“There is no elegant way to lose a war,” Fareed Zakaria wrote last week in the Washington Post.
Of course, to describe the US withdrawal from Afghanistan merely as inelegant would understate the reality rather significantly. News stories from Afghanistan was dominated by images of the gut-wrenching images of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding, along with stories about abandoned interpreters and other allies left behind as Kabul is evacuated.
No wonder, then, that much ink has been spilled in recent days on the fall of Afghanistan, particular to cast judgement on whether or not the decision to pull out was ultimately correct and to analyze the extent to which the United States bungled the final exit. Concurrent with this debate is commentary about what this means for US commitments around the world, including in Asia. “Fallout from fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has prompted worries about the United States’ dependability” read a tweet from Asia Times.
The first debate on the merits and the mechanics of the withdrawal is probably timely. However, I would argue that the latter debate on ramifications for other regions, especially Asia, are either 1) overblown or 2) happening far too early, at a time when not much can be gleaned.
Let’s begin by addressing a point often made about the US commitment to its allies. Surely, the argument goes, other nations must now learn the lessons from trusting a great power whose credibility is shot. Can they walk with the United States without the fear of abandonment by an unreliable ally?
That would be the instinctive take, but it is certainly not the only possible interpretation. For example, Korea expert Robert Kelly has argued that the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan after spending twenty years on an unwinnable war is just as likely to be interpreted by foreign governments as a sign of more, not less, resolve.
There is something to this counterpoint. The United States ended up staying in Afghanistan about twice long as the Soviet Union. The war’s price tag came both in lives and enormous amounts of treasure: Brown University’s Costs of War project has estimated that it cost the US 2.26 trillion dollars in twenty years, which amounts to roughly 300 million dollars a day.
As Stephen Walt says: “If the era of US primacy is ending — a highly debatable proposition — it’s not because we are finally leaving Afghanistan. It’s because we stayed too long, squandered lives [& money], and didn’t invest wisely at home.”
An argument that holds more water, in my opinion, is that what happens in East and Southeast Asia now the withdrawal has happened will be more critical for how US commitments abroad are viewed.
Many analysts have long seen the Middle East as a distraction from Washington’s pressing priorities in East Asia. So did President Barack Obama, whose ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy was meant to rebalance America’s attention towards the Pacific. Of course, under Obama, America was never able to quit the Middle East. American boots remained in Afghanistan even as the war there faded from the headlines, while the Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, the Syrian civil war and negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran continued to consume the administration’s attention.
Now that Biden has finally ripped off the band-aid from Afghanistan, many eyes will turn to whether or not being freed from its Middle East commitments will truly allow the US to focus on Asia. The president himself has argued that the US needs to “fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20.” Whether that is mere rhetoric or something that he intends to turn into reality will be how the Biden administration’s foreign policy in Asia is judged.
This does not mean, of course, that we cannot discern some immediate negative effects from the withdrawal towards American foreign policy in this region. In the short term, the Afghan withdrawal will hurt America’s focus on Asia as the ongoing debacle consumes Washington’s attention. (“As Assistant-Secretary for the Indo-Pacific, Ely Ratner has Afghanistan in his portfolio. Where do you think his primary his focus is for the next three months or longer?”, a defense policy expert asks in Reuters.)
The images flowing out of Kabul will also be difficult for anyone to spin, even as Secretary of State Anthony Blinken says that it is “manifestly not Saigon.” And already, former Singaporean ambassador Bilahari Kausikan wrote in his piece about “hard truths about America’s pullout” that it is crucial to differentiate between America’s role maintaining regional stability and actual role in national defense: “nobody is going to defend us if we do not have the capability and political will to defend ourselves.”
But for US allies whose security relationship is no longer as prominent a factor, such as Thailand, it is difficult to see there being much of an impact. The Thai government itself is unlikely to be straining to see Afghanistan’s implications for our alliance with the United States. What it is more likely to be concerned by are other diplomatic considerations, such as the fact that so far, the highest ranking US officials to visit Thailand have been Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, and Vice President Kamala Harris instead skipped Thailand in favor of emerging partners like Vietnam and Singapore.
On the ground, the biggest news that Joe Biden has made recently in Thailand was probably not about the Afghan withdrawal but rather the donation of 1.5 million Pfizer vaccines. Indeed, America’s vaccine diplomacy may be just as likely as the retreat from Afghanistan to define current perceptions from this region towards the United States.
The bottom line is this: inelegant though the withdrawal may be, the reliability and success of America’s commitments in Asia should not be judged through the lens of Afghanistan. That is simply too early to tell.