By Anil Madan
Since becoming embroiled as an Allied power in World War II, the United States has played, sometimes too willingly in the eyes of many, the role of the world’s policeman. Whereas the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour created both the justification and inevitability of US involvement in the great war, both justification and inevitability have sometimes been difficult to define for other conflicts.
All too frequently, US military involvement around the world has been seen as adventurism, bravado, or simply bullying. Cynics have even charged that the US is simply pandering to the military-industrial complex and its yen for profits. Lost in these interpretations is the hard reality that every intervention by the US has been based on the perception by American presidents and their advisors—justified or not—that America’s self-interest was at play in some way.
The fall of Afghanistan certainly does not mean that future conflicts around the world will not induce or even demand America’s involvement. Pic – Future Directions International
The world’s policeman
Pundits have postulated that the last flight out of Kabul airport marks the unofficial and perhaps even hoped-for end of America’s role as the world’s policeman and an end to America’s interventions abroad. But whether these postulations reflect the wishes or desires of those who are not Americans or of America itself, it is unlikely that they will be validated.
It should be obvious that the supposed end of the war in Afghanistan has not diminished the need for a policeman of the world one iota. It is not even clear that America’s chaotic exit from Kabul in fact marks the end of its involvement in Afghanistan, or even the end of the war in that country. And it certainly does not mean that future conflicts around the world will not induce or even demand America’s involvement.
Afghanistan was a minor blip on the geopolitical theatre. An orderly exit by America might not have created much of a stir. What would have been left was an opium-producing country with a tinge of potential for becoming a haven for terrorists. But America’s tail-between-its-legs exit seems to have emboldened China and led pundits to pontificate that America’s influence on the world stage has been eroded to the point of being no longer consequential. This is nonsense.
Whatever a reading of the tea leaves suggests at the level of unofficial interpretations, neither the US nor anyone else can realistically expect that the exit from Afghanistan marks the official or definitive end to America’s role in world affairs. Unless America is willing to stand back and let worldwide chaos unfold as the inevitable consequence of a total disengagement from the international scene, this country will soon be dragged back into one conflict or another. There is no other alternative and the prospect of domination by China gives most nations pause.
It is well to keep in mind that although American foreign policy can seem consistent over decades, it is subject to short-term revision. President Biden’s policies are not binding on a future president. Indeed, Biden himself could change course if circumstances warrant.
Another reason why America cannot abandon the mantle it has assumed is that a superpower dedicated to upholding moral and human values abandons those principles at its peril. In fact, it is a fair argument that America has found itself in the role of the vanquished rather than the victor precisely because it did not fight hard enough to uphold these values so many times when engaged in military ventures beyond its borders.
The question is whether America can fulfil the role of the world’s policeman with restraint, intelligence, and judicious projection of power to deter would-be aggressors. So far, aside from the second World War which was a resounding success for America as a moral force, the history of American involvement in conflict after conflict, as the world’s “enforcer” has not reflected those qualities. But the days of carelessness and thoughtlessness in such matters are over. The question is can America gain wisdom from its experience?
Stresses and strains at the geopolitical level
The stresses and strains at the geopolitical level remain and, indeed, one can argue are more taut and challenging than ever. Just one example of the global implications of a perceived diminishment of America’s influence in global matters is underscored by the announcement last Friday of a new regulation by China’s Maritime Safety Administration under that country’s Maritime Traffic Safety Law that, starting on September 1st. This regulation will require foreign vessels to report their call signs and cargo before sailing in to China’s claimed “territorial sea” The term “territorial sea” refers to the portion of the South China Sea and beyond to which Beijing lays claim.
There is no nation other than the US to stop this Chinese overreach. Failure here imperils the security of Taiwan and, indeed the security of all Asian nations. Taiwan’s security, in turn, is linked to its critical role as the major producer of semiconductor chips critical to America’s economy and the economies of many nations.
Can an end to America’s involvement in Afghanistan be taken by China as carte blanche to do what it will in the South Pacific? China’s announcement that America is not as strong as it thinks it is, provides a stark realization of Chinese thinking on this score. If America is seen as disengaged, the answer justifiably will be perceived to be in the affirmative. The rest of the world will expect and demand that America remains engaged and says “No” to China’s bullying. The outcome here is to a large extent still in America’s power to determine.
It is by no means clear that China will gain a foothold in Afghanistan. China is viewed as an anti-Islam nation and, as such, is unlikely to gain traction with the Taliban. On the other hand, China is almost uniquely positioned to offer the Taliban financing for infrastructure investment and development as it has around the world. It is in China’s interest to do so, both to establish geopolitical control of the region, and to prevent India or the US from gaining a strategic foothold in Afghanistan. Yes, it is possible that the US may still deal with the Taliban. After all, President Trump signed the exit deal with theTaliban and it has become clear that the Biden administration coordinated its exit operations with the Taliban. It is not as if the exit from Afghanistan represents a total break in the relationship so far established.
Nurturing the Taliban
As one looks at a map of Afghanistan, aside from the neighbouring “stans” what stands out is the looming proximity of three nations (other than China), to wit, Iran, Pakistan and India. Relations with the neighbouring “stans” will likely remain unchanged. Relations with Iran, India and Pakistan will be in flux.
From aught we can tell, Pakistan’s ISI has been instrumental in supporting, indeed nurturing the Taliban. It is not clear that the Sunni Muslims of the Taliban are ready to deal with the Shia Muslims of Iran but then, Iran has oil and the Taliban will need fuel. Ultimately, Pakistan offers a level of military security that may make it the most consequential partner for the Taliban.
India has invested billions in Afghanistan but it is clear that the investment was made on the premise that the nation would have some sort of secular and west-aligned government. Perhaps India just got unlucky rather than miscalculated. Either way, the result is the same. India is not likely to be a significant presence in Afghanistan. On the other hand, if a US-India alliance forms as is likely, India may be the intermediary on which the Taliban relies.
The biggest threat to India is terrorism flowing from Afghanistan via Pakistan. The biggest threat to Pakistan is that China will control the Indo-Gangetic Plain and threaten the water supply to both Pakistan and India.
From a geopolitical standpoint, India and Pakistan too are likely to need the US to be the world’s policeman as much as the south Asian and Pacific nations are.
* Published in print edition on 3 September 2021
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