The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has, by most accounts, ceased to exist. The Taliban are in control of most of the capital, Kabul, with President Ashraf Ghani having fled the country. U.S. troops are in control of the international airport, where scenes of panic are taking place as thousands of desperate Afghans struggle to flee. As envisioned by some commentators, a prolonged defense of Kabul, with friendly forces potentially over the horizon, has turned out to be nothing more than a pipe dream.
Parallels are being drawn between the situation in Afghanistan and the Fall of Saigon, except with the Kabul administration collapsing faster than most had expected; the Republic of Vietnam at least had the tenacity to hold on for two years following the departure of U.S. forces. While haunted by ghosts of the past, the fall of Afghanistan also hold lessons for the future. In particular, Taiwan, while markedly different in terms of challenges and capabilities, will do well to find meaning in the ending of America’s “longest war.”
First, Taiwan needs to understand that war is inherently political. The withdrawal of forces is one of the few policies both sides of the U.S. political spectrum agreed on, with a consensus that after 20 years of uninterrupted conflict in Afghanistan, it has come time to bring the troops home. In a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs earlier this month, 70 percent of Americans indicated that they supported ending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, with majorities from both Democrats and Republicans.
This comes despite growing recognition of the enormous humanitarian costs such action has entailed: Women and minorities are now fearful for their lives, schools for girls are being shut down, and tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing the country. Despair is rampant as Kabul braces for Taliban rule, which will inevitably roll back the limited social progress the country has made since 2001. Yet even as the Afghan government was collapsing, the United States and its allies showed few signs of wavering and there was little political appetite to revisit a withdrawal that has broad public support at home.
Currently, Taiwan’s defense entails support from friendly countries, principally the United States. In recent years, Taiwan has cultivated a message that it stands on the frontlines of democracy, and its survival is inherently related to that of democracies all over the world. This idea has resonated in Washington and other like-minded capitals around the world. But it’s not enough to capture support from policy elites and opinion leaders; more importantly, there needs to be public buy-in. The American people must be convinced that Taiwan is worth fighting for.
This brings us to the second point: Taiwan needs to defend itself to inspire others to commit. The stunning disintegration of the Afghan National Army (ANA) caught many by surprise; the U.S. intelligence community had estimated the government of Afghanistan would be able to hold on for six months following its withdrawal. The breakneck speed of the Taliban advance led foreign governments to become resigned to Afghanistan’s fate; the remaining impetus became to merely ensure the orderly and safe evacuation of diplomatic and military personnel.
It is possible to imagine a scenario where the ANA – buoyed by several initial victories – had fought on as an entrenched force around Kabul, Kandahar, and other major cities; where despite car bombs and assassinations, it mounts a credible defense. In this scenario, there is sufficient time for global public opinion to again start turning, particularly as the Taliban’s human rights abuses started to filter out of occupied areas, culminating in renewed foreign support, even of a limited nature.
Taiwan’s situation is far different from Afghanistan. It boasts a modern military, a capable navy, and one of Asia’s best-equipped air forces. There is little doubt that it has the capacity and willingness to mount a sustained defense of Taiwan. But it also faces an ever-widening disparity with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), one where Taiwan is being far outpaced in terms of resources, capabilities, and hardware. Despite recent increases in Taiwan’s defense budget, Beijing still spends at least 16 times more, a figure that does not even account for all of China’s military-related activities.
Given these circumstances, it is all the more imperative for Taiwan’s military to quickly transition into the fighting force envisioned by its Overall Defense Concept (ODC), which seeks to prioritize mobile, nimble, and survivable forces. Many Taiwanese and U.S. defense analysts believe that through large quantities of mobile missile launchers, small missile boats, and an in-depth reserve force, Taiwan will be able to successfully resist a cross-strait contingency, or at least stall the PLA’s advances long enough for friendly forces to intervene.
Third, it is crucial for democratic countries to see a stake in Taiwan’s defense. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan, while disastrous in terms of its humanitarian implications, has caused little shake-up in the global geostrategic picture. The situation in Afghanistan is seen as primarily humanitarian and not geopolitical. Conversely, the consequences of a contingency between Taiwan and China will be enormous, potentially reaching as far as whether the United States will remain the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific region.
It is essential for Taiwan to continue speaking out about its significance in terms of values, interests, and economics. Taiwan is a living example that democracy is not incompatible with the Chinese-speaking world, making it the Achilles’ heel of the Chinese Communist Party. Its location is central to the first island chain, a crucial check against Beijing’s expansionism. Taiwan also plays a critical role in the global high-tech supply chain, manufacturing many of the world’s most cutting-edge electronics.
Taiwan cannot afford to be silent. It cannot allow Beijing to fold cross-strait issues into its narrative of “internal affairs,” asserting that this is just another blip in the 5,000 years of Chinese history. There is just too much at stake. The Biden administration can support these efforts by ensuring Taiwan is invited to participate in its upcoming Summit for Democracy. The event promises to delve into key themes of defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and advancing human rights – all issues where Taiwan is an ideal discussant.
What is taking place in Afghanistan is an unmitigated tragedy. Paying the price for its government’s failures are the 32 million people of Afghanistan, a tale that has sadly been repeated again and again throughout its history. The Taliban’s victory will bring untold stories of human suffering and misery, especially for women and already marginalized communities. It further boosts the credence of autocrats and ideologues all over the world.
While the U.S. departure from Afghanistan potentially refocuses its resources toward emerging challenges posed by China and Russia, it also highlights the complications of public support for military operations, particularly the manifold factors involved. It is incumbent on Taiwan to ensure that all democracies see the importance of its defense. The lessons of Afghanistan should be carefully studied and understood; neither Taiwan nor the U.S. can afford otherwise.