by Ben Friedman
Tuesday, 30
August 2022
Debate
16:27

No, Afghanistan did not hurt U.S. ‘credibility’

The Washington blob keeps peddling the same false narrative
by Ben Friedman
Credit: Getty

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:

I remain convinced that our chaotic and shameful withdrawal from Afghanistan enticed Putin to invade Ukraine, emboldened China to take more aggressive action against Taiwan, gave new life to rogue regimes like Iran, and put the radical Islamist terrorist regeneration effort on steroids.
- Lindsey Graham

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

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 month ago

When the Russians or the Chinese saw Biden’s woeful response and spineless lack of resolve, I struggle to understand why you wouldn’t think that it might embolden them to attack Ukraine, or annexe Taiwan, with impunity.
Optics really matter. If Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan had been seen to be orderly, well-managed and well-executed, it would give the impression that it was happening at the will of the sitting President, who has at his command an awesome military power that might return if the Taliban become another rogue Isis-like regime.
When the withdrawal was as disorderly, poorly managed and badly executed as we saw, then it gives the impression that the sitting president has panicked, that his military is in disarray – not only does that weaken America in the eyes of its superpower rivals it also acts as the best possible recruiting-sergeant for jihadists around the globe, who are emboldened to target US and Western interests because they perceive them as weak.
Military power, now that we are beyond the era of empire building, is mainly about deterrence.
Little about Biden’s panicky response would have deterred anyone. Indeed, in the case of Russia/Ukraine, it merely invited attack.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 month ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I agree, who is this writer and what does he really want? because I find this article to be absurd. ‘Defense Authorities’? who are they? Maybe Unherd can explain.

The weapons abandoned – that looks stupid too. The Trillions of $ in Afghani mineral wealth we did not even bother to set up for production so the Afghani people would have an industry is shocking.

When the Russians were in Afghanistan we should have just left them alone. They would have built roads, opened Mines, built dams for hydro – opened girls schools because they know half the population staying home instead of working means endless poverty….

If Russia had gotten it going the place would be an actual Nation now, like a Kazakhstan say…not great, but having an economy and some functioning state.

Instead the USA went in and spent 20 years trying to bring in Woke Feminism they did not want, and pretty much nothing else.

Now China has it – they will get the mines running, and plunder and debt diplomacy, and all kinds of stuff.

USA cannot win the Peace!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not since MacAthur. We let the NGO’s and stupid products of our hard Lefty Liberal Universities set the agenda for the peace, set the goals in country, set the processes, give them Billions and Billions – and none of them have ever held a job, all they want is to play Woke games with the nations they are given to ‘Fix’ – and they destroy the place, just like they are doing in USA.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I think it is important to draw a distinction between the US defence, military and intelligence and the US politicians. The first group are probably the best in the world at doing what they do – they can deploy massive force anywhere in the world at very short notice and certainly have the best equipment bar none. No other country is remotely close. The second group are quite different !
It might just be that the lack of a history of colonialism in the US (that is large scale colonisation of other countries – they had some small colonies, but nothing large scale) gives them a “cultural gap” which makes overseas adventures like Vietnam and Afghanistan much harder for them. I’m absolutely not arguing for colonialism here, just floating a thought that came into my head.
My own suspicion is that the American understanding of Europe is significantly better than it is for the Middle East, which is far too different from their mindset. US military failures all seem to have been in areas with very different cultures.
So I have some sympathy with the author’s view that failure in Afghanistan should not be seen as a lack of seriousness and commitment in general. If Putin drew that conclusion, then he clearly made yet another blunder.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

The Phillipines a small colony? You have probably upset many Filipinos by leaving them out.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Doug Pingel

I know – was aware when I wrote this and considered that. My point was that the external population and land area colonised by the US is much, much smaller than the US itself, whereas the European countries colonised areas (and often populations) much larger than they were. So the impact of colonisation on the behaviour and culture of the US must be correspondingly much smaller.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

It is not the supposed assurance of U.S. help that keeps European leaders from taking strategic autonomy too seriously. Western European societies will not defend themselves militarily in any circumstances. Neither would Japan, South Korea, or for that matter, Taiwan, who even now are spending barely 2% of GDP on defence. Like the US, Europeans will not even secure their own borders. The assurance of US military help, if that is thing, is neither here nor there. Any martial spirit has completely dissipated over two or three generations. Europeans today do not like or admire the US, and the withdrawal of US military support, which nobody has confidence in anyway, will not lead to a reassertion of European military power. That may be regrettable, but it is the reality.

Last edited 1 month ago by Stephen Walshe
JP Martin
JP Martin
1 month ago

The disordered and humiliating US withdrawal from Afghanistan clearly damaged American prestige. Most historians of decolonisation stress that each successful independence movement degraded the metropole’s aura of invincibility and thus encouraged similar efforts elsewhere. When the European empires came to be perceived as vulnerable, there were concrete consequences. Reputations matter. Of course, this is not the whole story but there is no need to acknowledge the other side of the argument if you can simply label those who disagree with you (in this case as “neoconservative”).

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 month ago

Not remotely persuaded by this argument, well-rehearsed though it certainly is.

It may very well depend mostly upon the optics as opposed to deep analysis of the strategic realities, but there can be no doubt that the chaos of the USA’s withdrawal last year has changed the reckoning of the many people who might risk their lives in future to collaborate with the USA and the West in general.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago

Not quite as bad as Bladensburg, but a good try none the less.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
1 month ago

The US departure from Afghanistan confirmed what was already evident in Iraq, Libya and Syria, The US is so self contained, and consequently self absorbed, that it has no comprenension of what is in the minds in the citizens in other countries. Accordingly things never turn out as they intend. They most certainy do not end up in nation building in the sense that the US regards its own nation. The rest of the world can reasonably expect that the US will be more reluctant, for a while, to commit troops overseas.
What was far more damaging was Biden’s declaration that he would not commit troops to the Ukraine – it was far more important to him to reassure his own electors than leave an uncertainty that could have deterred Putin. Bush at least responded to Putin’s advance in Georgia by declaring the US would send humanitarian aid.
What we can be certain of is that China will analyse what has happened and will invest accordingly. There we need to make a better fist of understanding the minds of the key political leaders, which failed to do with Russia. It is unseen diplomacy that is needed if we are to rebuild and improve harmony in the world

Su Mac
Su Mac
1 month ago

Even compared with the information given on his own website this article is idiotic.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 month ago

When I was just a kid in the USA, our President, John F. Kennedy, went to Berlin and spoke to those enthusiastic German citizens about the difference between a free country and a country under bondage.
He challenged the people of this world: “Let them come to Berlin!”
Let them come to Berlin to see, first hand, the difference between the western side of that great city, the free zone, as compared to east berlin, controlled by oppressively Soviet occupiers who were depending on a wall that they had built, a wall to keep East Berliners in their captivated territory.
“Ich bin ein Berliner!” he proclaimed to the Berliners, and to the world.
In other words, we are all, together, citizens of this world, and we are in a position of freedom and prosperity ought to reach out and lend a hand to oppressed people, and nations, to assist them in climbing, crawling or flying out of oppressive tyrannical regimes.. .
such as the Taliban.
We gave 20 years to that project, and that was enough.One important lesson in this life is: You can’t win ’em all. Resources do not permit infinite expeditions in foreign lands when there is still much work to be done at home.
My son in-law, a C17 pilot in the US AirForce, assisted by his highly competent crew, piloted the very first transport plane that landed in Kabul a year ago to carry our people and some Afghans out of that talibanated nation. As that C17 was approaching the Kabul airport, a crewman reported to his crew that the runway was “compromised.”
I’ll not go into the details. You many have heard reports, or seen photos, of what was happening at the Kabul airport on that fateful day.
But the pilot of that huge transport jet was required, in order to accomplish their mission while preserving and protecting human life, had to do maneuvers with that big air machine that he had never done before.
Later, that pilot and his crew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, by the US Air Force.
What happened at Kabul on that fateful day was not pleasant, not simple, not easy to perform, and indeed–not without death and suffering– especially later when terrorists set off an explosion at the gates of the airport.
But our guys accomplished the mission that had been laid upon them by our President and the citizens of our United States. It was a long time coming, but it had to be done. Read ’em and weep, all you GOP naysayers.
Like it or not, we are now free–and less-entangled than before that drawdown–free to come to the assistance of other persons or nations in other parts of the world who may require our assistance in resisting and defeating tyranny and oppressive regimes, whether under the radar or over it.
Let them, the nations, come to America! to see what a nation of free people can do to assist other citizens of the world who are seeking help.
Even so, Ask not what America can do for you, but what, together, we can do for the freedom of man.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 month ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

If you consider Afghanistan a success, I would hate to see what you call a failure.

Brett H
Brett H
1 month ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

“We gave 20 years to that project, and that was enough.One important lesson in this life is: You can’t win ’em all. Resources do not permit infinite expeditions in foreign lands when there is still much work to be done at home.”
You haven’t won anything in a long, long, time. This is no reflection on your son-in-law or the men he served with. But it is a reflection of the men they serve under. It’s difficult to know exactly what the world’s opinion of America is, there are so many different relationships or perspectives. It may be the sheer strength of the US military people admire, but I doubt it’s their foreign policy. Who could possibly trust them?

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

America hasn’t ‘won’ anything since Grenada. The military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned of however has achieved much for its stakeholders.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 month ago
Reply to  R Wright

I arrived, as Master of a small Vessel, shortly after “Grenada” and was assured by the Harbour Master that ‘half-a-dozen London Bobbies would have achieved the same objective in a shorter time’. Nothing against the USMC (sometimes referred to as Uncle Sams Misguided Children) just the politicians using the proverbial big stick before finding out what was really needed.

Last edited 1 month ago by Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 month ago
Reply to  LCarey Rowland

Why do you classify the GOP as naysayers – “Trumps” original plan was to use Baghram which would have worked well. I can only presume that it was a political decision to change the plan. Any military planner in their right mind would not choose an airfield who approaches were under ‘enemy’ control.