What the Afghan crisis means
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
The scenes of chaotic crowds at the Kabul Airport and a desperate administration in Washington trying to gain control have conjured images of the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. That earlier American retreat ushered in a crisis of confidence for the U.S. military; Soviet expansionism in Asia and the Middle East; and bilateral friction in the U.S.-South Korean alliance that led to a stillborn initiative by Seoul to establish its own nuclear weapons program. Could the tectonic shifts be as great this time?
Despite a barrage of chortling propaganda from Chinese media about American decline and the need for U.S. allies to abandon the United States, the answer is to that question is “no” — but the Biden administration will have to get its bearings right in the weeks and months ahead.
It is important to recognize that the withdrawal from Afghanistan does not represent a new isolationism in the United States. In public opinion polls before the Afghan government collapsed, two-thirds of Americans supported getting out of Afghanistan. That contrasts with two-thirds of Americans who consistently said in polls that the United States should defend South Korea and Japan in East Asia. Moreover, the Biden administration’s rationale for the rapid pullout from Afghanistan was in part based on the desire to focus more on the Indo-Pacific. This wasn’t a retreat so much as a poorly executed shift in priorities. As one senior White House official put it to me, the administration now has to score even bigger wins in Asia to show that the premise of their overall grand strategy was correct. So in that sense, this crisis is nothing like Vietnam — particularly with respect to Asia.
But the execution of the withdrawal could have an impact on U.S. leadership and execution of strategy in Asia.
First, the ironic result of the rapid pull out from Afghanistan means that at least for the near-term, Washington will have to pay far more attention to Afghanistan than Asia. Though these meetings are not publicized, my guess is that the National Security Council is having far more sessions in the Situation Room right now on Afghanistan than they are on China or North Korea. They have no choice with thousands of Americans still not evacuated and Congress and the media calling for tens of thousands of Afghan interpreters, women rights activists, and others who helped the international community to be rescued as well. This is a political and moral disaster Biden must fix.
Second, there is a danger that Afghanistan could become a safe-haven again for ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The Taliban may have learned from 2001 the danger to them of supporting terrorism. The Taliban has also seen ISIS as a dangerous rival. But regardless of how much the newly restored Taliban actively supports terrorist organizations, it is already clear that terrorist groups around the world have been animated by the scenes of an Islamic fundamentalist victory over America. When ISIS took over swaths of Iraq after the Obama administration’s withdrawal, foreign fighters used that temporary safe-haven to plan attacks in Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere in Asia.
Third, there is a geopolitical danger that American adversaries will misread what this chaotic situation means. Will Beijing think this creates an opening against Taiwan? Will Russia now see an opportunity to complete its irredentist expansionism against Ukraine or the Baltics? North Korea has historically over-interpreted both American victories and defeats. The ax murder incident in the DMZ in 1976 followed the humiliating Vietnam withdrawal. But when the United States attacked the Taliban in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003, North Korea retrenched in fear that they might be next. In both cases, the U.S. strategy towards North Korea had nothing to do with those other developments (in Vietnam and then the Middle East) — but Pyongyang interpreted the images on television as either a new opportunity or a new threat to them. Under Kim Il Sungism, everything that happens in the world is about the DPRK.
The Biden administration is now well aware of all these dangers. The Congress will likely establish a commission to review what went wrong in Afghanistan. The Bush administration will get blame for shifting attention from Afghanistan to Iraq. Obama will be blamed for not fighting the endemic corruption that took hold in Afghanistan. Trump will receive major blame for a terrible peace agreement with the Taliban that undercut the Afghan government and achieved nothing in exchange for the U.S. withdrawal other than a pledge not to shoot at Americans heading home. Biden will be blamed for insisting on a political withdrawal date at the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attack rather than waiting for winter when the Taliban would have been unable to advance across the country as the U.S. forces staged a managed withdrawal that included all Americans and close Afghan allies.
It will be interesting to see what the Congressional review says about the overall purpose of the mission in Afghanistan, particularly given how many died trying to help that far-away country. The conventional wisdom in Washington is now that “nation-building” was never possible, though the conventional wisdom a decade ago was that we had to do nation-building to permanently eradicate terrorism in Afghanistan. I personally do not believe that either conventional wisdom was completely right and that even a wobbly Afghan government could have enabled a small U.S. force for counter-terrorism operations that will now be extremely difficult from hundreds of miles away. That would have been difficult and risky in some respects, but perhaps less difficult and risky than what Biden now faces. In any case, the initial mission was to root out the terrorist threat to the United States and our allies, and for twenty years those who sacrificed for that mission did succeed and are owed an incalculable debt by the American people and the world.
Knowing that his presidency could hinge on forestalling the dangers created by this situation, Biden is focused on fixing his mistakes — even if he does not publicly admit them. And his team is strategic enough to know that they must deliver big results in Asia. For that they will need Korea’s help.