BY SADAMASA OUE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
The fall of Kabul came gradually, then suddenly.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all American combat troops from Afghanistan brought about the collapse of the Afghan government, the overpowering of the 300,000-strong national army hit by the Taliban’s surprise attack, and regional and global geopolitical shifts.
The world was shocked by the chaotic footage of a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane packed with evacuees taking off as civilians clung on, with some falling off midair.
Furthermore, the fact that Biden’s defiant move lacked consideration for the human rights of Afghan citizens and international allies — including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Australia — that fought along with Washington, gives a strong impression that the U.S. is embracing unilateralism and prioritizing national interests.
It is prompting many to have doubts even over Biden’s argument that the exit from Afghanistan was in Washington’s strategic interests as it shifts its focus to threats from China.
China trumpeted the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a failure of a 20-year-long attempt to force the United States’ democratic model on others and a blow for its credibility and hegemony.
In an Aug. 16 editorial, China’s Global Times warned of the implications the U.S. move could have on Taiwan.
“Washington just left despite the worsening situation in Kabul. Is this some kind of omen of Taiwan’s future fate?” it said.
An Aug. 18 editorial said: “We believe that as long as the mainland’s strength continues to grow, and as long as it prepares fully for military struggles and has a firm will to unify, then there is no doubt the U.S. is doomed to eventually abandon Taiwan.”
The situation in Afghanistan has huge implications for East Asia, as it substantially affects the future course of the U.S. rebalancing in the Indo-Pacific region, an issue closely linked to Japan’s national security.
In his remarks delivered to the people of the United States on Aug. 16, Biden justified his decision, saying, “Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.
“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said.
Other Western countries that faced the realities of the sudden U.S. exit, having had no prior consultation, pushed the U.S. to extend the deadline for the American troops’ departure to give them enough time to evacuate their nationals.
But the U.S. turned down the request, leading to disappointment and anger from those nations toward the Biden administration.
Biden, in an interview with ABC News, insisted there was a “fundamental difference” between Afghanistan and U.S. allies like Taiwan, South Korea and NATO.
“We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 (of the NATO charter) that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan,” he said.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump said, when in the role, that the U.S. needs to rebalance to Asia, but failed to put it into practice.
Now that the Biden administration is apparently putting America first, his remark will not sound convincing unless it is backed by actions.
There is more or less a consensus within the U.S. to end the nation’s longest war, having lasted nearly 20 years, and shift strategic focus to global competition with China.
The policy shift is welcome news for Japan as well, but the messy pullout from Afghanistan has placed a heavier burden on the U.S. and its military, already greatly damaged and worn out.
From now on, American politics will have to use much of its energy to respond to criticism and finger-pointing over inaccurate intelligence estimates, poor withdrawal plans and failure to nurture the Afghan National Army, as well as the change of mission in Afghanistan from elimination of terrorist hotbeds to democratic nation building.
These issues will become the agenda for the 2022 U.S. midterm elections and the 2024 U.S. presidential election, creating concerns that the country will be even more seriously divided on political lines.
Cost of war
In looking at the impact of the war in Afghanistan, we cannot simply compare it with the Vietnam War, in which some 50,000 American soldiers were killed. While Afghanistan brought a much lower casualty toll — 2,461 soldiers killed and 20,000 injured — two decades of operations saw the U.S. military seriously damaged.
Suicide attacks by the group known as Islamic State Khorasan Province outside the international airport in Kabul that struck crowds of people waiting to be evacuated might prompt other terrorist groups to resume their activities that had been suppressed.
Biden said that while the U.S. had ended its military involvement in Afghanistan’s civil wars, terrorist threats have metastasized well beyond Afghanistan. He said his country will continue its fight against such threats.
With the U.S. facing such a predicament, we should not be driving it into a new isolationism.
First and foremost, it is crucial to rebuild trust between the Biden administration and its allies that feel betrayed.
The U.S. should admit to its strategic failures, respond sincerely to criticism from its allies and like-minded countries, share with them the strategy to fight terrorism and rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, and discuss with them viable ways to allocate resources and divide roles.
It is also important to counter China, which is building self-confidence and boasting a narrative of the rising East and the declining West.
A summit meeting of democratic nations’ leaders, which Biden plans to host in December, should be an opportunity for democracies to strengthen alliances among themselves.
Japan, meanwhile, has been offering support for Afghanistan to democratize itself in a way different from Western nations.
Building on such assistance, Japan should continue working together with the global community to secure the safety of Afghans and foreign nationals in the country who are feeling endangered by the Taliban’s return to power. Protecting women’s rights and preventing the nation from becoming a terrorism hotbed are also important.
Moreover, Japan must take a leadership role in backing the U.S. — now worn out and with damaged credibility — and making sure it progresses on a path to rebalance to the Indo-Pacific.
First of all, Japan should urge the U.S. to return to the framework under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and strengthen its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
Trust in the U.S. can be recovered if it boosts antiterrorism assistance and infrastructure investments in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Biden should demonstrate strong commitment to the region in a summit meeting with the association’s leaders expected at the end of October.
Secondly, the “Quad” alliance of Japan, the U.S., Australia and India should be strengthened and expanded.
India is likely to be reviewing its strategy regarding the new Taliban government and Pakistan, as well as China, which is aiming to boost its influence over the two.
On Sept. 4, the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth paid its first port call to Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, as its carrier strike group conducted joint exercises with the Self-Defense Forces, as well as with vessels from the United States, the Netherlands and Canada.
France has also been stepping up its naval operational activities in the Indo-Pacific region in recent months, and Germany deployed its frigate Bayern in August on a mission in the region.
If such involvement by European countries is integrated into the Quad framework, it will work more effectively to deter China.
Japan has an integral role in the region, being able to provide ports of call and logistics support. It is necessary for Japan to work with countries such as the U.K. and Australia to sign reciprocal access agreements that would facilitate joint military exercises and strengthen interoperability.
Thirdly, the Japan-U.S. alliance must be strengthened in all areas.
The Cabinet to be formed by the new prime minister should put into shape various joint activities with the U.S. not only in the area of defense — including reviewing the guidelines for defense cooperation at the “two-plus-two” meeting of foreign and defense ministers slated in the end of this year — but also through utilizing geoeconomic tools, as well as information warfare and cognitive warfare aimed at changing ideologies, like the ones waged by China against Taiwan.
Lastly, Japan needs to boost its own defense capabilities and the ability to respond to crises.
On Aug. 23, the government decided to dispatch SDF aircraft to Afghanistan to evacuate Japanese nationals and local staff working for the Japanese Embassy and international organizations in the country.
In 2003, when I was serving as section chief of the Air Staff Office’s Defense Planning and Policy Department, I was engaged in the overseas dispatch of C-130 transport aircraft to help carry relief goods to Iraq under a special law on humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in the country.
At that time, we were busy arranging last-minute preparations, such as acquiring self-defense equipment — armor plate and bubble windows for surveillance of portable surface-to-air missiles — for aircraft that would be dispatched, as well as changing the aircraft coatings and conducting training for pilots on how to land while avoiding risks of being shot.
This time, the dispatch went much more quickly. One C-2 transport aircraft carrying SDF personnel left Japan before dawn on Aug. 24, followed by two C-130 planes that departed at night the same day to transport evacuees out of Afghanistan.
There was room for improvement in the mission, including the need to train Ground Self-Defense Force personnel on transporting evacuees to airports — an operation they have never experienced before — and to upgrade the self-defense capabilities of the government plane which was also dispatched. But the SDF is definitely acquiring the ability to respond by gaining on-site experience.
Meanwhile, the government faced various legal and analytical challenges while responding to the crisis and making decisions quickly.
China is said to have convened a national security meeting on the Afghan situation as early as mid-June, after Biden announced in April that the drawdown of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be completed by September.
At the meeting, the Chinese government appears to have decided on specific measures to evacuate Chinese nationals from the country, facilitate peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and conduct military drills to protect against terrorist activities.
Based on the policies, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing dispatched its first chartered flight on July 7 to evacuate nationals who wished to return to their home country and mostly completed the mission by the end of July, according to Shen Caibin, head of the Chinese Business Research Institute.
South Korea managed to evacuate all of its nationals as well as 391 Afghans — people who worked at South Korean institutions and their family members — by Aug. 25, a day before the terrorist bombings at the airport in Kabul.
It is always the case in crises that a moment’s delay in making judgments could lead to unfavorable results.
Clear strategic goals
Japan should be prepared at all times so that the government as a whole has a high ability to respond to crises, not only to secure the safety of Japanese nationals overseas but also to cope with even more difficult situations, including possible contingencies relating to the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula or the Senkaku Islands.
Having the determination and capabilities to protect itself and its people is a prerequisite for Japan to make the U.S. achieve its commitments in the region.
Tactical failures will not cause significant damage as long as there is a clear strategic goal.
On the other hand, if a strategic goal is vague, tactical victory will become pointless.
Biden’s strategic goal in ending the war in Afghanistan is to rebalance to competition with China.
The U.S. may have failed in its operation to withdraw from Afghanistan. But it is indispensable for the U.S. to overcome this with cooperation from its allies who share the strategic goal of countering China.
Japan should stand at the forefront of this cooperation.
Sadamasa Oue is a senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo, and a former Air Self-Defense Force lieutenant general. API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.