Exactly one year after the United States finally left Afghanistan, a common refrain in Washington is that the withdrawal damaged U.S. credibility. The manner, if not the fact, of the U.S. departure, according to a host of pundits, journalists, and political leaders, undermined confidence in U.S. global leadership. Allies, we’re told, worried they could not count on U.S. support; enemies were emboldened. Even Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February resulted from a whiff of U.S. weakness, according to some analysts — reportedly including President Biden’s own intelligence briefers.
This argument is backwards. In fact, since the withdrawal U.S. allies and partners have grown more eager to accept U.S. protection than before — indeed most remain overly dependent. New allies — Sweden and Finland — have crowded under the U.S. security umbrella, while Middle Eastern clients seek greater U.S. protection.
It’s fair enough to note that the United States abandoned their Afghan allies to be routed by the Taliban, creating the chaotic evacuation at Kabul’s airport. It was an ugly and tragic end. But it’s absurd to treat the end of a two-decade war as evidence of fickleness. And if there was a display of U.S. incompetence in Afghanistan, it was due to the stubborn attempt to prop up a rotten state — not in the liquidation of that unsound position.
Credibility to fight for allies, according to the key scholarship on the topic, results from your capability and interests to do so, not from what you do in dissimilar circumstances. So the U.S. didn’t need to fight in Vietnam to prove to the Soviets it would defend Germany, where its interests were far greater. Nor does deterring great power war turn on extending a foolish war in Afghanistan into its third decade.
But that didn’t stop the blob from bemoaning the damage caused to U.S. credibility, saying it would encourage enemies everywhere. Take neoconservative and WSJ board member Kimberley Strassel, who said that China’s increasing belligerence and Iran’s emboldened desire for nuclear capabilities ‘may be tied’ to the U.S. withdrawal. Or GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, who claimed:
Whether or the United States is actually prepared to fight for Taiwan, or even dubious treaty allies like Turkey or Montenegro is not a question Afghanistan helps answer. If it’s relevant at all, it is because it freed up forces and funds to devote elsewhere. Likewise, for all the speculation, there exists no evidence that Vladimir Putin saw something in Afghanistan that encouraged him to attack Ukraine in 2022, just as nothing about Syria or red lines evidently bore on Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. The reasons for Putin’s invasion can be hotly debated without resorting to wild domino theories about U.S. credibility. Remember, the United States never had any commitment to Ukraine, and no real interest in fighting.
U.S. allies certainly have not behaved as if the U.S. exit from Afghanistan was a scary wakeup call. If anything, the U.S. has too much credibility among its allies. It is so robust that it produces dangerous free-riding, as we see in Taiwan. And in Europe it the assurance of U.S. help that keeps leaders from taking their own talk about developing “strategic autonomy” too seriously.
The day may be coming where U.S. global leadership totters. But leaving Afghanistan, for better or worse, cannot be blamed for this.
Benjamin H. Friedman is Policy Director at Defense Priorities