TCSS Security Commentaries #021

Washington’s failures in Afghanistan will reverberate throughout its alliance-building endeavors across the world. But Despite fundamental differences, US involvement in the Indo-Pacific and Middle East are now part of the greater narrative—that of a superpower reaching a critical juncture in its time under the spotlight.

Richard Chen, Taiwan Center for Security Studies

The Fall of Kabul

When America’s longest war reached its final days in August of 2021, the lightning takeover of the Afghan capital city was the nail in the coffin for the allied-backed government in Kabul. In a mere two-week offensive since the Taliban began taking provincial capitals in earlier that month, Afghanistan fell back into the grasp on those who Washington and her allies removed from power twenty years ago on August 15th. Now, just days before 20th anniversary of 9/11—the event that spawned the US-led War on Terror—looking at an Afghanistan that is once again ruled by the Taliban sends underlying repercussions for the security environment of the US-led “world order”.

What some dub as a cauldron of war and unrest, the graveyard of empires (as the sobriquet goes), Afghanistan is approaching a watershed moment in time once again as US and NATO troops withdrew after the decades-long operation, which sought to bring democratic governance to the Central Asian nation. The Taliban’s newly announced cabinet consisting of western terrorist watch-list officials, settles the score and formalizes the failure of the US-led endeavor in transforming Afghanistan, at least politically and in government. However, the societal fabric and democratic values that have been taking root in these past 20 years, an entire generation of youth, still seem to be demanding their rights as a simmering resistance inside Afghanistan fizzles on.

Shifting Gears Eastwards

As we shift gears towards the Indo-Pacific, the US’ top theater of priority of late, American adversaries have already begun to sing their Siren Songs on likening US-commitment to its allies, particularly Taiwan, to the debacle unfolding in Afghanistan. Taiwan is markedly not Afghanistan, in any sense of the imagination, but nonetheless, it is far from being comfortably immune from what Beijing decides to wield in terms of political and grey-zone warfare. The recent events that transpired in Afghanistan has undoubtedly dented and to varying degrees wounded US reputation in its exploits outside of its own borders. From the halls of Mazar-i-Sharif to the shores of Yokosuka, US-allies in Asia will now have to grapple with the geopolitical shift that is well underway.

While some may say that one must not project the happenings in Afghanistan onto their own fields and geographical concentrations, what happens in a place such as Afghanistan matters and sheds a light on the fallacies of politics and otherization. Which in the worst-case scenarios, leads to insurmountable human cost and a rollback of liberal and democratic values.

Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, XVIII Airborne Corps, boards a C-17 cargo plane at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Alex Burnett)

The implications of Washington’s mishaps in Afghanistan, have for a long time been out of sight and out of mind for many East Asian democracies. The same cannot be said for Beijing, as since the First Gulf War, the Chinese Communist Party has been watching on, as America wages military misadventures one after another. Today, China is in a position where not only is it considered a geopolitical adversary to the US, but also on the ground locking horns with anyone who calls out Chinese aggression.

Events in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan may not be over for those living the ramifications of Washington’s decisions. However, the chessboard is now set for the US to confront its “pacing threat” that it has identified for the decades to come. Washington and Beijing’s growing competition only seem to be exacerbated as time unfolds and the disastrous fumble of an Afghan withdrawal only weakens America’s position with its partners and allies in all regions.

Despite this, for the US strategically, freeing itself from an endless black hole of military spending and operations in an un-winnable war would allow for more resources, time, and focus to be reallocated elsewhere. Doing this would also require a recalibration in approach and diplomacy apart from the military investment. As of today, Biden’s tussle with how one brings diplomacy back to American conduct abroad still has ways to go, considering the withdrawal debacle America has shown during its withdrawal from Afghanistan.