The disturbing scenes from the chaotic collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan, along with fears of the hardships that may await the Afghan people with the return of Taliban rule, have provoked hot takes that focus on U.S. “abandonment” and “betrayal.” In particular, many analysts emphasize the adverse consequences the Afghanistan withdrawal will have for broader and longer-term U.S. foreign policy goals. They argue that U.S. strategic reliability is now in question, that U.S. guarantees to security partners are no longer credible, and that the United States has lost its “resolve.”
This early conclusion – that global confidence in U.S. reliability is seriously weakened – is overwrought and will likely prove untrue. Upon more serious reflection, U.S. friends and potential adversaries, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, will not make significant changes in their security policies as a result of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.
To be sure, this latest tragic turn in Afghanistan’s fortunes marks an additional loss of prestige for the United States, on top of domestic political dysfunction, relatively poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a national crisis in race relations. At minimum, the country with so much experience being a superpower failed to properly plan for, let alone execute, an orderly departure, resulting in additional gratuitous suffering for many Afghans.
But is the lesson to be drawn from the United States’ Afghanistan experience that “Every [U.S.] ally—Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Israel, Japan… is on its own in the face of its enemies”? No.
We must recall what this U.S. misadventure was all about.
The U.S. war in Afghanistan began in October 2001 as a reprisal for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States organized by Osama bin Laden. When the Taliban, the de facto ruling government of Afghanistan, refused the U.S. demand to hand over bin Laden, Washington embarked on a campaign to overthrow the Taliban government so Afghanistan would no longer be a haven for bin Laden’s al-Qaida network. With much help from the indigenous Northern Alliance, a U.S.-led coalition succeeded in defeating the Taliban on the battlefield and installing new national leaders.
The real lessons are as follows:
First, projecting sufficient military force halfway around the globe to replace another state’s government in retaliation for a large terrorist attack is a formidable feat, one that probably no other country could achieve, either in 2001 or today. This fact is important to remember as the events of this month lock in the interpretation of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan as simply a war that America lost. What the United States lost was not the conventional war but the second phase of the conflict, which was a nation-building exercise amidst a Taliban insurgency.
Second, it is now abundantly clear that Washington’s decision to attempt to build a stable democracy in post-Taliban Afghanistan, rather than limiting the focus to more modest goals such as killing al-Qaida leaders and destroying their infrastructure, was an overreach born of U.S. hubris. The distrust between various ethnic groups, the prevalence of official corruption, the lack of experience with democracy, and the inherent illegitimacy of an externally imposed political system made this a nearly impossible task for the U.S. occupiers to accomplish. The rapid disintegration of the official Afghan government and the ineffectiveness of the numerically larger and U.S.-equipped Afghan military under Taliban pressure in August attests to the lack of return from the lengthy and lavish U.S. investment.
The third lesson: If you’re a government getting U.S. assistance to stave off a major insurgency, and if you fail to show reasonable progress toward achieving independent viability, the United States will eventually give up on you and withdraw its assistance. This happened to the governments of the Republic of China in the late 1940s and South Vietnam in the 1970s. In the case of Afghanistan, it happened only after 20 years, some $2 trillion in American treasure, and the loss of over 2,300 U.S. military personnel.
These lessons from the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan are not alarming, and indeed are scarcely relevant, to U.S. security partners in the Asia-Pacific region. With the possible exception of the Philippines, these countries are not counting on U.S. support out of need to fight off an insurgency that threatens state survival. Rather, they need help protecting themselves against Chinese domination.
In addition, many U.S. allies have a tradition of shared liberal values with the United States, which Afghanistan did not. This creates an additional layer of enmeshment with the U.S., increasing the sense of a common destiny and common interests. This translates into a higher likelihood that these like-minded states will back each other in tough times. A threat to the democratic values of one is a threat to the values of all.
Finally, there is the brutal logic of national interests. Afghanistan is far less economically or geopolitically consequential than the United States’ allies and security partners along the western Pacific Rim. The only serious interest the U.S. had in Afghanistan was avenging 9/11 and preventing similar attacks in the future. By contrast, U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific as well as countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and India are economically important and can help uphold the prevailing regional order against Chinese challenges. The U.S. interest in defending them is high relative to Afghanistan.
Many Asia-Pacific governments have considered the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq not only as irrational overreactions by Washington, but also as diversions of U.S. resources that would have been better spent on strengthening U.S. capabilities to meet military challenges from China and Russia. Thus, for them, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan does not indicate U.S. unreliability, but rather a sensible policy correction, a welcome end to a wasteful distraction of U.S. attention and strength.
Observers are drawing comparisons with the U.S. military intervention to preserve South Vietnam from falling to a communist insurgency. That campaign, like the one in Afghanistan, ended ignominiously and generated fear of a loss of U.S. leadership in Asia. That fear, however, went unrealized. Similarly, while the Afghanistan fiasco will have many negative consequences, most tragically for the people of Afghanistan, it will not by itself cause the end of U.S. strategic pre-eminence in the Asia-Pacific region.