Exiting Afghanistan Will Improve America’s Global Standing in the Long Run
Allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific will be the beneficiaries of an overdue strategic realignment.
Originally published at Washington Post
August 30, 2021 6:00 am (EST)
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A few days after the United States evacuated American civilians and at-risk Vietnamese from Saigon on April 30, 1975, Maxwell Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lamented that “the Vietnam finale” was “impairing our reputation for reliability, weakening our alliances, and exposing our internal weaknesses to friend and foe.” Many observers shared Taylor’s view that the fall of Saigon irreversibly damaged America’s global credibility.
But the decision to quit a losing war that had become a political albatross at home ultimately worked to America’s advantage, enabling Washington to more effectively manage its relations with the Soviet Union and China as well as to rebuild at home. Within two decades of the ignominious evacuation from Saigon, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States presided over the end of Cold War.
The impact of the fall of Kabul on American power and position seems poised to follow a similar trajectory. In the short term, the chaotic evacuation effort in Kabul — stemming from Washington’s gross underestimation of how quickly the Taliban would advance — is dealing a blow to the Biden administration’s political standing at home and abroad. The death of 13 U.S. service members and at least 170 other people in a terrorist attack on Thursday will long cast a pall over the withdrawal. But over the longer term, President Biden’s decision to end America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan will probably boost America’s standing in the world, resetting the nation’s strategic priorities in a way that reassures allies and deters adversaries. It will also enable Washington to better focus on pressing domestic challenges, which itself will enhance the United States’ global position.
That upbeat prediction, reflecting lessons learned from the withdrawal from Vietnam, flies in the face of many current judgments. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal recently charged that Biden “broke NATO” and laments “the damage his disgraceful Afghanistan exit has inflicted on America’s alliances and reputation.” According to James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 to 2014, “the damage to the security of the United States, our allies, and the region has been done, as has the damage to the credibility of U.S. leadership.”
The administration clearly fell short in failing to foresee the swift collapse of the Afghan military and government, putting at risk the many Americans, other foreign nationals and Afghan partners still in the country when Kabul fell. This critique stands even though the evacuation overseen by Washington has sped more than 100,000 people out of the country since the Taliban took control.
But Biden was right to end a failing U.S. mission that was grasping for an unreachable goal. After all, even after 20 years of support from the U.S.-led coalition, Afghanistan showed no signs of cohering as a functioning, unitary country, as the abrupt breakdown of its state institutions made clear.
The United States had achieved its primary mission in Afghanistan — decimating al-Qaeda and preventing Afghanistan from serving as a launchpad for attacks on the United States or its allies. And Biden has stressed that, post-withdrawal, the United States reserves the right to strike at terrorists who remain or regroup in Afghanistan. Indeed, Washington on Friday and Sunday carried out strikes against the Islamic State offshoot that asserted responsibility for Thursday’s attack. But even as the United States keeps an eye on Afghanistan, its military withdrawal from the country will enable Washington to pivot its strategic focus from peripheral interests in the broader Middle East to primary interests in the Eurasian heartland. Allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific will be the beneficiaries of an overdue strategic realignment that focuses more attention and resources on China and Russia — America’s most formidable challengers.
To be sure, both China and Russia will reap short-term benefits from the withdrawal of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan. China will probably seek to deepen the country’s integration into the Belt and Road Initiative — the vast infrastructure program that Beijing is building across Eurasia. And Russia will increase its influence in Afghanistan and its region.
But both China and Russia have been quietly gleeful as the United States has spent much of the past two decades spinning its wheels in Afghanistan — as well as in Iraq, Libya and Syria. These quagmires have drained U.S. coffers, taken many lives, divided the U.S. electorate and distracted the United States from its traditional geopolitical focus on great-power rivalries. Beijing and Moscow are in for a rude awakening as the United States frees itself from the “forever wars” in the Middle East and puts China and Russia in its crosshairs.
Quitting Afghanistan will also redound to the benefit of U.S. power and position because it is part of Biden’s broader effort to rebuild the domestic sources of American strength. Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” means, in part, spending time and money fixing problems at home rather than in Afghanistan — one of the main reasons that ending the U.S. mission there enjoyed overwhelming public support. The cost of the war in Afghanistan had come down to $20 billion a year — roughly .5 percent of the federal budget. But over 20 years, the war has cost about $2.3 trillion, with the total bill for the post-9/11 “forever wars” estimated to be around $6 trillion.
Such large sums can now be more productively invested in the domestic economy. And since strength at home is the foundation for strength abroad, domestic investments ultimately enhance the nation’s global position. Indeed, when it comes to America’s long-term role in the world, the infrastructure and social policy bills now moving through Congress are much bigger news than the pullback from Afghanistan. Investments in infrastructure, technology, research and education are needed to maintain the country’s competitive edge and keep pace with China.
These investments also promise to improve the living standards of working Americans, which in turn could help repair the nation’s politics and rebuild its political center. Taming the polarization that has made American politics so toxic will, with luck, reduce the isolationism and xenophobia that have in recent years hampered the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Reclaiming a steady and purposeful brand of statecraft requires rebuilding the bipartisan foundations of American internationalism.
Looking beyond the U.S. withdrawal, the United States should do all it can to continue the evacuation of threatened Afghans, alleviate humanitarian suffering and press the Taliban to govern responsibly and humanely. Even so, the panicked evacuation from Kabul, including the horrific terrorist attack outside the airport, will go down as one of the darker episodes in U.S. engagement abroad. But the odds seem high that as Afghanistan moves on and seeks to build a new political equilibrium, the U.S. withdrawal from the country — just like the withdrawal from Vietnam — will ultimately come into focus as the beginning of a renewal of American power and position.