Defending his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan on Tuesday, President Biden said the “world is changing” and that the US is now “engaged in a serious competition with China.”
Since coming into office, President Biden has frequently framed China as an ideological competitor, and his Pentagon has identified Beijing as the top “pacing threat” facing the US military.
While the priority appears to be China, the US is also focused on confronting Russia. This reflects the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which outlined the shift away from “counterterrorism” towards so-called “great power competition” with China and Russia. Biden said the US was facing “challenges” from Russia on “multiple fronts.”
“There’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan,” Biden said.
Biden also claimed there were “threats” facing the US in places like Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. And while the US terror war continues in these countries and special forces operations are expanding across Africa, a future escalation in the region that involves a major troop surge is unlikely.
Every branch of the US military is reconfiguring to better face what the US military calls “peer competitors” like China and Russia. This is reflected in training, military exercises, and the Pentagon budget.
Since Afghanistan is located in Central Asia and shares a small border with China’s Xinjiang province, Washington has to grapple with how a Taliban-led Afghan government fits into its plans for “great power competition.”
Both Russia and China have left their embassies open in Kabul and are signaling that they’re ready to recognize the Taliban. The US moved its Afghanistan-related diplomatic operations to Qatar and is using its control of the global financial system as leverage over the Taliban and has seized billions in Afghan reserves.
It’s possible the US puts Afghanistan under heavy sanctions, but Washington might decide that having relations with the Taliban is worth curbing Chinese influence in the country.
One of China’s only requests of the Taliban is that they sever any ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a Uyghur Muslim group that Beijing accuses of being behind terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. ETIM was previously on the US terror list but was removed in 2020 by the Trump administration, signaling that the US might find a use for the group in its new Cold War with China.
If the US decides to back the ETIM in Afghanistan, it would require more cooperation with the Taliban, which is possible. Besides working together on the Kabul evacuation, the US and the Taliban have previously fought on the same side. Last year, a report from The Washington Post revealed that a unit of the Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC) was giving the Taliban air support in its fight against ISIS in the eastern Kunar province.
But for now, the Taliban seem eager for China to invest in Afghanistan, and it’s unlikely that they would conspire with the US against Beijing so quickly after the withdrawal. And to a country that has been torn apart by war for decades, China’s offers to build infrastructure may be more enticing than covert US operations.