Afghanistan, Taiwan, and America’s ‘Fighting Spirit’

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Afghanistan, Taiwan, and America’s ‘Fighting Spirit’

Long before the Afghanistan withdrawal, China had become convinced that the U.S. does not have the stomach for a protracted fight over Taiwan.

Afghanistan, Taiwan, and America’s ‘Fighting Spirit’
Credit: U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Lance Cpl. J.J. Harper

It didn’t take long for Beijing to use the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government as the basis of a propaganda campaign against the credibility of Washington’s commitment to Taiwan. The reaction in the United States has largely centered on denying that the Afghanistan withdrawal has any relevance for Washington’s commitment to Taiwan or U.S. credibility and deterrence. Unfortunately, this reaction ignores the long history of how the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has seen Washington’s ability to fight wars.

In October 1950, the leadership of the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of China (PRC) sent Chinese troops into North Korea, to confront U.S. and allied soldiers who were getting close to its border. The party leadership was well aware of the immense military, technological, and economic gap between the PRC and the U.S. Three years later, going against the desire of the South Korean government to continue fighting, the United States signed an armistice with China and North Korea. The CCP leadership judged that it won the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. This “victory” cost China over 400,000 lives (the U.S. estimate), similar to the number of U.S. soldiers killed in all of World War II. The United States, meanwhile, suffered 36,574 deaths in the Korean War, which Washington was keen to end in 1953.

How did such a badly equipped army manage to achieve such a result against the strongest military in the world? For Beijing, the answer was “fighting spirit,” combined with the willingness of the party leadership to sustain heavy casualties in order to achieve its political goals. CCP leaders came to see “fighting spirit” as just as important as the material military balance. After the Korean War, a specific view of the United States would crystallize in Beijing: While the U.S possesses unquestionable military superiority, it lacks “fighting spirit” and the resolve to sustain heavy casualties to achieve its political goals. So, while its superior military power allows it to inflict more casualties on the enemy, Washington eventually withdraws from military conflicts once the costs become too high.

Over the decades, as Beijing watched U.S. military interventions in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, or Syria, this belief that the United States will eventually bow out of foreign wars without achieving its political goals grew stronger. The Afghanistan withdrawal simply reinforced this long-held view.

The party leadership is well aware of the strength of the U.S. military; it knows that Washington is trigger-happy and always concerned about credibility, and that it has a strong commitment to Taiwan. But Beijing doubts just how determined the United States would be in a potential Taiwan war. As Thomas Christensen documented almost two decades ago, this view used to be well-understood, raising some alarms even when the military balance of power was unquestionably in the United States’ favor.

It is in this context that the Afghanistan withdrawal took place. In order to preserve deterrence, this is how National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan tried to reassure Taiwan of the U.S. commitment: “We believe that our commitments to our allies and partners are sacrosanct and always have been. We believe our commitment to Taiwan and to Israel remains as strong as it’s ever been.” That might appear reassuring. However, this is how George W. Bush defined the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in 2002: “Our commitment to a stable and free and peaceful Afghanistan is a long-term commitment.” In 2006, Condoleezza Rice said that “we consider Afghanistan to be a friend for the long term. The commitment of the United States is a strong commitment but also one that will be an enduring commitment.” That was after she promised, in 2005, that “[t]he Afghan people have a long-term partner in the United States. We are not going to leave, as we once did. It was a mistake for us.” This is how Barack Obama defined the partnership with Afghanistan in 2014: “Our personnel will continue to face risks, but this reflects the enduring commitment to the Afghan people and to a united, secure and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nation.” In 2011, Hillary Clinton also had something to say about not leaving: “The United States is not walking away from the region. We will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Our commitment is real and it is enduring.”

All those promises ended with this from President Joe Biden: “I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for president that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end.”

If the United States had invaded Afghanistan in 2001, removed the Taliban from power, and then immediately left, without talking about an “enduring commitment” to Afghanistan, that would have been a clear geopolitical victory. But the U.S. military remained in Afghanistan. This mission was couched in the language of values – freedom and democracy – but was mainly pursued in the name of the national interest, the way officials defined it at the time. If asked, none of the generals who oversaw the war for these two decades would say they did it simply because they cared deeply about the education of Afghan girls or the right of Afghans to choose their leaders. The goal was to make sure Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorist organizations that could plan attacks against the U.S. homeland. This is why U.S. military leaders continued to insist that it was vital to maintain troops in Afghanistan, even in 2021.

Many American leaders and officials emphasized for almost 20 years that maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan is in the U.S. national interest. But the national interest is a fluid concept that depends on who defines it. Today, most U.S. observers believe that Taiwan is an important geostrategic interest for the United States, but a future president might have a different take on the national interest, especially when balancing it with the cardinal interest of protecting American lives. That is what happened in Afghanistan, where the “enduring commitment” ultimately had a limit. For CCP leaders in Beijing, the question about Taiwan has always been: What is that limit?

When American officials and experts insist that Taiwan is different and more important to the United States than Afghanistan, quoting numerous facts and statistics, they miss this question. Beijing knows Taiwan is more important than Afghanistan and, therefore, the U.S. commitment and willingness to suffer casualties will be higher. China is aware that the United States suffered almost 2,500 casualties in 20 years in Afghanistan. Beijing is also aware that just a single U.S. aircraft carrier, which the PLA has focused for years on targeting, hosts a crew of over 5,000 people. In Beijing’s view, one DF-21D can deal with the fact that Taiwan is twice as important as Afghanistan. Two DF-21Ds can deal with four times the importance, and so on. Thus, saying that Taiwan is more important is irrelevant to a party leadership that is interested only on identifying the limit of that importance and going just a bit beyond it.

(There is a long debate to be had about the limit of Beijing’s tolerance for casualties as well, and how the difference between the two relates to the China-U.S. military balance. But it’s probably incontestable that the growing nationalism, authoritarianism, and ideologization in China serve only to increase that tolerance. It’s also very debatable how effective the PLA would be, including its DF-21D, but what matters for the purpose of deterrence is only how Beijing perceives this hypothetical efficiency.)

Washington seems to believe that Beijing sees the American commitment to Taiwan as a binary issue: either the U.S. sends troops to defend Taiwan, or it just condemns the invasion, without getting involved. Deterrence thus boils down to convincing China that the United States will intervene. But Beijing understands that Washington will try to defend Taiwan. Its dilemma is different: How many troops and assets will the U.S. send and how many will it be willing to lose?

Confronted with Beijing’s propaganda, it’s understandable that Washington wants to clearly emphasize that Taiwan is different from Afghanistan and that it will never abandon Taiwan. It is also rather futile. For decades, Chinese leaders have insisted that China wants to pursue a peaceful rise, that it shuns hegemony, and that it does not want to establish spheres of influence. Not a single person in Washington believes this. In international relations, adversaries don’t just believe what the other side says; they look at what it does.

Washington can repeat a thousand times that the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is unshakable, but Beijing will judge this based on facts, not words. And facts don’t mean inviting Taiwan to a democracy summit, changing the name of its representative office, sending retired officials and senators or a U.S. ambassador to Taipei, or belatedly donating 2.5 million vaccine doses to a population of 23 million – which, by the way, was after Taiwan managed to contain a dangerous COVID-19 wave that likewise posed a threat to Taiwan’s security. Beijing judges Washington’s commitment based on its appraisal of past U.S. military engagements and the CCP’s leaders have long believed that the U.S. lacks the will to sustain heavy casualties in faraway lands.

Beijing’s assessment might be wrong – the United States might fight to maintain Taiwan’s de facto independence with the same determination it would fight for its own territorial integrity. It’s possible that the Afghanistan debacle might convince future administrations to do anything to defend Taiwan, in order to avoid a similar situation and similar criticism. But, right now, Washington’s goal isn’t to defeat China in a war, regardless of cost. It is to prevent – to deter – a PRC invasion of Taiwan. And for deterrence to work, what Washington thinks or says is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what Beijing believes. That belief might be completely detached from reality, but if Beijing believes the United States will eventually bow out of a Taiwan war, then deterrence won’t work.

(It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean China will soon invade Taiwan. There are other factors that have prevented such an invasion, aside from the military balance.)

Beijing’s perception of the Afghanistan withdrawal also doesn’t mean U.S. credibility in allied capitals is under threat. It’s not like the people of Taiwan will, all of a sudden, no longer feel Taiwanese, or that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will pivot to embracing “peaceful reunification.” U.S. allies in East Asia will continue to count on Washington, because the only alternative is to become part of Beijing’s sphere of influence. Had there been any other great power that could guarantee their security, U.S. alliances might have been in danger. But as the United States has a monopoly on providing security to its allies, the Afghanistan withdrawal won’t change much. Some in the region might have greater doubts, but they don’t have greater choices.

So the problem for the United States is strictly confined to Beijing. If the host of statements from Washington that deny the Afghanistan withdrawal has any bearing on Taiwan are nothing more than a counterattack to Beijing’s political warfare, that is okay. But it seems many really believe what they say, and that is very problematic. Such a response ignores how Beijing thinks and either assumes the party leadership can be convinced with words, or projects American beliefs onto it – “Surely China understands that Taiwan is not Afghanistan, regardless of its propaganda, and that, now extricated from Afghanistan, the U.S. is free to focus more resources on competing with it.”

Yes, the CCP knows Taiwan is not Afghanistan, just like it knows it is not Korea, or Vietnam, or Lebanon, or Somalia, or Iraq, or Syria. It is pretty good at reading maps. But that doesn’t mean Beijing believes the United States will fight for Taiwan regardless of costs, based either on democratic values or the commitment to a partner – both of which Washington abandoned in Afghanistan – or based on the national interest – which successive U.S. administrations and numerous military leaders defined differently than Joe Biden or Donald Trump did regarding Afghanistan. And, for the purpose of deterrence, that is all that matters.

Beijing understands that the Afghanistan withdrawal helps the United States better focus on “competition” with China, but competition isn’t war. China could end up losing the “great power competition” with the United States (whatever that means), but still take territorial control of Taiwan after a military victory against the U.S. These are two profoundly different things.

To preserve deterrence for decades to come, Washington needs to go beyond the issue of military balance or how to clearly convey it will come to Taiwan’s initial defense, for example by abandoning the policy of strategic ambiguity. The CCP’s dilemma is simply to understand the level of costs at which the United States is no longer willing to fight and will negotiate an “honorable” exit, for example, by accepting the PRC’s annexation of Taiwan under certain conditions (perhaps something similar to the “one country, two systems” framework).

One begins to wonder if, after decades of unipolarity and undisputed military and geopolitical superiority, Washington simply forgot that deterrence is based not on what it thinks or what is true, real, and correct, but only on what the other side believes. For deterrence to work, what matters isn’t reality, but perception – and Beijing’s perception is worrying. Thankfully, the party leadership doesn’t seem to have decided it has to invade Taiwan soon, so there is still time for the United States to work on the real issues of deterrence, but only if it first understands the problem, instead of looking for the best ways to poke China, thinking this somehow shows its resolve.

The Afghanistan withdrawal doesn’t radically change Beijing’s calculations or presage an imminent invasion of Taiwan, but believing it has no bearing on the issue is just comfortable self-deceit – just as, for the party leadership, believing the United States lacks “fighting spirit” and determination might end up a woefully incorrect assessment, which could lead to the tragic loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.