US credibility with military allies at risk over Afghanistan pullout
The messy withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the subsequent scramble to protect civilians who aided the American war effort are triggering a ripple effect of concern among allies who rely on the United States for military protection.
The Pentagon has thousands of troops stationed in South Korea, Japan, Germany and elsewhere around the world. Asian allies in particular have indicated some concerns in recent days over whether the quick military exit from Afghanistan could one day happen in their countries.
Those concerns have been exacerbated in places such as Taiwan: Not only is there the looming threat of Chinese military action, but some now worry Beijing could be emboldened by the events in Afghanistan.
In a sign of how the anxiety has broken through, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan faced questions this past week about what the Afghanistan withdrawal means for Israel, South Korea and Taiwan. Reporters also questioned State Department officials about the potential fallout for U.S. allies and the possible decline in credibility.
President Biden and his top officials have been put on the defensive, emphasizing that the U.S. stands behind its commitments to allies while fielding questions from reporters about whether American national and political interests trump stability and security partnerships with foreign allies.
“I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world,” Biden said during a Friday press conference.
Sullivan, in a briefing with reporters two days earlier, argued that 20 years’ worth of commitment to Afghanistan, costing thousands of U.S. lives and billions of dollars, underscored America’s willingness to stand by its allies, but that it was eventually time for the Afghan people to “stand up for themselves.”
“We believe that our commitments to our allies and partners are sacrosanct and always have been,” Sullivan said. “We believe our commitment to Taiwan and to Israel remains as strong as it’s ever been.”
Such pronouncements by the administration — bluntly blaming Afghan security forces for the Taliban takeover — have elicited striking pushback in the United Kingdom (U.K.), arguably America’s closest ally and key partner over the two-decade war in Afghanistan.
“To see their commander in chief call into question the courage of men I fought with, to claim that they ran, is shameful,” Tom Tugendhat, the conservative chairman of the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said during a contentious session on Wednesday.
“Those who have not fought for the colors they fly should be careful about criticizing those who have,” he added.
State Department spokesman Ned Price, during a briefing with reporters at the State Department on Wednesday, appeared caught off guard when questioned on the remarks coming from U.K. officials, at first confusing criticism coming from British lawmakers at their government and not the U.S.
“I’m going to let the British government speak to their decisions when it comes to their presence on the ground,” Price said in response to reporters’ questions. “What I can say is that our coordination with the British government, with all of our NATO allies, has been consistent, it has been clear, and there has been a consensus on this.”
Still, the question of American commitments and credibility is particularly prescient for South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, where U.S. military partnerships are seen as a bulwark against China’s regional ambitions and the persistent nuclear threat from North Korea.
In a timely coincidence, the State Department on Friday announced that its special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, would travel to South Korea in the coming days to demonstrate close coordination between Washington and Seoul.
Such public statements of commitments and personal visits impact how allies view the U.S., and they need to be done regularly, said James Person, lecturer of Korea studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“I’ve spoken with folks in [the Defense Department] who tell you [that] this is the type of thing you have to do on a regular basis just to provide these reassurances. … It’s important every now and then to reaffirm, more than in the one-on-one meetings between diplomats and military officials, but just to more publicly demonstrate that continued commitment,” he said.
There is historical precedent for how a crisis in U.S. credibility can have real-world consequences, Person noted.
The withdrawal from Vietnam and the fall of Saigon had a direct impact on South Korea expressing its intent to develop a domestic nuclear weapons program — looking to prepare itself against the U.S. possibly abandoning it.
“The withdrawal from Vietnam demonstrated to the South Koreans that the U.S. was not a credible ally and that if push came to shove, they may actually betray the South Koreans as well,” Person said.
Some experts argue the influence of Afghanistan on its Asian allies is overstated.
Michael Green, who focused on Asian affairs during his time in the George W. Bush administration, said the way the evacuation of Afghanistan is unfolding, paired with an apparent lack of consultation among allies before it started, has likely “rattled” officials in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
But he noted the Biden administration has made clear that part of its rationale for getting out of Afghanistan was so it could focus on more pressing foreign policy issues such as China’s growing influence.
“The administration is focused like a laser on competition with China,” Green said, adding that the White House has staffed up on Asian affairs personnel compared to when he worked in the Bush White House.
The Biden administration has sought to separate U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific from the reality in Afghanistan, but the symbolism of the American military pullout is still likely to impact the calculation for American partners over whether they can trust the U.S. in the long run.
That message is almost sure to be reinforced with this week’s visit to Singapore and Vietnam by Vice President Harris, whose trip was previously scheduled and announced last month.
“I think most people … observing this understand the different challenges in different regions and, frankly, that there’s a difference between ensuring open sea lanes in Asia, which is a priority for the United States, and the continued involvement in another country’s civil war,” a senior administration official stressed in response to reporters’ questions about the optics of the vice president’s trip amid the turmoil in Afghanistan in a call held Thursday.
“So I think for all of those reasons we are confident that our partners throughout the Indo-Pacific see the United States as a steadfast partner,” the senior administration official added.