1. Fathoming the new world disorder: It is pegged to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, a development with a far-reaching impact on global politics

Context: American withdrawal from Afghanistan would shape regional geopolitics in Asia and the great power contest between the United States and its competitors.

 Two dominant narrative on American withdrawal:  

  1. U.S. exited the country on its own will as it is undertaking a larger realignment in its foreign policy. This argument rejects any comparison between the American pull-back from Vietnam in 1975 and its retreat from Afghanistan this year.
  2. U.S. failed to win the war in Afghanistan and, like in the case of Vietnam, was forced to withdraw from the country. This writer, who wrote in these pages in February 2019 that “America has lost the Afghan war”, shares the second view.

The Right view: The reorientation that is under way in American foreign policy, focused on China, certainly played a role in the Afghan withdrawal. But that does not obscure the fact that the world’s most powerful military and economic power failed to win the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban even after fighting them for 20 years.

Examples from history

  • An indication of power fatigue: Superpowers suffering military setbacks at the hands of weaker forces would create a perception of great power fatigue, if not weakness, that would prompt both their allies and rivals to rethink their strategic assessments.
  • Example from history: Britain, whose imperial glory came to an end with the 2nd World War, took time to come to terms with that reality.
  • Joined by France, it backed Israel’s misadventure in the Suez in 1956, only to be repudiated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
  • Despite making military advances, the Anglo-French-Israeli troops had to withdraw from the Suez and Sinai of Egypt — a development that many historians believe marked the end of British influence in the region. Britain has never got West Asia back.
  • Example of The Soviets:
    • In the 1970s, the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam was read in Moscow as a weak moment for the Western bloc in the Cold War. It prompted the Soviets to act more aggressively.
    • In 1978, communists, backed by the Soviet Union, seized power in Kabul and a year later, Moscow sent troops to Afghanistan, orchestrated a coup and installed an ally in Kabul’s presidential palace.
    • The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989, after failing to defeat the Mujahideen and Islamist guerillas who were backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, dealt a fatal blow to the Soviet power. Within months, communist regimes in Eastern Europe started crumbling, eventually leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The Case with the US:

  • U.S. is not facing an immediate threat to its superpower status: With seamless access to the world’s two vast oceans and definite borders and a continent under its command, the U.S. is far more powerful and agile than the U.K. of 1956 and the Soviet Union of 1989.
    • But the gradual erosion of the U.S.’s ability in shaping geopolitical outcomes in faraway regions has already shaken up the structures of American unipolarity.
  • Examples of loosening unipolarity:
    • The Afghan withdrawal was not an isolated incident. In Iraq and Libya, it failed to establish political stability and order after invasions.
    • It could not stop Russia taking Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
    • In Syria, it was outmanoeuvred by Vladimir Putin.
    • Finally, the way American troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power strengthened this perception of great power fatigue and emboldened America’s rivals to openly challenge the U.S.-centric “rules-based order.”

The three challengers to the US:

  • Russia:
  • Possible invasion of Ukraine: It has amassed about 175,000 troops on its border with Ukraine according to western intelligence agencies who fear invasion. 
  • Backing Belarus: Mr. Putin has also backed Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko over the refugee crisis on the Polish border of the European Union.
  • Mr. Putin is unmistakably sending a message to the West that the region stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO), is a Russian sphere of influence.

Tough choices:

  • Economic sanctions have no effect on Russia: After Crimean annexation, the sanctions did not deter Russia. Instead it drives Russia further into the Chinese embrace, strengthening the Eurasian partnership, which the U.S., during the Cold War, saw as a critical challenge to American interests.
  • With regard to Iran: if the U.S. blinks first and lifts the sanctions, it could be read as another sign of weakness. If it does not and if the Vienna talks collapse, Iran could continue to enrich uranium to a higher purity, attaining a de facto nuclear power status without a bomb (like Japan), which would be against America’s declared goals in West Asia.

Conclusion: Ideally, the U.S. would not prefer to get involved in another conflict as the structures of the new Cold War are taking shape — this explains the reluctance to use hard power. But the inconclusive wars the U.S. fought in recent years and the associated great power fatigue have opened up space for its regional rivals, who are trying to maximise their influence, even at the risk of triggering more conflicts.


2. Sanctions and rights: The action against RAB should deter overzealous law enforcement agents

Context: The U.S. move to sanction a paramilitary unit in Bangladesh, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), has apparently caught the administration in Dhaka off-guard, prompting a diplomatic pushback including Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen summoning U.S. Ambassador to Dhaka Earl Miller to protest the action.

 The Issue:

  1. Fresh on the heels of the U.S. President Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit, which Dhaka was not invited to attend, the U.S. Treasury said that as per the allegations made by various NGOs, the RAB and other Bangladeshi law enforcement units were responsible for “more than 600 disappearances since 2009, nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, and torture”;
    There were also reports suggesting that the targets of these actions were Opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists.
    The sanctions were invoked under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

About the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)

  1. It is a joint task force founded in 2004.
    Its mandate is to ensure internal security, intelligence-gathering on criminal activities, and government-directed investigations, principally relating to Bangladesh’s war on drugs.
  2. The Allegations: There have been “widespread allegations of serious human rights abuse” by the RAB, to the extent that they threaten U.S. national security interests by undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, according to the U.S. Treasury.

List of Allegations against other countries in the world:

In China: Government officials and administrators in the Xinjiang region of China, where the minority Uighur community is reported to have faced rights violations;

Citizen of North Korea suspected to be engaged in earning illicit incomes abroad to support the country’s arms trade and Russian institutions that have aided them;

In Sri Lanka: two military officials from Sri Lanka alleged to have committed gross rights violations against ethnic Tamils; and

In Myanmar: Chief Ministers of States in Myanmar who are alleged to have facilitated “ongoing brutal crackdowns against the people of Burma, including children and members of ethnic minority groups.…”

An Ineffective step

  1.  A knee-jerk response to such sweeping sanctions is to either question their effectiveness or challenge their moral authority given that minorities in the U.S., such as African-Americans, are also periodically at the receiving end of rights violations.
  1. However, given the rampant degree of such violations worldwide, there is a case to be made for any policy by any country that highlights the role of specific individuals alleged to be involved.

Especially across South Asia, it might be salutary for the broader cause of human rights if there is a ripple effect of the sanctions on the RAB. Indeed, if this action gives pause for thought to overzealous law enforcement agents who violently act out their prejudices against ethnic or religious minorities, that would be welcome.




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