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Afghanistan Hasn’t Damaged U.S. Credibility

The withdrawal has been tragic—but it hasn’t been a strategic disaster.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. Marines raise an American flag
U.S. Marines raise an American flag over their base in the Farah Province, southern Afghanistan, on Oct. 6, 2009. DAVID FURST/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

As predictable as the sunrise, a chorus of reflexive hard-liners, opportunistic foreign adversaries, and even some usually sensible commentators have concluded that U.S. credibility has been damaged or destroyed by the debacle in Afghanistan. Uber-hawk Bret Stephens of the New York Times is now convinced that “every ally — Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Israel, Japan — will draw the lesson that it is on its own.” In an overt attempt to undermine Taiwanese morale, the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times agrees with Stephens and warns Taiwan’s leaders that the U.S. military won’t fight if Beijing were to attack, implying the fall of Kabul is an “omen of Taiwan’s future fate.” Even the usually sober-minded Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times believes Biden’s credibility has been “shredded” and that the disaster in Afghanistan “fits perfectly” with the claim that “American security guarantees cannot be relied upon.”

Stephens is probably beyond redemption at this point, and the Global Times is a propaganda rag whose views should be discounted, but everyone else needs to take a deep breath and relax. In fact, there are ample reasons to believe that the tragic outcome in Afghanistan will not affect U.S. credibility very much and maybe not at all.

The first reason is simple logic. Deciding not to continue a futile war for less-than-vital interests tells you absolutely nothing about whether a great power would fight if more serious interests were at stake. No one would conclude that withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years, 2,500 Americans dead, and more than $1 trillion spent implies that the United States would not fight fiercely to defend Alaska, Hawaii, or Florida. Nor should any serious person conclude the United States would not fight to prevent China from establishing hegemony in Asia or to thwart a (highly unlikely) Russian assault on NATO. The reason is simple: In each of these instances, we are talking about vital interests that could affect U.S. security in profoundly significant ways.

As predictable as the sunrise, a chorus of reflexive hard-liners, opportunistic foreign adversaries, and even some usually sensible commentators have concluded that U.S. credibility has been damaged or destroyed by the debacle in Afghanistan. Uber-hawk Bret Stephens of the New York Times is now convinced that “every ally — Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Israel, Japan — will draw the lesson that it is on its own.” In an overt attempt to undermine Taiwanese morale, the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times agrees with Stephens and warns Taiwan’s leaders that the U.S. military won’t fight if Beijing were to attack, implying the fall of Kabul is an “omen of Taiwan’s future fate.” Even the usually sober-minded Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times believes Biden’s credibility has been “shredded” and that the disaster in Afghanistan “fits perfectly” with the claim that “American security guarantees cannot be relied upon.”

Stephens is probably beyond redemption at this point, and the Global Times is a propaganda rag whose views should be discounted, but everyone else needs to take a deep breath and relax. In fact, there are ample reasons to believe that the tragic outcome in Afghanistan will not affect U.S. credibility very much and maybe not at all.

The first reason is simple logic. Deciding not to continue a futile war for less-than-vital interests tells you absolutely nothing about whether a great power would fight if more serious interests were at stake. No one would conclude that withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years, 2,500 Americans dead, and more than $1 trillion spent implies that the United States would not fight fiercely to defend Alaska, Hawaii, or Florida. Nor should any serious person conclude the United States would not fight to prevent China from establishing hegemony in Asia or to thwart a (highly unlikely) Russian assault on NATO. The reason is simple: In each of these instances, we are talking about vital interests that could affect U.S. security in profoundly significant ways.

Moreover, by eliminating a long-term drain on U.S. resources (even a minimal U.S. presence in Afghanistan was costing more than $40 billion a year), getting out of Afghanistan will allow the United States to focus time, money, and attention on bigger priorities. America’s ability to defend other interests and the attention it can devote to them will increase, making its remaining commitments more credible rather than less. As George F. Kennan said in the context of Vietnam, “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

History offers a second source of reassurance. The United States suffered an equally humiliating defeat in Vietnam, after losing more than 50,000 troops. Yet the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent fall of Saigon did not cause NATO to collapse, did not lead U.S. allies in Asia to realign with the Soviet Union or China, and did not inspire America’s various Middle East client states to run for the exits. Kennan was right: Ending that war allowed the U.S. military to undertake a much-needed rebuilding of its conventional forces—especially in Europe, which had been neglected during the Vietnam era—and 14 years later, it was the Soviet Union that ended up in the dustbin of history. Yes, dominos did fall but mostly in Eastern Europe.

One could say much the same thing about lesser setbacks, such as the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the U.S. disengagement from Lebanon in 1984, the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia in 1994, or the failed U.S. occupation of Iraq. These events did have serious negative consequences, but none of them led other states to conclude that the United States was no longer a formidable power whose support was an asset to be sought and valued.

And the United States is hardly the only example. Great Britain was long derided by European statesmen as “perfidious Albion” because it made and broke alliances as its interests required, but that didn’t prevent other states from allying with London when they needed its help and it was in Britain’s interest to provide it. Governments of all kinds know that commitments are most credible when they reflect powerful common interests and that blind loyalty rarely determines what major powers will do.

Third, one should take foreign complaints about U.S. credibility with many grains of salt. Elites in countries who have become dependent on U.S. protection have a long history of questioning America’s reliability in an all-too-transparent attempt to get Washington to do more on their behalf. Every time Uncle Sam fails to achieve some foreign-policy objective or decides not to pour more resources into a losing proposition, you can bet that some ally somewhere will pop up and declare that they just aren’t sure they can trust the United States anymore. In most cases, Washington responds by sending them more weapons or by having top officials fly in to hold their hands and offer up additional pledges of support. If we really are as smart as we think we are, we ought to be on to this game by now.

To be fair, both the long war in Afghanistan and its tragic denouement could have a negative impact on America’s reputation, but the reliability of its commitments isn’t the real issue. Bear in mind that the United States didn’t cut and run in 2006 or 2009 or 2011 or even 2017, even when many of its partners there were heading for the exits. As I have arguedbefore, a key element of America’s global influence is a reputation for competence and good judgment, including a hardheaded ability to read a situation, make tough choices, select realistic objectives, and then carry out a well-designed strategy. What just happened in Afghanistan casts doubt on whether the U.S. foreign-policy establishment is still capable of these tasks, but doubts on that score have been growing for more than two decades. The proper lesson is not that the United States ought to fight more stupid wars for the sake of so-called credibility but that it needs to start holding those responsible for these repeated errors accountable and try to figure out why they keep making the same mistakes.

All this is not to say that some countries shouldn’t be worried by what just went down in Afghanistan. Who should worry most? If you’re a wealthy U.S. ally that has long neglected your own defenses and become overly dependent on U.S. protection, you might want to reconsider the wisdom of that approach. If you’re an incompetent, illegitimate leader and your government is riddled with corruption, you may want to reflect on the fate of Ashraf Ghani. And if you are a rising but still weaker great power that has benefited enormously from America’s two-decade quagmire in Afghanistan, you might worry a bit about whether America is gradually coming to its senses and less likely to shoot itself in the foot in the future. But if you are a reasonably strong ally that is doing its fair share to defend itself and whose security is important to preserving the balance of power in Asia, I think you’ll be fine.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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