From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Not much
Mains level : Paper 2- Transition from American unipolarity
It may be too early to say how the American withdrawal from Afghanistan would shape regional geopolitics in Asia and the great power contest between the United States and its competitors. But it is certainly one of those developments that will have a far-reaching impact on global politics.
Two narratives about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan
- There are two dominant narratives about the American withdrawal.
- Realignment in foreign policy: The first narrative is that the U.S. exited the country on its own will as it is undertaking a larger realignment in its foreign policy.
- Failure to win the war: The other one is that the U.S. failed to win the war in Afghanistan and, like in the case of Vietnam, was forced to withdraw from the country.
- Focus on China: The reorientation that is under way in American foreign policy, focused on China, certainly played a role in the Afghan withdrawal.
- But that does not obscure the fact that the world’s most powerful military and economic power failed to win the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban even after fighting them for 20 years.
Erosion of the US’s ability in shaping geopolitical outcomes
- The gradual erosion of the U.S.’s ability in shaping geopolitical outcomes in faraway regions has already shaken up the structures of American unipolarity.
- Withdrawal from Afghanistan is not an isolated incident: The Afghan withdrawal was not an isolated incident.
- In Iraq and Libya, it failed to establish political stability and order after invasions.
- It could not stop Russia taking Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. In Syria, it was outmanoeuvred by Vladimir Putin.
- Finally, the way American troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power strengthened this perception of great power fatigue and emboldened America’s rivals to openly challenge the U.S.-centric “rules-based order.”
Three geopolitical challenges facing the US
- Aggressive Russia: Russia has amassed about 175,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.
- Western intelligence agencies claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin could order an invasion of Ukraine.
- Russian sphere of influence: From the migrant crisis in Belarus to the troop mobilisation in Ukraine, Russia is unmistakably sending a message to the West that the region stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a Russian sphere of influence.
-  Iran issue: Iran, which has stepped up its nuclear programme after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal, has refused to hold direct talks with the U.S.
- Iran insists that the U.S. should first remove the sanctions and give assurance that a future President would not violate the terms of the agreement.
-  Assertive China: China is sending dozens of fighter jets into the so-called Taiwan Air Defence Identification Zone almost on a weekly basis, triggering speculation on whether Beijing was considering taking the self-ruled island by force.
- As the U.S. is trying to shift its focus to the Indo-Pacific region to tackle China’s rise, China is becoming more and more assertive in its periphery, seeking strategic depth.
- Limited choice: The pivot to Asia has limited America’s options elsewhere. For example, what could the U.S. do to deter Mr. Putin from making the next military move in Europe.
- With regard to Iran, if the U.S. blinks first and lifts the sanctions, it could be read as another sign of weakness.
- If it does not and if the Vienna talks collapse, Iran could continue to enrich uranium to a higher purity, attaining a de facto nuclear power status without a bomb (like Japan), which would be against America’s declared goals in West Asia.
- The Afghan withdrawal and the downsizing in West Asia suggest that America’s strategic focus has shifted towards China.
This transition, from American unipolarity into something that is still unknown, has put America in a strategic dilemma: Should it stay focused on China, preparing itself for the next bipolar contest; or continue to act as a global policeman of the liberal order that is under attack from multiple fronts?