US PRESIDENT Biden’s failure to remember the Australian prime minister’s name while launching the Australia, UK and US, or the AUKUS, strategic pact at a virtual summit of the heads of governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia may have been a lapse of memory. His reference to Scott Morrison as ‘that fella down under’ immediately thereafter was, nevertheless, something else. It left, as the expression goes, a bad taste in the mouth.
Neither the US president’s lapse of memory nor his indecent reference to the Australian prime minister after forgetting his name was, however, the important story that emerged from the virtual summit. The lapses were faux pas at their worst. They were, however, just the tip of the iceberg of ominous implications that hinted strongly that there was ‘something rotten in the state of Denmark.’
Biden knew upon becoming the 46th president of the United States in January this year that his predecessor decided to end the war in Afghanistan and bring the US troops home by the end of August 2021 in an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. Biden welcomed the decisions. He stated soon after taking office that the US troops would be home before September 11 to mark the 20th year of the US war on terror in Afghanistan. Biden was aware that there was wide bipartisan support for ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing the troops home.
The Biden administration, however, made a mega mess with both. The chaos and confusion the world witnessed from TV coverage of the fall of Kabul reminded many of another defeat that the United States suffered in an overseas war and the scramble of those who collaborated with the US troops in that war to flee the country. That was the fall of Saigon from the hands of the US troops to the Viet Cong in April 1975, recorded in the history books as the ‘Saigon Moment.’ The ‘Saigon Moment’ faded in comparison with what the world watched in Kabul as Afghans who collaborated with the US troops during the occupation were seen running after aircraft on the runway to find a place to flee Kabul in fear of the Taliban.
The Biden administration failed miserably to consider the other crucial implications of the February 2020 agreement or was in denial of those implications while agreeing to end the war in Afghanistan and bring the troops home. The administration would have spared itself and the United States the shame of ending its longest overseas war as a zero-sum game with its cup of humiliation and embarrassment filled to the brim, for which its taxpayers had paid the $2 trillion if it had considered the February 2020 agreement in its overall implications and not just to end the war hurriedly and bring the troops home quickly.
If the Biden administration had examined president Trump’s agreement of February 2020 agreement with due seriousness, it would have been found that it was concluded with the Taliban with president Ashraf Ghani in the darkness. That demoralised the anti-Taliban factions and forces that the president represented that constituted the majority of the Afghans against the 38–42 per cent that the Taliban represented. The February 2020 agreement was a betrayal to these majority of the Afghans. The 300,000-strong Afghan defence forces that included a modern air force also saw Trump’s agreement in the same light.
Thus, president Ashraf Ghani fled in the darkness of the night when the fall of Kabul became imminent. The Afghan defence forces allowed the Taliban to take Kabul and, thereafter, Afghanistan without firing a shot. In between, the inclusive all-party government that should have been the primary consideration of the Biden administration to end the war; and withdraw US troops did not even have a chance of emerging because Trump’s agreement of February 2020 had delivered Afghanistan to the Taliban on a silver platter a year before Biden took office.
It is a mystery why the Biden administration did not anticipate the events for they were very obvious. If the Biden administration had examined the Trump agreement with minimum seriousness, it would have seen the trap into which it was walking by implementing Trump’s agreement without any questions. The G7 allies, of the United States, led by Britain suggested that Biden should delay the US troops withdrawal to evacuate ‘tens of thousands of Americans, Europeans, other third-country nationals and all at-risk Afghans.’ Biden adamantly refused. Thus the ‘at-risk Afghans’ felt that with all the mega mess, Biden also betrayed them without either felicitating their departure from Afghanistan or establishing an interim administration and leaving left their fate in the hands of the Taliban instead.
The AUKUS pact that Biden concluded on the back of the mega mess in Afghanistan is another mystery and as it appears at this stage a Biden blunder. The Biden administration correctly assessed that the withdrawal of US/NATO troops from Afghanistan strengthened China and that there is the need to contain it. The mystery is that the Biden administration failed to see that the AUKUS strategic pact would not enhance the US capacity to contain China in any major way but would, instead, first, raise questions in the minds of US allies in the region, second, likely to weaken the Quad, the existing anti-China strategic alliance, and finally, create anger in France, historically the most trusted ally of the United States in world affairs.
The AUKUS pact will allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines that will neither carry nor deliver nuclear weapons. The submarines will allow stealth and faster mobility but will not have the ability to alter the military balance in any major way to contain China. The Australian submarines will, however, bring financial benefits to the United Kingdom that will produce them and to the United States that will provide the technology. France will, however, become the victim of the purchase. Australia had cancelled a huge purchase of a fleet of conventional submarines from France just days before the AUKUS pact was launched, a deal critical for the survival of France’s military-defence industry. The deal was worth $40 billion in 2016 when it was signed but much more in its present-day value.
France hit the ceiling in anger. It recalled for the first time in history its ambassador to Washington. It also recalled its ambassador to Canberra but spared the United Kingdom the embarrassment because it did not consider it important enough. And just days before the AUKUS pact was announced, the European Union had sent out a paper to its member nations to consider engagement and not conflict as their policy towards China. The G7 countries but for Japan delivered the same message to Biden on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in June this year.
The AUKUS pact also left the most dependable allies of the United States in the region perplexed because they were not only not included in the pact, apparently they were not also consulted. These allies, Japan and India, are members of the US-led anti-China Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad. Biden is scheduled to meet the Quad heads in an in-person summit on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 24. The future of the Quad was, however, bleak and will now be bleaker with the establishment of the AUKUS pact with Japan and India excluded from it, the forthcoming Quad Summit notwithstanding.
The Biden administration failed to understand fully the implications of president Trump’s February 2020 agreement with the Taliban and explain it to the Americans. He, thus, withdrew US troops from a position of utter weakness without heeding the calls from some of the US allies to delay the withdrawal. He has now upset the traditional and trusted US friends in pursuing China without strengthening the military capabilities of the newly formed AUKUS in any significant way. He has, thus, made a mega mess in Afghanistan and has followed it with the AUKUS blunder.
President Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra has been a disaster. If the cliché that morning shows the day has any meaning, Biden’’s ‘America is Back’ mantra appears to be headed in the same direction.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.