces negotiations White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege The No Surprises Act: a bill long overdue MORE essentially caved to withdrawal terms set by the Taliban, establishing a dangerous precedent that the U.S. would negotiate with a group that has supported terrorists in the past to try to protect Americans lives threatened by an even more virulent group of terrorists.
To that end, the most apparent risk of the United States’ Afghanistan withdrawal concerns the spread of terrorism in the Middle East.
Taliban militants — who still have ties to transnational terrorist groups — have now seized control of Afghanistan. The country has no internationally recognized government and is facing grave economic and humanitarian crises.
This is compounded by the fact that the Taliban clearly has billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weaponry and small arms — and given the country’s dismal economic state, the Taliban has a clear incentive and motivation to sell the arms to any group who comes knocking, even global terrorist organizations.
Moreover, there is a clear power vacuum in Afghanistan, which makes it likely that the country could once again become a haven for terrorist groups whose singular goal is the destruction of the United States and the West.
Further, Iran — which has likely provided covert aid to Taliban fighters against U.S. forces in the past — has already pledged to work with the Taliban government. Indeed, Iran is poised to build a closer relationship with the Taliban — notwithstanding the sordid relationship between the two countries over the last several decades, which has grown notably closer in recent years.
In addition, the United States’ Afghanistan withdrawal carries potential risks to Ukraine’s eastern front. For seven years, the U.S. has backed the Ukrainian military in their efforts to fight Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
However, the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has worried the Ukrainian government — with good reason — about the United States’ commitment to support Ukraine in their efforts to both contain Russia and remain independent from Russia.
In April, I wrote in these pages criticizing the Biden administration for not responding strongly enough when Russia moved 150,000 troops to the border, and have overall been critical of the president for not being forceful enough in the region.
And as a report by the New York Times noted, this week, Russia and Belarus are expected to sign a treaty in the coming weeks that could position Russian troops on Ukraine’s northwestern borders — a move that would enfold Ukraine by Russian-controlled borders.
Furthermore, Russian officials have seized on the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan to criticize the U.S.’s foreign policy objectives, and more broadly, our efforts to spread democracy worldwide.
Notwithstanding Russia’s interest in stopping Islamic terrorism — the global proliferation of which is now more likely due to the instability in Afghanistan — Russia has clearly been emboldened by the United States’ failure in Afghanistan. Russian officials are eager to paint the U.S. as a weak and unreliable international partner to Ukraine and other nations.
And while the $60 million in military assistance that the U.S. announced this week it would be providing to Ukraine is a good first step, the administration needs to go further and NATO membership should be seriously considered for Ukraine in face of ongoing Russian aggression.
Finally, and most of all, we must consider how the withdrawal has emboldened Beijing with regard to Taiwan.
Last week, Chinese state-run media Global Times published an editorial insinuating that the U.S. would abandon Taiwan just as quickly as we pulled out of Afghanistan. The article suggested that the U.S. was an unreliable power, and that it would be an “omen of Taiwan's future fate” if Beijing invaded the island.
To be sure, Beijing has been clearly emboldened by America’s failures in Afghanistan, as well as by the fact that they have been largely effective at stopping anti-China protests in Hong Kong, which is semi-autonomous from the mainland, similar to Taiwan.
Further, China’s latest military exercise near Taiwan came around the same time the Chinese state media began painting the U.S. as a fickle international partner. And this week, as Beijing stepped up military activities around Taiwan, Taiwan’s defense ministry released an annual assessment stating that China’s armed forces could “paralyze” Taiwan, according to a report by Reuters.
Despite its militaristic capabilities, Beijing has obvious reasons to avoid war. However, the strategic benefits to Beijing of pressuring Taiwan are clear. If Taiwan feels that the United States — arguably their strongest and most steadfast supporter of the island’s independence from the mainland — is unreliable, Taiwan may be more willing to accept the terms of mainland China rule.
Ultimately, it is hard to predict the full extent of damage across the world from the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.
That said, at this moment, we can say one thing for certain — it will come at a steep cost to global democracy.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWhat Democrats need to do to avoid self-destruction Democrats' combative approach to politics is doing more harm than good Battling over Biden's agenda: A tale of two Democratic parties MORE. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat."