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America’s Ignoble Retreat

Aug 24, 2021
  • Shen Yamei

    Director, Department for American Studies, China Institute of International Studies

What just happened in Afghanistan was no doubt the first diplomatic debacle of the Joe Biden administration. To the majority of Americans, it was unimaginable that the 20-year war would end in such an ignoble manner. Just four weeks earlier, Biden had pledged the withdrawal would be done in “a secure and orderly way,” assuming the “highly unlikely” scenario of “the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country.”

Reality has been a slap in the face. Republicans accused Biden of incompetence in losing Afghanistan and hurting the standing of the United States in the world. Democrats, while defending the decision to withdraw, were concerned about the humanitarian disaster and raised questions about the president’s judgment.

Given the velocity and ferocity of the changes in Afghanistan, American policy — the response in intellectual circles — appears extremely old-fashioned and self-obsessed, displaying a stunning lack of self-reflection. People almost unanimously attribute the Taliban’s battlefield victory to the failure of Afghan political leadership over the past two decades. Corruption, drug addiction, theft, freeloading and rampant desertion in the Afghan government forces — not to mention their lack of will to fight and ease of surrender — are cited frequently as underlying causes.

The U.S. Defense Department, intelligence agencies, State Department, White House, Congress and the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan are all passing the buck and looking for scapegoats, citing failures in tactics, intelligence evaluation, pullout arrangements and contingency plans. Biden, too, is trying to dodge responsibility, as in his Aug. 16 speech in which he accused former president Donald Trump of looking on as the Taliban cemented its “strongest position militarily since 2001” during Trump’s term. A number of ranking officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, have reportedly been asked to resign or face dismissal.

Amid the mess, establishment elites are still vehemently hawking their propositions. In an article published in the Washington Post, Condoleezza Rice, the poster child of liberal internationalism, argued that “20 years was not enough to complete a journey from the seventh-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government” and that the U.S. “needed more time … for a core American presence.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead came to Biden’s defense, arguing: “Ending a war in a remote country of little intrinsic interest to the U.S. does not make America look weak,” and stopping the losses demonstrates “realism and wisdom.” Mike Pompeo, the notorious Trump-era lickspittle, warned in Foreign Policy that the U.S. setback in Afghanistan may be exploited by China.

“To show the United States means what it says, some significant portion of the troops that had been in Afghanistan should actually be redeployed to the Pacific,” he said.

However, all the recent shock, lamentation, retrospection and defensiveness have hardly touched the root of the problem. The Afghan war has always been unwinnable, no matter which administration or which U.S. president was in office. Nor does it come down to mere policy implementation. The war should have inspired in-depth strategic deliberation and integrated divergent opinions in U.S. political circles over such key topics as whether and how to use force, promote democracy, conduct intervention and strengthen alliances. Focusing on tactical mistakes will only result in the U.S. missing yet another opportunity for learning lessons and making policy adjustments and changes.

At least three lessons should be learned:

First, this is the failure of an anti-terror strategy obsessed with force. Through four presidents of both major American political parties, Republican and Democrat, the Afghan war — which was launched in the name of fighting terrorism — rapidly expanded into a testing ground for nation-building and democratizing the Middle East. It was associated with regional geopolitics and U.S. hegemony.

Facts have shown that the U.S. approach, which disregards other countries’ need for survival and development, enshrines military intervention and continuously expands the scale of war, has failed. The United States has put itself in a self-inflicted dilemma: leave, and be seen as a coward that abandoned its responsibility; or stay, and be seen as a warmonger engaged in constant combat.

Second, the pullout shows the failure of U.S.-style democratization. Americans often take the origin of U.S. politics as an experiment — for instance, North America offered an incomparable experimental environment for U.S. political culture and practice. That led the U.S., intentionally or unintentionally, to view other countries the same way — as experimental laboratories for U.S.-style democracy — believing it can shape the world in its image.

Yet, as Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, once said, one cannot afford to allow others to experiment on one’s own society because the consequences will be unbearable if that experiment fails. American decision-makers lack the willingness to understand other societies, let alone respect them. Afghanistan is just one example in point. This is the great failure of American political culture.

Third, U.S. diplomacy is suffering an enormous trust deficit. This is not the first time the U.S. has abandoned allies who had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with it. In the fall of 2019, the Kurds in northern Syria became the sacrificial lambs as U.S.-Turkey tensions eased. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad all had intimate relations with the U.S. but ended up as enemies. In the same way Donald Trump treated European allies, Biden went his own way in the Afghan drawdown, deciding not only to follow through with Trump’s negotiated pullout deal with the Taliban but also forcing NATO allies to withdraw in accordance with a U.S.-provided framework.

Most allies will have a better understanding of “America goes back” rather than “America is back,” and come to the realization that they will have to rely more on themselves. Britain, for example, which has suffered casualties second only to the U.S. in Afghanistan, is unnerved. Germany is worried about the prospect of large swarms of refugees coming in the run-up to its elections. These will leave marks that will show up when the U.S.  and European Union put on another show of solidarity in future.

Ultimately, the U.S. domestic debate over Afghanistan shows that the traditional thoughts of liberal internationalism and neo-conservatism in American diplomacy are both at low ebb, and the latest idea of “a foreign policy for the middle class” will have more difficulty gaining traction.

As the debate has swirled into the vortex of a partisan standoff, it is appropriate to say that Biden faces serious political challenges at the end of the honeymoon period of his presidency, not so much that he faces difficult choices in deep, strategic thinking. Such recent topics as his plummeting approval ratings, a fourth wave of the pandemic, inflation and southern border security — all added to “losing Afghanistan” — will be a potential Achilles’ heel in the midterm elections of 2022. 

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