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International relations

Afghan pullout raises fears in US of China's 'unfettered access'

Pentagon admits 'number of countries' have potential to exercise influence

U.S. forces and Afghan commando patrol Pandola village in the Achin district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan.    © AP

NEW YORK -- As the U.S. military's withdrawal from Afghanistan continues, disparate voices in Washington, including some from within the Biden administration, have begun to admit that there could be serious consequences for the region after the Americans leave, including China, Russia and Iran filling a power vacuum created by what the Pentagon calls its "strategic retrograde" from the war-torn country.

"It's clear that there's a number of different countries around the region that do have interests and that have the potential to exercise malign influence in Afghanistan," said David Helvey, acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday.

"China does have an interest in Afghanistan," said Helvey, when questioned by multiple senators about Beijing's intentions for Afghanistan. "That China's influence could be used to undermine stability, instead of reinforce stability or support stability, obviously, that's something that we've got concern about."

"Iran as well. Iran will likely seek to exercise influence in negative ways in Afghanistan," said Helvey. "Although I think they're largely to potentially frustrate and complicate our withdrawal. And I think that's something we need to maintain ... persistent vigilance of as we're executing our retrograde."

As some of the U.S. military's most senior officials have voiced concerns about a possible collapse of the Afghan military, or worse, some of the most powerful bodies in Congress -- the Senate Armed Services Committee and House Committee on Oversight and Reform -- have expressed a collective concern about the withdrawal and its consequences. A bipartisan chorus of voices in Washington in recent days has raised concerns about the impact of the withdrawal, from the protection of women, minorities and the press, to the Afghan security forces collapsing,

Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee quizzed Pentagon officials about the possibility of China using its Belt and Road initiative to gain "unfettered access" across Afghanistan to Iran, potentially connecting the two American rivals. The officials said they could not discuss the issue in the open session of the Senate hearing, and would respond to her concerns in the closed session.

On Friday, responding to a question from Nikkei Asia, Blackburn said in an email: "We've been in Afghanistan for over 20 years, and too many of our brave service members have been killed."

"To pull out based on an arbitrary date risks sacrificing all of the gains our troops have expended," she added. "It also sacrifices any remaining leverage we have against the Taliban -- and willfully goes against the intelligence community's threat assessment. Lastly, to pick Sept. 11 as the withdrawal date is extremely disrespectful to all who lost loved ones on 9/11."

At Thursday's Senate Armed Services hearing, Brig. Gen. Matthew Trollinger, the Joint Staff deputy director of political and military affairs for the Middle East, admitted there were "no guarantees" that the Taliban would not end up using U.S. military equipment left behind in Afghanistan.

His concerns are just the tip of the iceberg.

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad listens to a video question from Rep. Susan Wild at a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 18.   © Reuters

In April, the U.S. military's top commander in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Gen. Frank McKenzie, told the same Armed Services Committee that he was "concerned about the ability of the Afghan military to hold on after we leave, the ability of the Afghan Air Force to fly, in particular, after we remove the support for those aircraft."

McKenzie, who is overseeing the withdrawal as the commander of U.S. Central Command, said Afghanistan's military "will certainly collapse" after the withdrawal without American support. He also admitted that he was concerned about security of the American Embassy in Kabul once the U.S. withdraws, and the prospects of China and Russia filling the vacuum the U.S. is leaving in the region.

"Both nations leverage their proximity to the region, historical relations, and a perceived decline in U.S. engagement to establish and strengthen opportunistic relationships," he told the Senate.

Others at the Pentagon, like Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranked officer in the U.S. military, have expressed a more measured view than McKenzie did.

"It's not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls and all those kind of dire predictions," Milley said at a briefing this month about the prospect of the roughly 300,000 members of the Afghan army and Afghan police collapsing.

"There's a significant military capability in the Afghan government. And we have to see how this plays out."

In the Senate, it is this concern about how things will play out that is triggering bipartisan alarms.

One emerging issue that is private contractors. As of April, there were nearly 17,000 Pentagon contractors, consisting of about 6,150 Americans, 4,300 Afghans and 6,400 from other countries.

While Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the removal of all contractors associated with the Pentagon from Afghanistan this month, Thursday's hearings indicated otherwise, as Helvey said that some contractors would remain on the ground to assist Afghan security forces.

"How do we reconcile, it appears, complete withdrawal of contractors with contractors," asked Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The criticism continued, as Democrat Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren all pointed out to the failure to ensure the protection of women and minorities in the wake of the withdrawal.

However, at a separate hearing at the House oversight and reform committee, which was questioning the logic of the U.S. pullout after losing more than 2,400 soldiers and over 20,000 injured with more than $873 billion spent, Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's special envoy to Afghanistan, brushed aside concerns and about a Taliban takeover.

"The Taliban face very different futures. It can enhance and embrace a negotiated path to peace, make the transition from a violent insurgency to a political movement, and be part of a nation that enjoys respect in the global community," he said. "If they pursue a military takeover, they will face isolation, regional opposition sanctions and international opposition."

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