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Kabul Shock

Sep 07, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The Taliban’s startlingly rapid takeover of Afghanistan and the capture of the capital has triggered a case of Kabul shock among U.S. allies.

In Britain, which has always prided itself on its special relationship with the United States, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was attacked by both political wings. The opposition accused the U.S. of betrayal, while members of the ruling party said the withdrawal was shameful. Johnson could only respond by citing the absence of terror attacks in the West over the last 20 years to justify participation with the United States in Afghanistan.

Germany has been critical of the U.S. for withdrawing without consulting NATO allies. The Japanese media, for its part, questioned the reliability of the U.S. alliance and began to hint at strengthening its own defense capabilities and resolve.

But while America’s allies are understandably critical, it is not fair to aim that criticism in only one direction. The so-called Kabul shock actually reflects the plight of U.S. allies who have long lacked the ability to think strategically and autonomously.

First, those allies should have understood that U.S. reliance on military force to conduct the global war on terror is economically unsustainable and politically illegitimate. But the cognitive framework of alliance supremacy short-circuits their ability to make independent judgments.

The U.S. has reportedly spent as much as $300 million a day on the war in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, an unsustainable level. Legitimacy has simply gone missing in the whole concept of relying on military power to construct a democratic Afghanistan by propping up pro-Western governments and armies. In essence, the Afghan problem is a continuation of the postwar anti-colonial movement in pursuit of national independence and cannot be solved with counterterrorism and democratic transplants.

Why didn’t U.S. allies offer their own analyses, timely reminders and warnings to develop an early and sustainable exit plan? Instead, they followed the U.S. lead in continuing 20 years of military action. What is the long-term value to the United States of allies that lack an autonomous strategic perspective?

Second, the so-called Kabul shock is actually a false proposition, as the historic Nixon shock and Vietnam shock are both reflections of a lack of strategic autonomy on the part of allies. Japan faithfully followed the U.S. in the 1970s to prevent China from regaining its rightful seat at the United Nations, but the Nixon administration was already secretly planning to establish diplomatic relations with China. When news broke of the visits to China, first by Henry Kissinger and then by Richard Nixon, Japan called the unilateral change in U.S. policy toward China — which lacked prior consultation with Japan — “Nixon shock.” And the repercussions continue to this day.

But according to some U.S. strategists, it was not a shock at all but rather a failure of Japan to anticipate such a possibility. Similarly, U.S. allies who fought in Vietnam because of shared values experienced Vietnam shock when U.S. forces withdrew from Saigon.

However, the prolonged U.S. blockade to contain China and its armed intervention in Vietnam’s war of national unity and liberation — as a necessity for the global war against communism — defied historical trends and was unsustainable.

Why have U.S. allies been willing to follow the U.S. blindly, setting aside their own judgment and analysis in the belief of supposedly maintaining the stability of the international order in the free world?

Third, the unilateral U.S. strategic changes make allies restless and confused, yet the long-standing inertia of following the U.S. strategy renders them powerless. As a result, the thinking that nothing can be done without relying on U.S. strategy is further strengthened, and strategic autonomy is never achieved.

According to reports, Britain and some other NATO member countries discussed the continued presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The number of foreign troops stationed there in the past 20 years peaked at 130,000, with U.S. forces at about 90,000. In other words, allied forces are largely unable to complete military operations without U.S. troops.

Similarly, there is a U.S.-led pattern of aid to Afghanistan with allies’ cooperation. For example, Japan hosted the Afghanistan Recovery and Reconstruction Conference in Tokyo in early 2002; it also invested a total of 700 billion yen to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. But at that time the leading supporter of Afghanistan the United States. In other words, the Western world’s subconscious inability to build cohesion without U.S. leadership has, to some extent, caused allies to reluctantly abandon efforts to think about the possibility and necessity of strategic autonomy.

Perhaps because of this predicament, when the EU proposed a paper on strategic autonomy in 2016, some in the U.S. argued that the perceived security threats to NATO member states in Europe were not consistent and that the United States leaving would not unite them but rather would lead to the disintegration of the European security architecture. This also shows the U.S. confidence that its allies cannot be separated from the mother ship.

The term “Kabul shock” is ostensibly a criticism of the United States, but in essence it is a reflection of the plight of U.S. allies in their lack of strategic autonomy. It remains to be seen whether the failure of the war in Afghanistan will be an opportunity for these countries to change this, but at least their people will have more reservations about whether to immediately express support for U.S.-initiated international actions in the future.

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