The United States just lost a 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Does that mean U.S. allies in Asia and Europe can no longer trust the American government to keep its promises? What about NATO, our involvement in South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere in the World? Has the U.S. lost its credibility?
The answer is “No” for several reasons.
1) The U.S. tends to get involved in conflicts all over the world where it has no real strategic interests. The Vietnam War was one such case. We fought that conflict from 1964-1975, in great part to show our allies that we would defend them, too, when they were in need. We based our involvement there upon “The Domino Theory”—a belief that arose out of the causes of World War II.
The thinking went, “if we allow South Vietnam to fall to the Communists, all of Southeast Asia will fall, too.” We spent our blood and treasure against a determined foe who understood the territory, its history and culture far better than we did. In hindsight, Southeast Asia did not collapse like dominos as we feared. In actuality, communism and the Domino Theory collapsed with the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. America emerged victorious as the only major superpower in the world.
2) Afghanistan diverted our attention from the growing threats of China and Russia. Now the problem lies with those countries having to deal with instability in their own backyards created by the Taliban takeover.
Instead of China taking advantage of our involvement in Afghanistan, it is now more concerned about the Muslims in South Asia thinking they can expand their religious wars into China. Xi Jinping has initiated ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang province where at least a million muslim Uighurs have been sent to concentration camps, and their women sterilized. This behavior does not please Muslims.
The U.S. has a series of alliances all over the world. We have them because we are trustable. These alliances are increasing as China bullies its neighbors in Indochina. China has no friends, only fearful, suspicious acquaintances. Being freed from Afghanistan will actually help us fulfill our strategic obligations against Xi Jinping and his dreams of world empire.
Russia has its own Muslim minorities to contend with. Muslim radicalism may destabilize the Muslim countries there. Russia will be forced to spend more time and effort to keep that from happening. The country is already struggling under sanctions against its occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Its economy is declining because petroleum is its only major source of cash. Putin’s people are getting restive with their growing poverty.
As Putin’s troubles multiply, American credibility increases in contrast. Remember, too, that the Soviet Union also was driven out of Afghanistan in humiliation. It has nothing to gloat about over America’s defeat.
3) Hopefully, Vietnam and Afghanistan have taught the U.S. some painful lessons. We are a young nation who, without our willing it, have become the greatest Empire the world has ever known. Our buffers of two major oceans and two weak neighbors, abundant resources, and representative form of government make us like a teenage youth. We suddenly grew out of childhood into an adult form but without the maturity and wisdom to know what to do about our strength. We have been easily diverted from that reality by these non-strategic wars. Sometimes, nations, like individuals, only learn when they fail.
Rather than bemoaning our failure in Afghanistan, be thankful that President Biden had the courage and foresight to pull the plug and to get on with the business of pursuing our strategic interests around the world. Afghanistan was a ball-and-chain around our leg. Thanks to the stubbornness of the Taliban, our chain has been broken.
Now is the time to mourn our losses, failures, and mistakes and get on with the business of being what we are capable of being—a force for good, for representative democracy, and for human rights.
The world can trust us more now to come to their aid, but only when our strategic interests are at stake. The question for all of us is, can we learn from Afghanistan, or will we again be pulled into senseless wars?