Does Biden’s deadline really mean anything?

Members of the UK Armed Forces continue to take part in the evacuation of entitled personnel from Kabul airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan August 19-22, 2021, in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on August 23, 2021.

Well, deadlines are deadlines. That, for now, seems to be the Biden administration's position on Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the White House announced it would not extend the current August 31 deadline for the full withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.

The decision flies in the face of efforts by US lawmakers from both parties and foreign allies, who have pressed the White House to extend the deadline. Seeing the chaos in Kabul airport and the Biden administration's botched handling of the withdrawal so far, they want more time to get Americans and other Western nationals out of the country, as well as the thousands of Afghans who supported the NATO mission or the former government and now face reprisals from the Taliban.


So is this decision the final word? Hardly. For one thing, deadline or not, it would be a political disaster for President Biden to leave any Americans behind. It's pretty simple, says David Gordon, a former State Department Policy Planning chief who currently advises Eurasia Group: "If you're the president of the United States and you have the military capability to get the Americans out, you just can't take that capability away until you've gotten the Americans out."

And leaving Afghanistan before all of the British and French citizens are evacuated would risk a big rift with two close US allies who are already jilted by Biden's unilateral and bungled withdrawal plan. While the British have conducted some of their own flights, both they and the French depend on the US for security at the airport itself.

Washington's increasing pace of evacuations means it's at least possible that most Westerners could be out by next Tuesday — but with an estimated 10,000-15,000 Americans left, plus thousands of Afghans and other foreign nationals waiting to get out — while some interim destinations for these people are already at capacity — we'd bet the US will have to stick around in some way after August 31 after all.

Staying beyond August 31 could lead to an interesting dance with the Taliban. Officially Afghanistan's new rulers have threatened unspecified "consequences" if the Americans stay beyond August 31. But they may in fact be a little more flexible on this issue than they are claiming to be.

"The Taliban are clever, sophisticated, really smart people," says David Sedney, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the region under the Obama administration. "They clearly have the complete upper hand right now, so the bargaining position is very much on their side."

And bargaining they may certainly be: earlier this week CIA director William J. Burns was in Kabul to meet with the Taliban, presumably about precisely this issue.

So what might the Taliban want in exchange for keeping cool about an extended US presence? No one is quite sure, but Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan specialist at International Crisis Group, says the most important thing, from their perspective, is ensuring that their de facto government is recognized by the international community, and that any talks with Western officials will likely focus on that goal.

Clearly, obstructing the West's ability to get its own people out certainly wouldn't help that cause.

But the Taliban's tolerance at the departure lounge seems to be limited to foreign nationals. When it comes to the Afghans who are trying to leave, the Taliban is clearly cracking down.

"We are past the high point of Afghans leaving the country," says Gordon. The Taliban, he points out, have yet to establish a stable government, and they are worried about brain drain: losing hundreds of thousands of qualified people who are both the country's most capable technocrats, as well as those most likely to cause problems for the Taliban in exile. The Mariel Boatlift this is not.

All of which presents a series of dilemmas for Biden in the coming days. If the deadline is impossible to meet, will his administration arrange a quid pro quo of some kind with the Taliban to extend? And if the Taliban let Americans leave but stop Afghans from departing, should Biden put American lives on the line to help get them out?


EDITOR'S NOTE: After we went to press, US Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Wednesday announced that the Taliban would allow Americans and at-risk Afghans to continue to leave Afghanistan after 31 August, and that there were approximately 1,500 Americans left in the country.

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Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

Change?

Though he's a man of the center-left, Olaf Scholz, current finance minister and most likely next chancellor, wouldn't represent a radical break from Merkel. He's among the more fiscally frugal of Germany's Social Democrats, and after decades in German politics, he's an experienced technocrat and a skilled manager of political alliances.

Nor would a change in government radically shift Germany's foreign and trade policies. Its new government, whoever it includes, will keep strong security ties with the United States and NATO and protect opportunities to expand economic relations with China. Germany's dependence on Russian energy will demand a continuation of Merkel's pragmatic approach to Vladimir Putin's government.

Scholz's conviction that a strong and cohesive EU is good for Germany will limit any temptation to get tougher with the governments of Poland and Hungary over their violations of EU rules and principles. And aware that COVID can widen gaps between richer and poorer EU countries, and that anti-EU economic populism remains a potent force in Italy and elsewhere, he's likely to support a generous approach to pandemic recovery in southern Europe.

But climate policy, an area where Merkel concedes she should have done more, will be an important and interesting story to watch. Given its leadership within the EU and its standing as the world's fourth largest economy, the influence of Germany's next government on climate policy will be crucial to global climate strategies. A new German government with Scholz as chancellor will likely push the pace of transition from carbon to renewable energy, at least in part because the Green Party coalition partner will push for this as hard as it can. The Greens must show progress on the climate front to maintain political credibility and popularity. If the Free Democrats are indeed part of the coalition, they'll push hard to limit tax increases to pay for tougher climate action, but they won't blow up the coalition that gives them a seat at Germany's governing table.

Merkel's legacy

Even in a country that values stability and continuity, Angela Merkel's 16-year run is remarkable. More than once she's proved the maxim that it's not the smartest or strongest who survives, but the one most adaptable to change. Merkel is smart and strong, to be sure, but she'll be remembered longest – by both devoted admirers and bitter critics – as the leader who insisted Germany could and should do more to help indebted countries survive Europe's sovereign debt crisis (2010-12) and to manage the surge of migrants that followed unrest in the Middle East (2015-16). Her improvisational talents also led her to change tack on nuclear power (after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan) and on common European debt.

But the main reason Merkel leaves power with an 80 percent approval rating is that, whether she receives more credit than she deserves, she has presided over a period of economic expansion and prosperity in Germany that few other world leaders can match. It's all the more remarkable then that her party looks set to find itself in opposition once a new government is formed. It's Merkel that German voters like, not her political family.

Bottom-line: Whatever he accomplishes as Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz will find Angela Merkel a tough act to follow.

Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

Is a US government shutdown coming?

Hard to say. Republicans and Democrats generally are in agreement about the need to fund the government. And they generally agree at what level the government should be funded. And they generally agree about the need for supplemental money for Afghanistan and some natural disasters, coming out of hurricanes this season and wildfires. What they're not in agreement about is the federal debt limit, which is the cap on US borrowing that the US hit in early August and needs to be extended by some time in October. Otherwise, the US will have a first-ever default. This would be a very bad outcome with cataclysmic results for the entire world economy.

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Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen a lot during her 16 years in power. She's navigated a global economic recession, multiple wars in the Middle East which sparked an EU refugee crisis, and now a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Often the only woman in the room, Merkel has had to learn to tactfully deal with dozens of idiosyncratic world leaders. Many have come and gone since 2005, but Merkel has won elections again and again. We take a look at who she's dealt with from the top democracies (by economic size) throughout her tenure.

In May 2020, economic historian Adam Tooze told GZERO World he feared 1 in 5 American workers could still be out of job now due to COVID. It didn't happen. Why? Tooze says he failed to anticipate how quickly we'd get highly effective vaccines, and the scale of the economic stimulus the government was willing to put up. During the 2008 financial crisis, he explains, "we were still beginning to flex our muscles with regards to economic policy, and the scale of fiscal and monetary stimulus that we've seen is as unprecedented as the shock of the spring of last year."

Watch Tooze's interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television starting Friday 9/23/21. Check local listings.

Will Evergrande be China's Lehman Bros? Chinese authorities are bracing for the increasingly likely default of Evergrande, the country's most indebted property developer. If Evergrande — a gargantuan corporation with properties in 200 cities across China — stiffs its creditors, that'll send shockwaves throughout the country's financial system, and the wider Chinese economy and society. The possible ripple effects on home buyers and countless companies and individuals that do business with or are owed money by Evergrande have invited comparisons with Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank whose 2008 collapse triggered an American financial crisis that quickly spread to the entire world. Although in principle authoritarian China has ways of containing the fallout, the potential for social unrest is real — and opacity could make it worse. More broadly, the demise of such a big player in the country's once-booming real estate market, which accounts for over 7 percent of GDP, would expose the shaky foundations of China's debt-driven economic growth model, eroding confidence in China both at home and abroad.

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Betrayal. Treason. Duplicity. These are some of the words used by the French government to describe the US' recent decision to freeze Paris out of a new security pact with the UK and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, which nixed a contract for Australia to buy French submarines.

Macron's subsequent tough stance against one of its oldest and closest allies is unusual, including his decision to briefly recall the French ambassador from Washington, the first time a French president has done so. But this headstrong strategy is also a deliberate diplomatic choice.

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