They Speak French, Part Deux

Last year, following the election of Joe Biden as President of the United States I wrote a note on his diplomatic and security team entitled ‘They Speak French’, the aim of which was to contrast the feckless Trump foreign policy team with the erudite (French speaking), principled Biden team, made up of the likes of Tony Blinken.
The hope, I thought at the time, was that the (Jake) Sullivans and Blinkens of the world would restore order and prestige to the State Department, thought the risk was that they would spend too much time debating policy papers and speaking French. This is not regarded as a positive in American politics as catcalls (‘Monsieur Kerry”, “Jean Chéri”, or “Jean-François Kerry”) to John Kerry have shown!
In the context of the fiasco of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the Blinken team is chastened, though still united (unlike the Trump crew). True to the title of my earlier note, Blinken gave several interviews to French media during the crisis but failed to heed the recommendations of the French intelligence service to start the pull-out in May. On the face of it, the USA has suffered diplomatically, and sadly has also borne a human cost, as have many Afghans.
Too many people, some of them military and security experts, have analysed the faults of the withdrawal, and here I have little new to contribute.
From a different, finance led angle, one might say that Biden is doing the right thing in finally withdrawing, and so ‘taking the loss’ as traders say, and ignoring ‘sunk costs’ as accountants say. If there is a failure, it is a deep seated institutional one – of the military industrial complex as Eisenhower termed it, though recent readers may be aware of my upgrade of the term to the Military Industrial Financial Data complex.

I suspect that much of the commentary around the withdrawal will continue to swirl around banners such as ‘American decline’, ‘end of empire’ and so on. I am not so sure about this train of thought but would also point to some of the other, potentially profound geopolitical implications.

To start in Afghanistan, the Taliban are likely wiser and more politically sophisticated than the savages that took Afghanistan in the mid 1990’s, but not by much. Their immediate aims will be to avoid international controversy (in terms of not instantly clamping down on foreign workers and Afghans with foreign ties), subsume the Afghan state or what is left of it. An economic and financial crisis may be their first challenge.

To this end, China may provocatively become more commercially involved in Afghanistan – it can source commodities such as iron, copper and niobium and may also seek to edge the Belt and Road project into Afghanistan in terms of providing physical infrastructure. Such a move would constitute a fillip to the West but China has already been warm in its diplomatic response to the Taliban. To that end the war on terror has not ended but is shifting location, whilst the ‘Great Game’ between the US and China is now well underway.

In the broader region, there are at least three broad concerns. The first is the relationship between India and Pakistan. It is widely believed that Pakistan is the progenitor of the Taliban, and while not controlling them, can certainly coordinate with them. The cold reality of this may finally break the political relationship between the USA and Pakistan, to the advantage of India.

India is a member of the QUAD grouping of countries (with the USA, Japan and Australia) and it may now deepen ties to the USA which in turn would mark the rivalry between the QUAD and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – largely Pakistan, China and Russia) as the one to watch in the 21st century.

The second regional implication relates to Islam itself, the perception the West has of it, and the geopolitics of Islam. To many who do not understand the intricacies of the Islamic world, the Taliban represent a severely negative view of Islam, to the extent that they discredit it, and some may use the existence of the Taliban in the debates that Europeans and Americans have on issues like Islam and immigration.

To that end, Sunni Muslim countries like Saudi may publicly at least feel a need to put distance between themselves and the new Afghan government, though this will likely drive internal tensions with their Wahabi population.

As far as Shia Islam is concerned, Iran had come close to an outright war with the Taliban in 2000 and will regard them with great distrust (so far there have already been attacks on Shia Muslims in Afghanistan), notwithstanding the way in which the Taliban have embarrassed the United States. The geopolitical implication for Iran is that it now has marginally more power in terms of its dealings with the US, and dangerously, it may feel that the power of insurgent style warfare is validated, as far as Lebanon and Syria are concerned.

Thirdly, terror groups across the world will be watching the way the Taliban have acted – their gruesome, savage tactics, their strategic patience and the ways in which they have used the vulnerabilities of Afghanistan against it. My worry is that Africa is at risk in this respect – from Mozambique to Nigeria to Ethiopia to Mali – where efforts by the US, British and French to train locals to fight are bearing little fruit and where the institutional quality of these countries is very poor. Counter-insurgency strategists and security services will have to carefully calibrate not their tactics, but strategies for fighting terror groups in these countries. 

That leads me to the issue of the strategic direction of security strategy in Europe. In the UK, which has put much into Afghanistan, the lesson is that it likely needs to become closer to key European countries (Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and especially France). From a military point of view, the irony being that despite Brexit, Britain and France are operationally very close.

The other related trends to watch for are the debate on military spending in Europe, and the emergence of a bigger, more robust European army from the cloak of NATO. Even in neutral Ireland, which has a small army in absolute terms, the Afghan crisis has triggered a debate on military hardware, and the necessary security it should adopt (there is a review ongoing). Much the same will happen around Europe, and the stance of the next German Chancellor on this area will be crucial if other countries are to step forward and match the military capabilities of France and the UK.

As a last word (I realise that this note is already longer than the usual 800 words, but I have been ‘off’ for the past two weeks), the underestimated element in the Afghan withdrawal is that it allows the US security establishment some clarity on its true objectives – countermanding Russia and limiting China. I suspect that in coming months the Biden team will take a much more aggressive approach to these countries, potentially in the form of a fulsome cyber retaliation on Russia, and the export of high-level military technology into Asia.

Have a great week ahead,

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