A traumatic withdrawal
After the Taliban capture of Kabul on Aug. 15, most U.S. media understandably focused on the human tragedies following the unexpectedly swift Taliban victory and the confused and dangerous U.S. evacuation that followed.
Scenes of the immediate crisis at the airport where panicked Afghans and others — some U.S. citizens, some with records of service to the U.S. government, some without documentation, and some simply seeking to flee Taliban tyranny — dominated reporting.
As a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, I was glad to learn that diplomats at our embassy in Kabul had warned on July 13 in a dissent channel message to Secretary of State Blinken that the Afghan government was at risk of collapse in the face of Taliban advances. They also called on the Biden administration to undertake an airlift operation immediately for Afghans who had worked for and helped the U.S.
The day after the cable was sent, the Biden administration announced its decision to begin relocating Afghans who had supported U.S. efforts and their families. The operation did not begin, however, until late July, and when Kabul fell, only some 2,000 Afghans had already left for the U.S. Overall, the U.S. effort turned out to be too little and too late.
We now also know, however, based on the public comments of Olivia Troye, the counterterrorism adviser to former Vice President Pence, that this failure was already underway during the Trump administration when anti-immigration ideologues led by Stephen Miller blocked all efforts to issue Special Immigrant Visas to any Afghans (or Iraqis) who had worked for the U.S. government.
A major problem in assessing what happened in Afghanistan and what it means for the future is that, like so many issues now dividing the U.S., not only the interpretation of events but also the description of the events themselves too often reflect the very divided political views of the American observers. That said, both the Biden administration and, of course, the Afghan government should have done a much better job preparing for the long-anticipated withdrawal date.
A history of U.S. mistakes in pursuing the impossible?
Other U.S. administrations have also bungled the problem of Afghanistan. Foreign Policy columnist James Traub wrote an Aug. 20 essay titled “The United States Keeps Doing What It Can’t,” arguing that there was plenty of blame to share:
“The administration of George W. Bush refused to include the Taliban in the November 2001 talks to forge a new government in Afghanistan; then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to pay for an army big enough and effective enough to stand up to the Taliban resurgence in 2005; President Barack Obama authorized a counterinsurgency strategy in 2009 that failed on its own terms while greatly increasing the tempo of killing; an impatient President Donald Trump [and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo] cut a lousy deal with the Taliban in 2020.”
Traub concluded that “The lesson of Afghanistan is thus not that the United States is uniquely maladroit… it is that the United States keeps insisting that it must do that which it cannot do… whether it is rolling back communism in Southeast Asia or conquering sectarian hatred in Iraq or installing good government in Afghanistan.”
A loss of confidence in U.S. reliability?
Nonetheless, the sudden and complete collapse of the Afghan government and army after 20 years of U.S. assistance, the rapid Taliban victory and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal inevitably raised questions even among allies and friends about the U.S.' competence, reliability, and the strength of our defense relationships.
In addition, the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Russia relished the disaster and gloated about U.S. failures.
Beijing was quick to seize on Afghanistan as a warning lesson for Taiwan. The day after the Taliban took over Kabul, Beijing’s always bellicose and threatening Global Times published an editorial warning that the “Afghan abandonment [was] a lesson for Taiwan’s DPP,” falsely claiming that “The geopolitical value of Afghanistan is no less than that of Taiwan…”
Even some of our allies have been rather demeaning toward the U.S. in their comments.
In a Sept. 2 interview with The Spectator, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace stated that it is “obvious that Britain is not a superpower.” But he also suggested that this is the case for the U.S.: “a superpower that is also not prepared to stick at something isn’t probably a superpower either. It is certainly not a global force; it’s just a big power.” He also blamed, however, the mishandling of the U.S. withdrawal principally on the deal President Trump struck with the Taliban.
Some U.S. commentators also continued to exaggerate the significance of Afghanistan. Former Ambassador to Afghanistan (2011-12) Ryan Crocker wrote an Aug. 21 New York Times editorial on “Why Biden’s Lack of Strategic Patience Led to Disaster,” arguing that the U.S. “lack of strategic patience at critical moments, including from President Biden... has damaged our alliances, emboldened our adversaries and increased the risk to our own security. It has also flouted 20 years of work and sacrifice.”
In some ways Ambassador Crocker, who was one of the State Department’s most accomplished officers and a fluent Arabic speaker, might be described as a valiant envoy committed to lost causes, having also served as an ambassador in Iraq (2007-2009), Pakistan (2004–2007), Syria (1998-2001), and Lebanon (1990-1993), as well as Kuwait (1994-1997). Sometimes we overvalue simply what we know and love best.
Mixed White House messages did not help
A defensive President Biden, when questioned in an interview on Aug. 18 about what the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan meant for the confidence of allies of the U.S., insisted the country had adhered to every commitment it made: “We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if, in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.”
This apparent inclusion of Taiwan in a list of U.S. alliances, followed by the inevitable clarifications that U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed, did nothing to reassure skeptics of U.S. staying power. The Taiwan government fortunately, and I believe correctly, seemed to conclude that while President Biden may have misspoken, his words reflected the fact that his heart was in the right place on Taiwan.
Recognizing the overwhelming importance of Taiwan
Moreover, a stream of excellent editorials and articles has followed, countering the view that Afghanistan was a paradigm for Taiwan’s possible future.
Most commentaries correctly observed that Taiwan has a strategic, economic, and technological significance that Afghanistan could never even hope to achieve. Moreover, Taiwan is a flourishing democracy that enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support in the U.S. and increasing U.S. initiatives to strengthen bilateral relations as well as Taiwan’s place in the international community.
Taiwan has also enjoyed increasing support in the EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, all of whom recognize that their own fates are linked to maintaining the security and prosperity of the vital Asia-Pacific region where Taiwan is a linchpin. There is simply no reason to claim that Afghanistan prefigured Taiwan’s future.
Harvard Professor Stephen Walt flatly declared in Foreign Policy on Aug. 21 that “Afghanistan Hasn’t Damaged U.S. Credibility.”’ He argued the following, and I agree:
“Deciding not to continue a futile war for less-than-vital interests tells you absolutely nothing about whether a great power would fight if more serious interests were at stake. No one would conclude that withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years, 2,500 Americans dead, and more than $1 trillion spent implies that the United States would not fight fiercely to defend Alaska, Hawaii, or Florida. Nor should any serious person conclude the United States would not fight to prevent China from establishing hegemony in Asia… The reason is simple: In each of these instances, we are talking about vital interests that could affect U.S. security in profoundly significant ways… History offers a second source of reassurance. The United States suffered an equally humiliating defeat in Vietnam, after losing more than 50,000 troops. Yet the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent fall of Saigon… did not lead U.S. allies in Asia to realign with the Soviet Union or China, and did not inspire America’s various Middle East client states to run for the exits.”
However tragic the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan people may be, it is not decisively important in any respect other than as a humanitarian concern. The majority of Americans, according to the most recent Pew survey, recognize this: 54% said the withdrawal from Afghanistan was the right decision, even though 42% thought the Biden administration had handled it poorly.
The greatest threat remains the People’s Republic of China
For too many years, the American government has been far too consumed with concerns about the Middle East and South Asia and military involvement in their “hotspots.”
Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are only the most recent examples. I say this as someone who spent nearly nine of my 34 years in the Foreign Service dealing with those regions of the world: two years in Beirut, two years in Islamabad, and almost five years in State Department positions dealing with policy in the Middle East and South Asia.
Some of our decisions in these regions were rationally inexplicable.
For example, on Aug. 26, 1982, some 850 U.S. Marines were deployed to Beirut as part of a multinational force which also included components from France, Italy, and Britain.
Their purpose was to monitor and ensure the peaceful departure of PLO and Syrian forces from Lebanon, one of Israel’s preconditions for its own withdrawal from Beirut. The forces were also, however, intended subsequently to provide a “presence” to keep various Lebanese factions from fighting.
The security situation nonetheless continued to deteriorate, and on April 18, 1983, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was destroyed by a car bomb driven into the center of the building, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans.
On Oct. 23, 1983, Lebanese Shiite terrorists drove a truck packed with explosives into the building serving as a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, murdering 241 U.S. military personnel. Fifty-eight French soldiers were killed almost simultaneously in a separate suicide terrorist attack.
On Feb. 7, 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced the end of U.S. participation in the peacekeeping force. A few days earlier, I had written the drafts of the letters President Reagan sent to Prime Minister Thatcher, President Mitterrand, and Prime Minister Andreotti informing them of his decision to “redeploy our forces offshore.”
My view ever since Beirut is that we should never put our military personnel in dangerous positions with ambiguous or unattainable goals, only when there is a clear existential threat to the United States.
Very few countries meet those criteria, but the People’s Republic of China now clearly tops the list. And for that reason, among others, Taiwan tops the list of causes worth fighting for.
As of Aug. 16, 2021, William A. Stanton is a visiting professor at National Chengchi University. He previously served for two years as a senior vice president of National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University. From Aug. 2017 to July 2019, he was professor at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. Dr. Stanton also worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From Oct. 2014 through Jan. 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for Global Affairs. Dr. Stanton earlier served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).