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WASHINGTON - Kurt Campbell, the White House's top Asia adviser, declared last month that a historic change in U.S. foreign policy was afoot, one that would shift U.S. focus away from the Middle East to Asia, where China's growing might has cast shadows over Washington's allies.
"It will be painful, in all likelihood. We'll see some real challenges in places like Afghanistan," Campbell told an Asia Society webinar, a blunt assessment of what since has come to pass as the Taliban's swift takeover of the country has sparked a humanitarian crisis.
Officials argued that withdrawing from Afghanistan would free up time and attention of senior U.S. political and military leaders, as well as some military assets, to focus on the Indo-Pacific.
But experts and former officials say President Joe Biden's poorly executed troop withdrawal from Afghanistan appears – in the near term and possibly for much longer – to be undermining the very goal of freeing the United States to concentrate on China, something successive presidents have sought, only to be pulled back to the Middle East.
Contrary to the planned quick pullout, Biden has been forced to send in thousands of troops to protect the evacuation of U.S. personnel and Afghans potentially subject to Taliban retribution, while the chaos has unleashed a political storm at home.
Biden has said the original Aug. 31 deadline for troop withdrawal now may be extended to finish the job.
Moreover, the United States was forced to move its lone aircraft carrier in the Asia-Pacific, the Ronald Reagan, to the Middle East in June to help with the withdrawal. As the situation in Kabul has deteriorated, jets from the carrier have been flying over the city to provide extra security.
While the redeployment may only be short-term, the need to divert the carrier from the Asia-Pacific has raised questions about U.S. ability to project power there.
U.S. operations in Afghanistan are also likely to continue to consume the attention of senior officials who might otherwise have their eyes on Beijing.
"As Assistant Secretary for the Indo-Pacific, Ely Ratner has Afghanistan in his portfolio. Where do you think his primary focus is for the next three months or longer?" said Eric Sayers, a defense policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Others warn that terrorist groups will likely reestablish themselves in Afghanistan under the Taliban, raising the prospect that the United States will need to return in some fashion, much like it returned to Iraq to combat the rise of Islamic State.
David Sedney, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, dismissed claims by U.S. officials that counterterrorism operations could be conducted from outside the country as a mirage.