Friday News Roundup — September 3, 2021

From Afghanistan to Great Power Competition; How the Kremlin Sees Kabul; Air Force Modernization Push; Saintly Lessons for Foreign Policy

Good morning from Washington, D.C., and we wish you a very happy Labor Day weekend. On the labor news front itself, this morning’s disappointing jobs numbers, with job losses in hospitality and dining, served as yet again another reminder that Covid and the delta variant continue to be the main economic headwind. This early September news is a coda to an August that many are happy to see in their rear view mirror. While just a week ago, Americans were focused on the chaotic scenes in Kabul, this week’s headlines shifted back home, with Texas and the Supreme Court further fanning culture war flames and scenes of Hurricane Ida causing a swath of destruction from Louisiana to the Northeast Corridor. As the news cycle bounces around, compounding simultaneous crises are impacting lives and livelihoods. While the long weekend might prove to be a brief respite, the fall-into-winter calendar already looks to be a legislative gauntlet.

This week, Dan and Joshua both appeared on the Farrcast podcast, covering SCOTUS and Afghanistan, respectively. Joshua also reviewed Seth Jones’s “Three Dangerous Men” looking at how Russia, Iran, and China are embracing irregular warfare.

In this week’s roundup, Dan looks at the path ahead from the events in Afghanistan to the reorientation to great power competition. Joshua looks more closely at Moscow’s reaction, while Ethan covers Air Force modernization plans. Our summer intern Liam Miller shares some thoughts on how a monk living in the 5th century can provide some tenets for foreign policymaking. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.

From Afghanistan to Great Power Competition

Dan Mahaffee

Taliban Delegation visits with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi

The events of the past weeks in Kabul mark a change in U.S. geopolitical priorities, moving away from the legacy of September 11th, the global war on terror, and the past two decades of cycles of counterterrorism and nation-building in the Middle East and South Asia. For nearly a decade, strategies and statements have spoken of “a pivot to Asia,” or as we have chronicled in our columns here, a return to great power competition.

This idea of great power competition, and a return to it, brings to mind something like a return to chess-like geopolitics — or for even the wonkier of us, games like Diplomacy or Twilight Struggle. Indeed, while we ultimately begin to turn the page away from a strategic focus on operations like Afghanistan, it will not be a clean reset like a game where a new round starts again. The legacy of the broader war on terror and the more recent events in Kabul set the stage for how we re-orient our tools of national power, e.g. our military and diplomatic efforts, towards the challenges that remain and those that loom on the horizon.

First, there are the many questions raised about the durability of American power around the world. Some of the more hyperbolic commentators have seen this as the collapse of the west, or even ask whether the United States will soon befall the fate of the Soviet Union — Afghan withdrawal goeth before the fall, or something like that. On the other hand, history tells us that American power more than recovered after Vietnam.

While Joshua goes into detail about how the Kremlin has looked at the American withdrawal from Kabul, the other key players in great power competition are also responding and reacting. Most attention has been focused on Beijing. China has already made its overtures to the Taliban, and, like Moscow, scenes of the limits of American power and the embarrassment of Washington will always be well-received by party hardliners. While some may speculate about their interest in the mineral wealth of Afghanistan, accessibility, infrastructure, and stability are all headwinds to the development of these resources. Given China’s crackdown on its Uyghur population, it also looks with suspicion on Afghanistan as a future base for its own “terrorist threats.” The dance of semi-recognition or de facto recognition of the Taliban by Beijing might be trumpeted as mutual “non-interference,” neither the “stability” of Afghanistan nor the long-term “success” of the Taliban are guaranteed.

China has also sought to try to use the American withdrawal from Afghanistan as a message to say that the United States will not be there for Taiwan or other regional partners. First, this is a misguided assessment of U.S. interests, as the reason for our move away from Afghanistan is to shore up our presence and commitments in the Indo-Pacific. Furthermore, while we do talk about potential mineral wealth from Afghanistan, there are no components made in Afghanistan in my car, computer, or smartphone. Finally, to assume our withdrawal from Kabul means that the Americans will not fight for their values is erroneous. The fact that our young men and women laid down their lives to bring people to safety and freedom is a testament to American dedication to our values and the missions to protect them.

At the same time, India will also have its concerns, as their Pakistani rivals are the true near-term winners of the western withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s embrace of the Taliban has always been a tango to counter India, but the matters become more complicated with China serving as Pakistan’s patron and India’s growing rival. For Delhi, Afghanistan is now further depth for Pakistan:their eternal rival, effectively a terror sponsor, sponsored by China. India had invested greatly in Afghan democracy, down to the parliament building itself in Kabul, but will this future Indo-Af-Pak dynamic revert to pre-2001? More likely it will become part of a newer power competition in Central Asia between India and China, while Moscow continues to exert influence where it can in post-Soviet realms.

Where we have seen the greatest hue and cry about American power has been from our European allies. Certainly, there is some justification to their concerns about the rapid withdrawal and U.S. commitment to the multilateral mission, what the biggest lesson for Europe may be is a realization of their reliance upon the United States for strategic lift and expeditionary power. If there is to be a long-term geopolitical lesson from the Europeans, it should be for greater investment in their own capabilities and autonomy. While some see European autonomy as a greater threat to transatlantic autonomy, capability alone will not drive a wedge between the United States and its allies. In fact, we might welcome greater European capability and capacity to augment our strengths and allow for more U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific.

Ultimately, the impact of Afghanistan on U.S. power will come not from how other nations understand and react, but how we move ahead and understand the conflict. While the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan was very different from the future challenges we may face, enduring lessons include the limitations of military power, the need for coherent political strategies for the use of military power, and the danger of both drawn out commitments with little in the way of political or civic understanding of U.S. interests, the mission at hand, and the strategic goals and objectives. How much more can we spend to build institutions and governance overseas when those very foundations of our political and social compact crumble at home?

As we turn the page on Afghanistan, we should always remember the heroism and sacrifice of those who served in the U.S., allied, and Afghan militaries, as well as the cost borne by the people of Afghanistan. How Afghanistan will shape the future of American power will come not from the nature of this conflict and its end, but how we process the lessons and resolve not to commit the same mistakes again.

Russia, the United States, and the Chaos of Afghanistan

Joshua C. Huminski

Putin meeting with then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

The chaos of Afghanistan and America’s disastrous withdrawal appears to be met with a subdued satisfaction and not at all surprising concern from Moscow. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, criticized the United States for the chaos enveloping Kabul, warning that it will likely spread. “There is a danger that terrorists and different groups that found a refuge in Afghanistan will use the chaos left by our Western colleagues and try to launch an expansion into neighboring countries,” Putin said. He added, “That will pose a direct threat to our country and its allies.”

Putin warned that Moscow had learned its lessons from its 1979 intervention and would not interfere in Afghanistan. “We have drawn the necessary lessons,” Putin said. “We don’t have any intention to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and, moreover, let our military forces be drawn into the all-against-all conflict.”

This latter comment is only partially true. While Moscow will not seek to engage in any substantive or appreciable fashion — the historical memory and legacy of Afghanistan in Russia is long, deep, and painful — it will undoubtedly have a diplomatic, military, and intelligence presence in Afghanistan. The Kremlin will not want to get involved in what will likely turn into a long-simmering civil war, but it will be concerned about cross-border issues such as drugs and human trafficking, terrorism, and potential instability spilling into Central Asia.

On this, Putin raised fears of potential infiltration of Islamist radicals among the refugees, saying, “But who is among these refugees? How can we know?” It is worth noting that his remarks were to the United Russia party ahead of September’s elections. These fears are certainly not unfounded, but stoking anti-immigrant fears and nationalist sentiments will not hurt his party’s standing.

Despite Putin’s comments about an arms-reach relationship with Afghanistan, the Russian embassy in Kabul remains open and Ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov met a Taliban (which is banned in Russia as a terrorist organization) representative nearly 48-hours after the Taliban took control of the capital. Interestingly, a delegation of Taliban representatives travelled to Moscow to reassure the Kremlin in July. Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, praised the group, saying they were easier to deal with than the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the legitimate authority in the country.

Putin addressed an emergency meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) which was chaired by Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s president, and attended by the leaders of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — all former Soviet republics. The group agreed to coordinate action in response to the developing situation in Afghanistan, but little should actually be expected in practice. Separately, in a phone call with General Secretary Xi Jinping of China, the two leaders agreed to cooperate in responding to “threats” emerging from Afghanistan.

At the same time, Moscow, along with other states, are working to evacuate their citizens from Afghanistan. Four Russian military aircraft flew to Kabul to extricate stranded Russians ahead of the Taliban’s 31 August deadline, flying out some 500 people including citizens of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. Moscow is also working to secure flight after the deadline for Afghan students slated to study in Russia, as well.

At the same time, Russia held joint armored exercises with Tajikistan and is reinforcing its presence in that country. While some are viewing this as a response to the chaos in Afghanistan, these exercises were almost certainly planned well in advance, given the long logistics tail associated with gunnery and other tank exercises.

For Moscow, America’s disastrous exit from Afghanistan is undoubtedly being welcomed, albeit with some hesitation and concern given the aforementioned issues, regardless of the potential near- to mid-term instability. If anything, the chaos would seem to validate the Kremlin’s arguments that the United States is not a reliable partner, is responsible for instability more than anything else, and is a declining power. What this means for regional and international security is less clear. While some of the more vocal and enthusiastic pundits are suggesting that this will embolden Moscow to act in Eastern Europe (similar to claims about China on Taiwan), that is perhaps stretching available evidence too far.

Could Moscow miscalculate American willingness to act on behalf of its allies and feel it can press an advantage? Certainly, but the risks likely outweigh the potential gains. The strategic calculus on-the-ground has not appreciably changed and, if anything, it is equally plausible that any aggression in Russia’s near abroad or against NATO may provoke the unity Moscow so fears, especially when NATO’s credibility is apparently damaged.

Moscow’s trepidation is unsurprising. The Kremlin’s propaganda outlets will certainly portray America’s withdrawal as the disaster is effectively is, and use it to push the narrative that only a strong United Russia and President Putin can stave off regional and global instability.

In Afghanistan and in Central Asia, pragmatism will be the watchword for Moscow. There are few benefits to wading in with any intensity into Afghanistan, even without Russia’s historical memory and legacy, but plenty of downsides. Ensuring security and stability will be the goals, if only to ensure that trans-national issues don’t seem too deeply into Russia proper. In the near-term, the Taliban could represent the best possible option to contain that potential chaos.

Secy. Kendall: Air Force Modernization to “scare China”

Ethan Brown

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall speaks with Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr. and Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones during his first meeting with the Department of the Air Force’s service chiefs at the Pentagon, Arlington, Va., July 28, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)

New Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has wasted no time in seizing the initiative for future airpower security policy; in recent weeks the freshly minted civilian leader of the world’s more powerful force set to modifying the details of FY2023s budget with aims to shed dead weight, and force the rapid acceleration of new technologies to widen, or more accurately, re-establish the capabilities gap between the United States and China.

Modernizing defense tech is not new to my corner of the roundup columns, but to see the policy-driven impetus for these changes serve as such a front and center movement is a nice change from my technical-heavy deep dives into defense activities.

The historical context, as I’m always wont to provide, is that Secy. Kendall rolls into the seat following the aftermath of the Air Force fighting with congress on retiring a multitude of legacy systems over the recent decade, and the termination of the mission in Afghanistan all but eliminates the necessity of these systems. Per the Secretary: “The Air Force has been overly constrained, I think we’ve not been allowed to do things we really need to do to free up resources for things that are a higher priority. We’ve had a very hard time getting the Congress to allow us to retire older aircraft”. Naturally, the old FIRES guy in me is cut to the quick at the thought of the A-10 going the way of the mothball court, but the reality is that the 30mm-equipped flying tank is no longer a viable air system against the prolific air defense capabilities of Chinese and Russian inventories.

The A-10 is merely one of several platforms whose role was at risk as the 20th century waned, which found new life and relevance in the low-intensity conflicts of the War on Terror; those same platforms whose fate is directly tied to this necessary bloodletting in the next budget proposal. Within the projected $207 billion budget for the USAF/Space Force, which includes side pots or ‘pass through’ funds proffered by other government bodies [intelligence and geospatial reconnaissance types], Secy. Kendall’s proposals include axes on shooters such as the A-10 and B-1B Heavy Bombers which, as inferred, those legacy platforms have been disadvantaged in any conflict with a peer state since before the global war on terror kicked off, whose capabilities are now antiquated when considering the connectivity of the F-35. KC-10 tankers, though slightly more modernized than the iconic KC-135’s of yesteryear, are well below the performance thresholds of inventory demands, and have been in a foot-dragging march to retirement for years now, in favor of the oncoming KC-46Y tranche.

Additionally, the surveillance platforms including the RQ-4 Global Hawks and vaunted JSTARS are long-since passed relevance in terms of timely and accurate battlefield surveillance, especially when one considers the slow, lumbering flight profiles, to say nothing of the prohibitive cost-value as a target for enemy air power. The JSTARS was revolutionary when it took flight decades ago, and I even managed to integrate its sensor capabilities into more than a few of my ground-assault missions, but the titan, and the monstrous RQ-4 Global Hawk are long-since beyond the modernity threshold demanded by modern strategic competition. Specifically, the soda-straw sensors of current Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA) like the Global Hawk, MQ-1 and -9s, are all but useless in a peer confrontation. Those systems are likely to be replaced by over-the-horizon surveillance systems like the Battlefield Airborne Control Node (BACN), which needs to clear out old ISR platform space to manifest at its future homes at Robins and Grand Forks AFB.

The cuts not only aim to eliminate the overhead, or “topline” as budgeteers refer to such line items, but reduce the exponential operating costs that are copacetic with those system families. The issue, as the Secretary asserts, was that the piecemeal winnowing of parts of these programs, rather than wholesale elimination, was a “death by a thousand cuts approach” that has failed to yield true savings. Not only does each platform exist with top line costs to produce and maintain, but operating expenditures for these outdated platforms increase annually while the return (read: capabilities, network integration capacity and survivability) dwindle as the defense world rapidly improves its tech, friendly and adversarial alike. It is all necessary to eliminate, because just like civilian industries moving to produce more hybrid and electric vehicles with cheaper production and more efficient technician maintenance costs, these icons of a previous era are too expensive to exist outside the symbiotic systems coming online and fully integrated in the post-5th generation fleet.

Autonomous systems and integrated artificial intelligence (bannered by the Valkyrie/Skyborg-wingman concept) are key areas that Secy. Kendall is looking to further advance, notably for capabilities that those legacy systems simply cannot replicate in terms of hosting and sharing data at 5G speeds and hardened against interference. The Skyborg has the potential to change aerial combat as an AI-driven shooter, fully integrated with lead-ship F-35 Block IV’s and semi-autonomous in a dogfight. Of course, it will help if/when those flying robots are able to host and expand the digitized JADC2 networks that DoD fate may well rest on…another thread I’ve pulled at extensively in these column haunts.

Now, where the current detractor lies is in collaboration between defense and industry partners — something that we have made a significant portion of our work here at the Center. But the demand must first exist to initiate the supply, so these efforts by the new Secretary to trim dying fat from the Air Force body is a terrific time to explore commercial industry innovation for ensuring these new platforms are indeed capable of not simply replacing outdated legacy systems, but have the capabilities that the future security environment demands. The Secretary is playing with political hardballers, and as has been the case for decades but no longer buoyed by the GWOT demands, the impact to district communities is a notable challenge. But the national security concerns are far more prolific: “The security of the nation depends on us doing it. And the alternative is a long, slow slide into a less capable force”.

What Saint Benedict Can Teach Us About U.S. Foreign Policy

“Listen with the ear of your heart”

“We hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.” — Benedict of Nursia.

At first glance, one might not think Saint Benedict’s famous Rule of Benedict as the standard for U.S. foreign policy. More often a toolkit for religious mediation and monastic instruction, my own experience as a college student at a Catholic Benedictine university and the fall of Kabul as well as the upcoming 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, prompted reflection on how St. Benedict’s lessons apply today.

Saint Benedict’s times were as turbulent as our own, during the disintegration of the great Roman Empire. The politics of the global order were being reshaped. During the 5th and 6th centuries, Rome was plagued by internal threats within its government and external threats from barbaric forces. Disgusted by the chaotic environment around him, Benedict left his native home and chose a religious path as a monk and later established various Italian monasteries. He wrote his Rule primarily for monks, but its principles for order and humility have crossed societal barriers over the last fifteen hundred years. Saint Benedict was a keen observer of human nature and realized that people often fail (the abbot must distrust his own frailty). He knew that we as human beings despite our good intentions to do good are imperfect and that this shapes the environment around us. It is what makes the world a beautiful and ugly place. This especially applies to the United States and its own foreign policy missteps.

In fact, many of the major failures of U.S. foreign policy can be attributed to policymakers often disregarding the voices around them in the global environment, as well as the frailty of our tools and institutions for foreign policy. This is the result of the double-edged sword of American exceptionalism, which leads to a misunderstanding of the limits of U.S. power, a problem further exacerbated as the U.S.’s relative power has eroded in a multipolar world.

The actions that turned the mission in Afghanistan from a quick, and good intentioned effort to remove the Taliban regime from power evolved into a trillion-dollar twenty-year nation building experiment to spread democracy abroad through military intervention are key cases of these negative consequences. You can look back at history and further examples of senseless American military interventions, conveniently under the guise of nation building: Iraq, Haiti, Saigon, Vietnam, and the list can go on.

But there also are no shortage of positive examples of U.S. foreign policy focusing on “amending faults and safeguarding love.” A great example was the post-Second World War Bretton Woods order which entailed financial institutions based on the notions of international economic agreements and free trade. This liberal economic order — though now heavily threatened by seeping authoritarianism and economic dissatisfaction — led to seventy years of prosperity and stood in stark contrast to the Soviet-led system. This was a great contrast from past actions taken by isolationist policymakers that led to the Great Depression and events propelling fascist leaders, like Hitler, to power.

Actions defending both American values and interests occurred throughout Europe, beginning with President Truman and the Marshall Plan which focused on rebuilding a battered postwar Europe through economic and humanitarian aid. Rhetorical assertions from President Kennedy’s “Ich Bin Berliner” speech as the Berlin Wall was built, and President Reagan “Tear Down This Wall” speech as the Berlin Wall fell, led to the peaceful culmination of the Cold War under the Bush administration. All of which stand as major successes of U.S. foreign policy.

In the 1990s’, President Clinton took the economic route and finalized the NAFTA trade accord which, though falling short of many bold expectations, aimed to integrate North American economies. Most recently, the landmark Paris Climate Accords, which the U.S. entered in 2015( and rejoined in 2020) though legally non-binding, committed the world to climate change goals. With these responses, the U.S. exemplified the values of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. America succeeded not because of its hard power and military capabilities but rather through soft power and moral leadership actions. There must be a return to this style of leadership.

An effective U.S. foreign policy for the 21st century must disregard the “sole superpower” mindset that assumes that U.S. interests automatically correlate with its allies and adopt an approach that moves in moderation and factors in the interests of other actors. Exiting a global crisis like President Truman after the Second World War II, President Biden must help to restore a new sense of shared mission through presenting an image of moral leadership — to a world now filled with growing cynicism about American leadership. However policymakers must recognize that the world in 2021 is vastly different from the world in 1945. Unlike 1945, the U.S. is not the sole superpower anymore. In 2021, the world is now filled with emerging superpowers, along with new challenges such as climate change, cybersecurity, and globalization, just to name a few.

Additionally, many countries, particularly in the developing world, are much more cynical about American leadership due to the painful scars of the past. In a global environment where power is no longer solely concentrated with one superpower, policymakers must continue to foster a fairer sense of involvement and cooperation for all countries working with Washington to build a post-pandemic order.

Hence, the U.S. must continue focusing on building global coalitions, which should certainly include understanding the interests of democratic allies, but also antidemocratic adversaries. This would mean that the U.S. would have to practice continuous self-restraint, delegation, and compromise for the greater good of preserving the global system. As Saint Benedict said, “No one is to pursue what is best for oneself, but instead what is better for someone else.”

President Biden’s mandate on rebuilding U.S. alliances and multilateral coalitions on the crucial issues of climate change, technology and trade is the correct course of action. To the extent that the U.S. can come to a consensus with the European Union, Japan, and South Korea on, for example, reforming the World Trade Organization, the U.S. can utilize its influence and assert pressure on China and other countries to reform predatory trade policies that often plague developing countries.

Decade long trends reveal Americans would be much more comfortable with this approach. Americans want the U.S. to remain globally involved in carrying its weight, but with the assurance that other countries carry their weight as well in the global order.

So, who knows, perhaps the U.S. can use the words of a 1,500-year-old Italian monk as a guideline for U.S. foreign policy.

About the Author: Liam Miller is a junior studying economics and political science at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. He is from Nassau, The Bahamas.

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Zimbabwean Man Impersonates Vice President to receive Medical Care

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The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.

CSPC is a 501(c)3, non-partisan organization that seeks to apply lessons of history and leadership to today's challenges