“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world”
President Richard Nixon, 1970
The United States has just been routed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and President Joe Biden is clearly on the defensive. He has vowed to evacuate all Americans and helpers but they are scattered all over the country. Will he follow through on this promise?
Equally important in the long run, what is the significance of the loss of Afghanistan to the U.S.? Consider:
- Both Vietnam and Afghanistan were non-strategic wars. The Vietnam War was not strategically necessary for the U.S. and eventually lost public support. The U.S. went into Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qaida after 9/11 and this goal was quickly accomplished. A decision had then to be made either to withdraw or to take control of the whole country. The obvious answer was to leave but the one chosen was to stay.
- Having won we chose to lose. Twenty years later the U.S. had achieved a stable military situation with no combat deaths in the past 18 months. So, as a practical matter, we could have maintained the status quo indefinitely with a residual force of about 2,500 troops. Instead, we underwent a chaotic withdrawal and now face the real possibility of having to return in the future to defeat terrorism again.
- The chaotic Afghan withdrawal has shocked and angered U.S. allies. Afghanistan was an operation of NATO and America’s allies sent tens of thousands of troops over 20 years, more than 1,100 of whom were killed. NATO allies were justified in expecting that if that the U.S. were to withdraw, it would do so in consultation with its partners. Other allies are noticing. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has just warned that “Taiwan’s only option is to grow stronger and become more united, strengthening our determination to protect ourselves.”
- Biden’s Chamberlain moment. The fall of Kabul has been heard around the world, to the dismay of our allies and the delight of our enemies. A well-executed withdrawal that visibly served a coherent national strategy might have accomplished what Biden wanted. Nothing is vainer than the hope that somehow the debacle which actually took place will help the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan hands Pakistan a strategic victory which will make life much more difficult for our most important Asian ally, namely India.
Conclusion. A quick retreat from Afghanistan twenty years ago, after destroying Al –Qaida, or even a well-executed withdrawal more recently, would have addressed the strong desire for no more “forever wars.” As actually happened, Biden’s disastrous handling of this crucial problem serves only to humiliate the United States. The Biden Presidency will never recover and it will take many years for the U.S. to regain its lost prestige.