President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan is widely popular among Americans, but military officials who oppose the withdrawal argue China may enter the region and fill the resulting power vacuum.
Biden has long supported a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and he was among the most aggressive proponents of withdrawal in President Barack Obama’s administration, according to The New York Times. The then-vice president argued as early as 2009 that U.S. troops were engaged in pointless nation-building in the Middle East. At the time, with 68,000 boots on the ground, Biden advised a continued withdrawal of troops, maintaining only enough to ensure that Kabul didn’t fall to the Taliban or other forces after the U.S. left.
He argued that such a force should be maintained indefinitely, supporting Afghan forces with smaller-scale anti-terrorism operations.
As the withdrawal makes progress for the 9/11 deadline, however, Biden appears to have abandoned the idea of protecting Kabul in the long term, despite evidence that the Taliban will quickly defeat the Afghan government and that China has a growing interest in the region.
“It is clear that there is a number of different countries around the region that do have interests and that have the potential to exercise malign influence in Afghanistan,” David Helvey, acting assistant secretary of defense for the Indo-Pacific testified to Congress in May.
China has already taken steps to incorporate Afghanistan into its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), an infrastructure program that critics argue drowns developing countries in debt to grow China’s international influence. Afghan officials in Kabul are reportedly “intensively engaged” in negotiations with China to expand its existing BRI programs, which focus on building roads, railways and pipelines from China to Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to The Daily Beast.
U.S. officials are well aware of China’s ambitions in the region, though neither former President Donald Trump’s administration nor Biden’s administration proposed explicit plans to prevent the expansion after the withdrawal.
Some Republicans in Congress have also criticized the ongoing withdrawal as haphazard. (RELATED: Taliban Takeover Of Critical Areas During Biden Withdrawal Suggests Grim Future For Afghanistan)
“We have been in Afghanistan for over 20 years, and too many of our brave service members have been killed,” Republican Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn said on May 23. “To pull out based on an arbitrary date risks sacrificing all of the gains our troops have expended. It also sacrifices any remaining leverage we have against the Taliban — and willfully goes against the intelligence community’s threat assessment.”
The criticism appears to hold true for the U.S. withdrawal from Bagram Air Base, which has long been the U.S. Military’s largest base in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reports from local Afghan government officials say the U.S. gave no warning of the withdrawal, and looters were able to enter the base for hours before local officials seized control of it.
The Taliban has also released footage of their fighters celebrating the seizure of dozens of U.S. humvees and other armored vehicles the U.S. left behind. They also seized more than 900 firearms left at the base.
But the Afghan government falling to the Taliban is far less worrying to some officials than the prospect of China potentially taking a front seat in a region so central to geopolitics.
China may already be laying the groundwork for intervening in the region on grounds of maintaining stability as well. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) released a statement in May condemning the U.S. for its “abrupt announcement of complete withdrawal of forces” from the region. It also blamed an uptick in attacks on the region on the U.S. withdrawal, according to Yahoo News.