On the face of it, witnessing the hectic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and tragic scenes at Kabul airport last month, one cannot help but recall the desperation of the South Vietnamese trying to catch a helicopter flight out of Saigon in 1975 and to question the confidence one can have in the United States that it will not allow a similar tragedy to happen in another struggling allied country.
My response to that question would be: “Don’t worry, it will not happen. Afghanistan was such a unique case that is different from any of the other U.S. allies, except perhaps Vietnam of the early 1970s.”
One unique aspect of the U.S.-Afghanistan alliance is the reason why the alliance was formed to begin with. The U.S. troops went into Afghanistan to punish the perpetrators of 9/11 and to eradicate the Taliban regime, which gave sanctuary to Islamic extremist group al-Qaida and enabled them to organize and execute the 9/11 terrorist acts in 2001.
The Taliban was driven out of power in 2001 and Osama bin Laden, the leader of the terrorist group, was killed in 2011. However, the U.S. could not eliminate the Taliban completely or build a functioning nation in Afghanistan.
Other alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a multilateral alliance, and bilateral alliances with Japan or South Korea were formed in order to deter and contain the U.S.’s rivals such as the Soviet Union before and China now, as well as to defend the U.S.’s allies from potential enemies. The main adversaries have not remained the same, but the need to deal with the rivals and defend the allies ― which the U.S. considers to be in its own best interest ― is still there.
As America’s strategic competition with China has intensified, the need to strengthen alliances with existing allies has become greater. In Northeast Asia, as the capability of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles has grown, even potentially threatening the U.S. mainland, the strategic value of the U.S.’s alliance with Japan and South Korea has increased.
The second difference between Afghanistan and other U.S. allies is in the nature and predilection of the ally in question. Afghanistan was a fractured country among the leadership and between contending groups, which were more interested in enriching themselves than strengthening the country’s defense capabilities, and who lacked the will to fight the well-organized and indoctrinated enemy of the state that was the Taliban.
The dictum in both Chinese and English, “Heaven (God) helps those who help themselves,” can be a universal one which also applies to the south central region of Asia.
America could not protect Afghanistan from the revival and onslaught of the Taliban, not because of the lack of American will to help Afghanistan to continue the struggle, but because of the failure to find capable Afghan partners who are willing and able to help their own security.
It is clear now that, in their own strategic interest and out of rational calculation, that the U.S. will not repeat the mistake of the past 20 years ― of continuing to send troops to Afghanistan ― longer than necessary to accomplish its objectives.
A second issue that seems to have caused the erosion of confidence that the allies placed on the U.S. is whether Washington has adequately consulted and coordinated with them regarding the timing and method of action, when it comes down to critical decisions, such as the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
In February 2020, the Trump administration cut a deal with the Taliban, in which the U.S. agreed to get out of Afghanistan in 14 months and, in exchange, the Taliban agreed not to let Afghanistan become a haven for terrorists and to stop attacking U.S. service members.
Actions taken by the two succeeding administrations (Trump and Biden) on Afghanistan unilaterally and without proper communication, left its partners with neither the time nor preparation to deal with the process and its consequences. In alliance diplomacy, nothing disappoints and upsets the partners as much as unilateralism and surprises in major decision making.
It is possible that, despite the tragedy resulting from an inadequately prepared and executed withdrawal, it might prove to be a case of a “blessing in disguise,” as the situation evolved after the fall of Saigon in April of 1975.
After ridding itself of the Afghan burden, the U.S. may be in a position to focus its attention and energy on issues and areas that really count ― relations with China and Russia, global warming, the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and maintaining liberal and democratic order in the world.
It will take much effort and time for its allies to recover from their loss in terms of the credibility of and confidence in the U.S. Even then, however, there are lessons that the U.S. should pay close attention to: it has to pay renewed attention to work closely with its allies on key issues, even after the fallout from this drop in the confidence in and credibility of the U.S. blows over in due time.
Second, whether the detachment of the U.S. from Afghanistan will turn out to be a case of a blessing in disguise or another quagmire to contend with will be at the mercy of the Taliban, which may allow terrorist groups such as IS and al-Qaida to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary base for their destructive activities.
Dr. Han Sung-joo is the honorary chair of the Korean-American Association, president emeritus of the Seoul Forum for International Affairs and a professor emeritus at Korea University. He also served as the minister of foreign affairs in 1993-94. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific Leadership for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). His article is published in cooperation with the APLN (www.apln.network).
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.
This article was published in The Korea Times on 3 September 2021 and is part of dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.
Image: Unsplash/ Mohammad Rahmani