H I G H L I G H T S
• COVID TO KABUL
• WITHDRAWAL POLITICS
• WEST ASIA NEXT?
• BIDEN DOCTRINE
• DEFENCE POLICY
• KAMALA IN CRISIS
COVID TO KABUL
The administration of Joe Biden has experienced the good, the bad and the ugly during the seven-month of its existence. The good was the passage of a $ 1 trillion infrastructure plan, the latest in a series of massive expenditure bills by which the US president hopes to economically and socially revive the US. The bad was a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in the country largely caused by the Delta variant sweeping through the roughly one-third of Americans who have resisted vaccination. Biden had expected to be on top of the pandemic by now, instead the US case count is the highest it has been since January. The ugly and least expected was the lightning fast takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, the subsequent Kabul evacuation crisis, and the deaths of 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghan civilians in a suicide bomb attack at the airport.
The Covid surge began to drag down Biden’s otherwise stable domestic poll ratings as early as May, but Afghanistan pushed the ratings off a cliff in the last few weeks of August. Going by fivethirtyeight.com’s poll of polls, weighted by the credibility of the surveys, Biden’s net approval rating fell from a positive 10 percentage points as late as July to just 0.1 points. Sudden shifts in the polls are rare in the US’s polarised political environment. An Emerson College poll indicated that in an election today, former president Donald Trump would edge Biden in the popular vote by one point.
There remains strong support among Americans for the withdrawal of US forces but nearly three-quarters opposed the nature of the withdrawal – a number that has increased following the deaths of US soldiers. However, it will be the administration’s handling of Covid, overwhelmingly still considered the US’s number one problem, that will determine whether the president can claw his way back in the polls. The 60% plus approval ratings Biden experienced up to April now seem a distant memory and some feel he can only hope to get back to the low 50% points that prevailed until July.
Biden has repeatedly and publicly said he would end the US’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan and West Asia, as did his last two Oval Office predecessors. His administration believes the US needs to reorient itself to solving its many domestic ills or face the prospect of electing another rightwing populist like Donald Trump. The infrastructure act will refurbish the US’s sagging highways, modernize its ageing water systems and provide nationwide broadband internet. To secure Republican support for the bill, Biden dropped sections of the bill aimed at decarbonising large parts of the economy. In the end, 30 Republican senators voted for the bill and it has been well received by voters across the political spectrum. His next economic push: an even more ambitious $ 3.5 trillion social welfare bill that would help the elderly and disabled, and subsidise childcare. This bill is before the Senate. Biden has no expectation of Republican support, but he is struggling to ensure centrist Democrats are on board as well. A handful oppose the bill, largely over the higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations needed to raise the needed funding.
One clear sign of how far Biden administration was prepared to go regarding Afghanistan was the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued in March. The guidance described Afghanistan as the type of conflict the US “should not, and will not, engage in”. Equally striking was Central Asia’s absence from the list of US strategic priorities, putting it below even Africa in importance. The president’s decision to pull out so quickly was influenced by his experience of the US bureaucracy’s subversion of the phased pullouts announced by Presidents Barack Obama and Trump.
The US president has strongly defended the decision to withdraw and believes that, in time, the electorate will support the decision. During his defence of the withdrawal, Biden said the US was bringing an end to “an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” This is seen as a refutation of the US foreign policy establishment’s addiction to foreign interventions and regime change. Biden’s personal biases – he opposed the US invasion of Iraq, Libya and reportedly even the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden – have merged with Middle America’s weariness with being a global policeman. An inevitable blame game has broken out, with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies saying the State Department dragged its heels and Foggy Bottom noting the White House set the pace. A congressional inquiry seem inevitable. So far Biden has refused to admit any error which would indicate no senior staff members will be punished.
The shambles of the withdrawal and the evacuation of over 130,000 Afghan refugees have inevitably become fodder for Republican attacks on Biden. While a few Republicans have argued the US should have stayed on in Afghanistan, most of the criticism has focussed on the loss of military lives, stranded US citizens and the many administrative errors. As the Afghans arrive in the US, small but growing anti-immigrant noises are also being heard. Fifteen US states declared they did not want to host any of the Afghans. Biden’s present unpopularity has energised Republican presidential hopefuls. Trump is overwhelmingly the party’s first choice say polls. Florida Governor Ron De Santis comes in number two though surging Covid cases have brought down his state ratings. Former Vice-President Mike Pence comes in third with Indian-American Nikki Haley a weak number four.
WEST ASIA NEXT?
On July 27th, President Biden also announced US troops would end their combat role in Iraq by year-end. This is largely symbolic as the US presence has already been pared down to a 2,500 counterterrorism and training force and the soldiers there have seen almost no action in the past year. The Islamic State Iraq and Syria presence, described by a United Nations report as an “entrenched insurgency” in the region, remains strong enough to make full withdrawal unlikely. But the US has begun shifting other assets out of West Asia. Eight Patriot missile batteries, hundreds of soldier and several fighter squadrons have been moved out of Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It has also shut three of its facilities in Qatar. Michele Flournoy, who nearly became Biden’s Pentagon chief, has said this represents a larger shift in America’s defence posture. “We’re probably overinvested in the Middle East,” she said. “Despite discussions of prioritising the Asia-Pacific, we haven’t actually shifted all that much of our weight in that direction.”
One reason for this change is the Western Sustainment Network, a new logistic system developed by the US military. The network has led the US military to move much of its West Asia supply network away from the Persian Gulf. The idea is to make supplies less vulnerable to a Straits of Hormuz blockade or Iranian missile attacks. The network consists of smaller but scattered facilities along a periphery stretching from Jordan to western Saudi Arabia. US Joint Chiefs of Staff vice-chairman, General John Hyten laid out the strategic logic, “We have to …deal with the threat to the Middle East in a different way, with a smaller footprint, so we can divert more of our body on threats in China and Russia.”
Before the Kabul debacle, a number of analysts argued that the elements of a “Biden doctrine” were now evident. The defining theme of the new administration is a belief the world is caught in a struggle between democracy and autocracy with China and Russia spearheading the latter. The US president seems to genuinely believe the world is, to use his words, at a “tipping point” that will determine the ascendancy of one or the other political systems. One of his advisers was quoted as saying they sought a “strengthening of the multilateral, rules-based order, in which the United States takes a role to make sure authoritarian states don’t undermine those rules”. Biden, in other words, sees the struggle with Beijing in a far more ideological light than Donald Trump who concentrated on trade and technology issues. It also means there is no interest in trying to reach out to Russia. If anything, the administration is seeking to tighten sanctions against Moscow.
Biden’s team seems to see three types of threats facing the free world. One are the authoritarian rivals. Another are global threats, most notably climate change. The third is the “decay of democracy” from within and the need for democracies to refurbish their own credentials, political and economic, on the home front. General Hyten recently said, “I can tell you that the primary risk to this nation, long-term risk, is China. Maybe the nearer-term risk is Russia. And we have to make sure that we focus our attention on those.”
Sceptics have pointed to the missing parts of this worldview. One is the Biden non-embrace of global or even regional trade policy. Though Washington is working hard to create a series of technological alliances with different sets of countries to ensure independence from Chinese supply chains. The other is the lack of a clear military strategy. There was no effective increase in US defence spending in Biden’s first budget. But a global posture review is on and the US has begun working on a new and revolutionary military strategy that moves away from giant, manned platforms. Another is how will the US handle the weakening of liberal norms in countries like Poland and India, even though the US needs to work with them geopolitically.
In October the Pentagon carried out a major wargaming exercise in which the US military used its existing warfighting doctrine to wage a full-scale war with an enemy that used 21st century systems like long-range smart missiles and cyber attacks. In an August speech, General John Hyten,] said the warfighting concepts that had been used by the US for decades “failed miserably.” He said, “An aggressive red team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just ran rings around us.” At least one of the wargame scenarios included a battle for Taiwan.
The wargame showed that the traditional military strategy of concentrating platforms like ships, planes and submarines so they reinforced each other’s firepower made them extremely vulnerable to modern defence technology. “In today’s world, with hypersonic missiles, with significant long-range fires coming at us from all domains, if you’re aggregated and everybody knows where you are, you’re vulnerable,” Hyten said. The blue team was also blinded when it lost access to its networks. “We basically attempted an information-dominance structure, where information was ubiquitous to our forces…Just like it has been for the last 20 years, just like everybody in the world, including China and Russia, have watched us do for the last 30 years,” Hyten said. “Well, what happens if right from the beginning that information is not available?.”
The Pentagon has begun a massive reworking of the US warfighting doctrine, scrapping formulae that go back decades. The new Expanded Maneuver concept is “aspirational” but the defence department to make it fully operational by 2030. It will include new ideas like transferring basic logistics like fuel using cargo spaceships rather than slow moving airplanes or ships. The Pentagon will seek to develop networks that are hacker proofed. “The goal is to be fully connected to a combat cloud that has all information that you can access at anytime, anyplace.” Combined firing will now be done virtually or coordinated through networks so that individual platforms can remain physically far from each other. General Hyten admitted this concept, dubbed “joint fires,” would be ”unbelievably difficult to do.”
KAMALA IN CRISIS
The most prominent Indian-American member of the Biden administration, Vice-President Kamala Harris, has been under a cloud the past two months. Media articles, sourced from within her team, described a dysfunctional staff structure and a Harris struggling with the tasks being handed to her – most notably the thorny issue of immigration. Alarmed, a team of high-level female Democratic Party advisors met in early August to discover the best way for Harris to fight back against the negative press. Harris has seen her poll figures drop sharply. Her overall positive approval rating is only 43% among all US voters. Her numbers with young voters are particularly abysmal: only 36% approve of her.
She remains popular enough with the Democratic base to be the party’s second-best fund raiser, trailing only Biden himself. Her real electoral test will be her contribution to the 2022 battle for the House of Representatives. Traditionally, incumbent governments lose heavily during midterm elections. Harris needs to turn her poor poll numbers before she begins campaigning for next year. An attempt to boost her image, a tour of Southeast Asian countries and some hard-hitting speeches against Chinese “intimidation” and “coercion,” was overshadowed by the Kabul evacuation.
Her identification as an Indian-American continues to be a source of debate. Some argue her success not only reflects the political clout of the Indian-American community but is helping inspire the outsized number of Indian-Americans who have entered US politics. A new book on her and the Indian-American community edited by journalist Tarun Basu notes that she has tended to downplay her South Asian background. This reflects her mother’s strong assimiliation into US culture but also Harris’s political identification with the black American community.
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(The views expressed are personal)