The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts could contribute to the dogpile of counterfactual assessments of whether a different policy could have led to a better trajectory. My expertise is in international relations, however, not the comparative politics of Afghanistan. So let’s stay within our lane and consider the emerging debate about the larger ramifications for U.S. foreign policy.
As the post-mortems begin, comparisons to the post-Vietnam years are inevitably going to sprout up. The analogy is easy and facile to make:
As with Vietnam, the U.S. government’s resolve to stay in Afghanistan evaporated after decades of conflict. Do not take my word for it, take President Biden’s: “One more year, or five more years, of U.S. military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country. And an endless American presence in the middle of another country’s civil conflict was not acceptable to me.”
The Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman is unsparing in his assessment of Biden’s decisions: “On Afghanistan, Biden’s credibility is now shot.” But Rachman goes further than that:
The US failure makes it much harder for Biden to push his core message that “America is back.” By contrast, it fits perfectly with two key messages pushed by the Chinese (and Russian) governments. First, that US power is in decline. Second, that American security guarantees cannot be relied upon.If the US will not commit to a fight against the Taliban, there will be a question mark over whether America would really be willing to go to war with China or Russia. Yet America’s global network of alliances is based on the idea that, in the last resort, US troops would indeed be deployed to defend their allies in Asia, Europe and elsewhere.
My Post colleague Liz Sly writes similarly about allied concerns of U.S. resolve: “The Taliban’s stunningly swift advances across Afghanistan have sparked global alarm, reviving doubts about the credibility of U.S. foreign policy promises and drawing harsh criticisms even from some of the United States’ closest allies.” She further notes, “Many around the world are wondering whether they could rely on the United States to fulfill long-standing security commitments stretching from Europe to East Asia.”
These takes are … well, they are wrong. Reputations for resolve are not quite as portable as the commentariat believes. The U.S. desire to withdraw from Afghanistan does not translate into a similar preference about Europe, Latin America or the Pacific Rim, all of which contain more vital U.S. interests. Indeed, Chatham House Director Robin Niblett is correct when he tweets that “withdrawal from Afghanistan does not equate to a pullback from core US alliance commitments in Europe & Asia. It’s a brutal re-focus in their favour.”
This does not mean that the U.S. reputation for credible commitment is perfectly okay — it is far from okay. But that has nothing to do with recent events in Afghanistan, which is literally called the graveyard of empires. It has everything to do with the inconstancy of U.S. grand strategy over the past decade.
So if American resolve is bruised but not beaten by the recent turn of events, is that the end of the story? Alas, no. There are reputations for a lot of different foreign policy dimensions. What the events of the past week do is shred America’s reputation for policy competence.
Biden was not wrong when he observed, “I inherited a deal cut by my predecessor … that left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001 and imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on U.S. Forces. Shortly before he left office, he also drew U.S. Forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500.” Biden was dealt a bad hand. Still, he could have shuffled the deck and attempted a smoother withdrawal of U.S. forces. His administration chose not to do that, and it is reaping the whirlwind:
The current administration bears no culpability for the underlying causes of the Taliban takeover. It owns almost all the proximate causes, however.
Policy competence, an essential component of soft power, is a force multiplier. It means that other actors on the global stage believe in your ability to do what you say you can do. Policy incompetence has the opposite effect. One cause of the euro-zone crisis was that European policymakers repeatedly dismissed warnings from U.S. officials. They refused to heed advice from those who were at the epicenter of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Long-standing allies are not going to fret about U.S. resolve in the face of Afghanistan. They are going to worry about whether the Biden administration will mess up other policy initiatives as badly as it messed up in Kabul.