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Joe Biden’s China focus means little attention for other challenges

US President Joe Biden is seen in the White House on Friday. Photo: EPA-EFE

United States President Joe Biden’s announcement that he would end his country’s combat mission in Iraq by this year brings Washington a step closer to drawing the curtain on its almost two-decade-old war on terrorism.

It follows his decision three months ago to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks that had sparked the invasions.

China is now perceived by his administration as the US’ biggest security threat. But such a foreign policy focus is misguided given the global risks posed by climate change, pandemics, extremism, nuclear proliferation and dwindling natural resources.

Just 2,500 American troops remain in both Iraq and Afghanistan; they account for 0.4 per cent of the country’s active military personnel. All in the latter will be withdrawn, although Biden acknowledges the threat posed by Taliban fighters means there will still be a need to occasionally deploy bombers from US bases elsewhere to protect vulnerable Afghan government positions.

But there will be no such pull-out in Iraq, with most soldiers remaining and being reclassified on paper to advisory or training roles for their Iraqi counterparts, a move that suits the agenda of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi for upcoming elections. They would also provide support to the 900 US armed forces still fighting Islamic State (Isis) extremists in neighbouring Syria.

The global war on terrorism is far from over, yet the US is turning its back on regions most at risk from a resurgence of groups like Isis and al-Qaeda. It sent troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 to overthrow what it contended were despotic regimes and put in place Western-style democracies.

The pretext was to prevent extremists from establishing havens from which they could set up international bases and stage attacks. By withdrawing troops or downgrading roles, it considers its mission has been accomplished.

In reality, the peace and stability Washington promised the people of Afghanistan and Iraq is wanting. Both conflicts are now deeply unpopular among Americans, a heavy cost having been paid financially and in lives.

Biden is eager to put the misadventure behind and direct his foreign policy priorities towards China, which he accuses of being the US’ biggest economic, technological and military threat. He ignores the right of China to develop and protect its sovereignty and interests, no matter where they may be.

In doing so, he is paying insufficient attention to major challenges faced by the US and the rest of the world. Most immediate is the Covid-19 pandemic, which requires Washington to work with Beijing, not against it.

As the two biggest carbon dioxide emitters, they also need to cooperate on a global climate change strategy. Biden needs to get his priorities right.