Afghanistan, Korea and America
The author was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2011. She is the president of the Korea Economic Institute of America located in Washington, D.C.
August 2021 was a dreadful month. It was a summer already defined by inexorable reminders that we are not done with Covid-19 and have only begun to reckon with climate change. Now, as August ends, the precipitous collapse of the two-decades-long U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan brings new both short and long term challenges and uncertainties. With Afghanistan in Taliban hands, the U.S. — and the rest of the world — face immediate humanitarian, migration and security challenges, while grappling with as-yet unclear longer-term implications of what appears to many as an ignominious American defeat.
President Biden has insisted that his decision to implement the Trump Doha agreement and withdraw U.S. forces was the right one, supported by American public opinion and the need to focus on higher strategic priorities at home and abroad. But Biden infuriated European and other allies with a lack of coordination and consultation, and heaped excessive blame and little compassion on the Afghans themselves. Worse, Washington did not anticipate and was unprepared for the rapidity of the Afghan military and state collapse and the Taliban advance. As the administration scrambled to send troops back in and organize an airlift to evacuate Americans, vulnerable Afghans, and other partners, President Biden’s reputation for competence and seasoned judgment suffered. The Aug. 26 bombing outside Kabul airport killing at least 13 Americans and hundreds more others made for the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan in a decade, and the darkest day in Biden’s not yet year-old presidency.
Meanwhile, in the world of foreign policy and national security scholars, journalists, former officials, and the like, a debate is raging on the whole Afghanistan enterprise, and by extension on America’s past and future global role. Was the U.S. wrong to go into Afghanistan 20 years ago? Did we get it wrong from the start? Or was it the pivot to Iraq that took attention off Afghanistan? What are the lessons learned? Nation-building: too much or too little, or just impossible? What about Pakistan? Our relative ignorance of Afghan history and culture, of regionalism versus central authority? What are the implications of the U.S. defeat for Afghanistan, the region, the world, and the U.S.? For U.S. credibility, and perceptions of U.S. reliability? What will August 2021 look like 20 years from now?
Korea is frequently invoked in these discussions, often as a model of successful “nation-building” for which the U.S. takes or shares credit, and/or of the U.S. staying the course with a security presence for decades absent complete success. The other recurring theme is around the topics of American relative decline, and of perceptions of diminished American credibility and commitment to allies including South Korea. Essays with titles like “Seoul Isn’t Kabul” and “How the Afghanistan Withdrawal Looks from South Korea, America’s Other Forever War,” are coupled with statements from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that the U.S. has “no intention of drawing down forces” in South Korea.
My own sense from reading the Korean press is that some of these concerns are felt more in the U.S. — and in Europe where the anxiety in NATO is acute — than in Korea. But conversations on these topics need to go beyond the inward-looking circles within our own capitals; Americans need to hear more Korean voices.
After the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001, South Korea under President Kim Dae-jung was quick to send engineers and medics to support the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. This was despite domestic political sensitivities in Korea about participating in an overseas military campaign; after the Vietnam War, where more than 300,000 South Koreans served and some 5,000 died, it was over a quarter century before Seoul sent 400 soldiers in 1999 to support a UN force stabilizing East Timor. President Roh Moo-hyun made another important if difficult political decision in 2003 to send more South Korean medics and engineers to join the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, with South Korea becoming the third largest troop contributor to the Iraq coalition before ending its mission peacefully in 2008.
But in Afghanistan, in 2007 a private church group of 23 Koreans were taken hostage by the Taliban, and two hostages executed, before the Korean government negotiated their release. As an American diplomat I empathized with the difficult position of the Korean government; private citizens against their government’s advice had put themselves in harm’s way, and the government had to balance aiding its citizens held hostage with the risks of encouraging further hostage-taking. Seoul did secure the release of the hostages, but reduced its presence in Afghanistan to a small civilian hospital in Bagram.
Afghanistan was high again on the U.S.-Korea agenda by 2009. I was ambassador in Seoul when President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke visited in April; as we rode from Incheon airport together I got an impassioned preview of his message to Korean officials about President Obama’s resolve to counter terrorism and improve conditions in Afghanistan and Central Asia more broadly. By 2010, with the National Assembly’s approval, South Korea expanded its presence in Afghanistan to include substantial support for a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) including soldiers, police and aid personnel.
Afghanistan was an early and important recipient of South Korea’s growing overseas development assistance (ODA). Koica opened an office in Kabul in 2002, and aid amounts and activity continued, despite security challenges and program delays. In 2013, Afghanistan was the largest recipient of Korean bilateral grant aid. It was also in work together in Afghanistan that Korea forged a relationship with NATO, a partnership that continues to broaden, as seen by Korea’s participation in a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting last year.
Since 2001, I have watched South Korea’s contributions to the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. I saw its emerging global confidence and identity, its burgeoning soft as well as hard power, and the growth of people-to-people ties, notably in Central Asia. I’m thinking of the quick and effective action of the Korean government in evacuating to Korea Afghans who had supported the Korean presence in Afghanistan, along with their families, and the open-hearted welcome they are receiving in Korea. Building on this, I hope Korea can play a leading role in providing opportunities for the Afghan people who have lost so much, particularly women and girls, to access education.