By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
The events of the past few days, culminating with the fall of Kabul to the hands of the Taliban after they swiftly took over most of the country, has been front-page news all over the world. There is much to say about what has transpired in the past few weeks, with consideration to the war in Afghanistan that has cost the lives of so many servicemembers and trillions of dollars. One point that has been on my mind has to do with how events such as the fall of Kabul have affected how the U.S. is now perceived around all over the world.
In discussing Kabul, many pundits mentioned the fall of Saigon. For many readers, Vietnam is something they heard of or saw on T.V., but the pictures of the fall of Saigon and the desperate attempts of so many South Vietnamese to board evacuation flights from the American embassy are infamous.
They tell a tragic story of an American foreign policy debacle that cost lives and resources for a notion of deterrence that was based on very little foundation. The results of the collapse of South Vietnam were numerous.
First and foremost, American military dominance took a blow. South Vietnam taught the U.S. military a sharp lesson in humility – the strongest military in the world and the strongest country the world ever saw.
South Vietnam also taught the U.S. that conventional armies can be effectively caught up in guerrilla warfare in a way that had serious political consequences. Primarily, the U.S. lost the war in South Vietnam not because of a lack of military capabilities, but because the home front was not willing to support it and did not expect to pay the high costs involved in such a war.
My favorite contemporary military historian, Yagil Henkin, published an article that aptly shows that there are several examples of this model in the modern period. Vietnam is simply one of many wars.
But this is exactly what makes the Kabul story so frustrating. It’s true that there was no clear exit strategy from Afghanistan, but there was also no strong political pressure to leave hastily and allow Afghanistan’s government to collapse.
The Agreement to Leave Afghanistan
The Trump administration made an agreement with the Taliban to leave Afghanistan, which was a big reason for the push for the speedy withdrawal of American troops. But as Fredrick Kagan, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow wrote in a New York Times op-ed on August 13, a responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan needed more time and better preparation.
Kagan noted, “As U.S. military planners well know, the Afghan war has a seasonal pattern. The Taliban leadership retreats to bases, largely in Pakistan, every winter and then launches the group’s fighting season campaign in the spring, moving into high gear in the summer after the poppy harvest. At the very least, the United States should have continued to support the Afghans through this period to help them blunt the Taliban’s latest offensive and buy time to plan for a future devoid of American military assistance.
“American diplomats could have used this time to negotiate access to regional bases from which to continue counterterrorism operations. Simultaneously, the American military should have prepared contingencies in case those negotiations failed. And even that plan would have meant contending with an increasingly brazen Taliban.”
What Will Happen Now?
We already know that the world is watching what is happening in Afghanistan, and they are learning lessons about the U.S. Countries worldwide have seen that yet again, an American experiment in nation-building has failed, and they also see a pattern of failure for U.S. allies.
The problem is that Al-Qaida and ISIS will use this situation to proclaim a victory against the U.S. The fact that the Afghan army did not put up resistance also requires analysis. It shows that something completely failed in U.S. efforts for the past 20 years, but it also sends a message that organizations like the Taliban need to focus on long-term goals. For them, patience is not only a virtue but also an effective strategy in warfare.
This lesson will not go unnoticed by other Islamic terrorist organizations like ISIS. As a first example, Hamas released a statement yesterday, welcoming “the defeat of the American occupation on all Afghan land” and praised what it said was the Taliban’s “courageous leadership on this victory, which was the culmination of its long struggle over the past 20 years.”
At this point, it does not matter if the agreement the U.S. reached with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, last year was a good idea or not. The U.S. can not afford a show of weakness anymore. Our foreign policy will need to reflect American strength, because in world politics, an image of weakness invites many unfavorable developments.
Nobody will be surprised if the U.S. will be further tested after Kabul. It remains to be seen where and when, but whoever will attempt to test America in the future needs to meet an unparalleled resolve from the U.S. Other countries or terrorist organizations will need to understand that what happened in Kabul was not the norm for the U.S.
The world is seeing these events as a transformation of the U.S. and for a good reason. After the Cold War, the neo-conservatives called for a greater use of American political, economic or military power to democratize other nations.
Since the days of the Obama administration, there has been a process of American convergence with other nations. That is a legitimate choice, but everything has to be done in a modern-day context. Isolationism might have worked in the 19th century, but it won’t work in the 21st century with an American economy that needs resources from all over the world and a global market that requires protection and attention.