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Taiwan Isn’t Afghanistan, Whatever Beijing Says

The fall of Kabul is a crisis of competence, not credibility, for U.S. power in Asia.

By , a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer.
An air crew prepares an evacuation flight out of Kabul.
In this handout provided by the U.S. Air Force, an air crew prepares to load evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the Afghan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 21. Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s heartbreaking collapse is being co-opted and weaponized by partisan actors, inexpert journalists, and Chinese propagandists to cast doubt on Washington’s commitment to its allies and partners, particularly in the case of Taiwan. “After the fall of the Kabul regime, the Taiwan authorities must be trembling,” tweeted Global Times editor in chief Hu Xijin. “Don’t look forward to the U.S. to protect them. Taipei officials need to quietly mail-order a Five-Star Red Flag from the Chinese mainland. It will be useful one day when they surrender to the PLA.”

But this argument rests on a series of flawed assumptions, most of which seem to have roots in either a glaring lack of knowledge or in nefarious intent. U.S. commitments to its friends in Asia are not analogous to the long-running Afghan counterinsurgency effort, and its long-telegraphed departure from Afghanistan offers little in terms of predictive value for the future of its alliances in Asia. U.S. alliances survived the fall of Saigon, a war near the same length as the conflict in Afghanistan that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and nearly a trillion dollars when adjusted for inflation. Academic literature suggests the colloquial definition of “credibility” itself is a complex concept in international relations, a suggestion certainly borne out of the countless tweets and op-eds this week conflating issues of credibility, reputation, interdependence, and competence with wild abandon.

But the current administration’s obvious failures to properly plan and execute the withdrawal calls its competence into question. Although Washington’s Asian commitments are unconnected to this withdrawal, allies might be understandably concerned regarding this administration’s ability to plan and execute a realistic strategy. What may ensue, then, is more a crisis of competence than of credibility.

Afghanistan’s heartbreaking collapse is being co-opted and weaponized by partisan actors, inexpert journalists, and Chinese propagandists to cast doubt on Washington’s commitment to its allies and partners, particularly in the case of Taiwan. “After the fall of the Kabul regime, the Taiwan authorities must be trembling,” tweeted Global Times editor in chief Hu Xijin. “Don’t look forward to the U.S. to protect them. Taipei officials need to quietly mail-order a Five-Star Red Flag from the Chinese mainland. It will be useful one day when they surrender to the PLA.”

But this argument rests on a series of flawed assumptions, most of which seem to have roots in either a glaring lack of knowledge or in nefarious intent. U.S. commitments to its friends in Asia are not analogous to the long-running Afghan counterinsurgency effort, and its long-telegraphed departure from Afghanistan offers little in terms of predictive value for the future of its alliances in Asia. U.S. alliances survived the fall of Saigon, a war near the same length as the conflict in Afghanistan that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Americans and nearly a trillion dollars when adjusted for inflation. Academic literature suggests the colloquial definition of “credibility” itself is a complex concept in international relations, a suggestion certainly borne out of the countless tweets and op-eds this week conflating issues of credibility, reputation, interdependence, and competence with wild abandon.

But the current administration’s obvious failures to properly plan and execute the withdrawal calls its competence into question. Although Washington’s Asian commitments are unconnected to this withdrawal, allies might be understandably concerned regarding this administration’s ability to plan and execute a realistic strategy. What may ensue, then, is more a crisis of competence than of credibility.

Context matters in foreign relations. National strategic priorities within the United States, rivalries with other great powers, economics, history, and commitments all matter. Public opinion matters too, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s move to extract the United States from Afghanistan reflects bipartisan voter sentiment. Conversely, polling data indicates Americans are willing to incur significant risk to defend Taiwan from China, and U.S. public support for military action to defend Taiwan is at a historic high.

The United States and Taiwan have deep ties rooted in the Chinese Civil War’s aftermath. After several decades of a formal alliance, which saw thousands of U.S. troops based in Taiwan as well as deployments of the U.S. Seventh Fleet to the waters off China’s coastline, relations were redefined with the signing of the 1979 U.S.-PRC Joint Communique and Taiwan Relations Act. U.S. commitment to assist Taiwan in building a credible defensive capability as well as maintaining U.S. capability to defend Taiwan against military and nonmilitary threats is enshrined within the Taiwan Relations Act, which enjoys broad bipartisan support in Washington. This is a far cry from the two decades of nation building in Afghanistan, which, despite the partisan squabble playing out in the media, presidents of both parties have sought to end.

Taiwan’s security matters to U.S. Asian allies and is the target of Washington’s greatest challenger: China. Japan, arguably the United States’ most important ally and home to the largest concentration of U.S. forces in Asia, is Taiwan’s neighbor, with only a short distance separating its islands from Taiwan’s coast. Japanese government officials and former leaders have publicly expressed that subjugation of Taiwan could represent an existential threat to Japan, and Taipei simply cannot be condemned to absorption in the same fashion Hong Kong was. Ensuring an expansionist, ethnonationalist government is prevented from crushing Taiwan and further tipping the balance of power in Asia is not equivalent to a never-ending military commitment attempting to deny safe haven to potential terrorists.

Bluntly put, allowing China to take Taiwan is not the same as allowing the Taliban to have Afghanistan. Most informed observers of the situation in Afghanistan are unified in the belief that the status quo was untenable, the Taliban’s power and influence were growing in spite of the small U.S. footprint in the country, and the Afghan government was losing ground.

Demands that Washington maintains an eternal presence in Afghanistan in the interests of ill-defined competition with China verge on fantasy. Afghanistan’s border with China is an imperial remnant, a mere 46 miles long with some of the most inhospitable terrain. Talk of Beijing’s economic windfall in Afghanistan is also overblown; Beijing’s likely relations with a Taliban-led government and an unstable state will be cautious at best. If Chinese investment didn’t pour into Afghanistan during the last two decades of relative security, it’s hard to imagine a gold rush beginning under the Taliban.

Taiwan, in contrast, is a well-established liberal democracy that has seen numerous peaceful transfers of power, not a nation-building mission. Comparing support for a peaceful, legitimate, economically advanced, and self-governing democracy against an external threat with years of bloody counterinsurgency and assistance to a corrupt, kleptocratic system rife with human rights abuses defies logic.

But ill-informed U.S. claims about credibility were immediately seized on and amplified by Beijing’s propaganda apparatus. The ultra-nationalist Global Times is publishing op-eds, more than one a day, proclaiming Taipei’s likely abandonment by Washington in the event of a Chinese invasion. Statements like “Afghanistan is not the first place where the U.S. abandoned its allies, nor will it be the last” are blows aimed at Taiwan’s will to defy China’s intensifying pressure campaign.

It might be more instructive for the Chinese Communist Party to recall that in 2001, it only took the United States and its allies three months to drive the Taliban from their seat of power and into hiding in Pakistan. Then, for two decades, U.S. forces funded, trained, and fought alongside Afghans against the Taliban. If 20 years of investment and fighting is not commitment, it is hard to know what would be. The manner in which the U.S. withdrawal and the preceding negotiations with the Taliban were executed undeniably opened the door for this effort to undermine U.S. alliances in Asia, but attempts to apply it to Taiwan are wildly specious.

Specious as it may be, this debate is happening, and it may have effects—however limited. Beijing, as well as members of Taiwan’s Kuomintang (or Chinese Nationalist Party), are opportunistically using the Afghan withdrawal to cast doubts on U.S. reliability. It will doubtlessly feature in Beijing’s ongoing influence campaigns designed to create wedges between the Washington and its allies. So, whether it is credible or not, it cannot be entirely dismissed, as seen with Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, who has already responded directly to questions about Taiwan.

There is also a risk Beijing begins to buy into its own propaganda, especially when it is echoed by influential U.S. voices. For decades, Beijing’s saber rattling was effectively cost free because its balance of power with the United States was so wildly skewed that initiating a military confrontation would have been suicidal. Therefore, Chinese anti-Taipei rhetoric was a cheap way to whip up domestic support and reinforce Chinese Communist Party bona fides without needing to back it up with action. Now, however, as the balance of power in Asia swings toward Beijing, there is a slim but very dangerous chance that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his government might actually convince themselves Washington can be safely counted on to sit on the sidelines in the event of a Taiwan invasion.

People’s Liberation Army Navy officers have publicly expressed the idea that Americans fear taking casualties and Washington could be cowed by an attack on its ships in the Pacific Ocean. The idea that Washington is a paper tiger, with insufficient will to contest a stiff challenge, has survived former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and still lurks within Chinese military thought. When the tweets of Republican congressmen are indistinguishable from Global Times headlines, it only feeds the impression that Taiwan is increasingly vulnerable and isolated.

All this said, the Biden administration will garner no laurels for the way it executed this withdrawal. For whatever reason, Biden’s government appears to have completely misread the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and is now scrambling to salvage both its reputation and coordinate a noncombatant evacuation operation from the back foot. Biden’s professed commitment to resolving the conflict before it could be passed to a new president is admirable, but the resultant humanitarian crisis is beyond shameful.

And lest the blame be laid only on Biden’s shoulders, there are few signs of contrition among the generation that kept U.S. forces engaged in decades of war with no identified end state and no accountability while obfuscating the clear lack of progress and support for successive regimes defined by their corruption. That goes for Biden’s three predecessors in office, generals, journalists, and academics as much or more than Biden himself. Twenty years of malpractice has ended in disaster and human suffering, and that cannot be minimized or forgotten.

So what does this crisis of competence mean for U.S. partners in Asia? Successive administrations have claimed to prioritize the region but remained tethered to the Middle East and Southwest Asia by lingering commitments in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Now, those strategic distractions are drawing to a close, with the hope the Indo-Pacific will receive increased attention. Although there is plenty of pundit-generated Sturm und Drang surrounding Washington’s alliances, it appears allies themselves view their own relationships as unrelated to Afghanistan. As put succinctly by one senior official in Tokyo, “Afghanistan is Afghanistan. … Japan is different.”

But although the United States’ Indo-Pacific commitments remain in place, doing the right thing and doing it well are not the same thing. Allies may yet be unnerved by the obvious disconnects between major moving parts of the U.S. government that are on display in Afghanistan. Leaders in Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere depend not just on U.S. security guarantees but on the United States’ ability to wield diplomatic and economic might in concert with defense. Washington’s ability to coherently manage its alliances is vital, and although some of the complaining from NATO capitals rings hollow considering their own conspicuous absence on the ground in Afghanistan, there are obviously some questions regarding how Biden’s team communicated its plans to execute this withdrawal.

Most importantly, partners rely on Washington to craft and execute well-planned policies that enhance their security and deter conflict. As Biden’s State and Defense Departments struggle to read from the same sheet of music, former members of the intelligence community weigh in to redirect blame, and the president himself appears unwilling to confront the extent of the unfolding disaster or even concede it could have been done better. External observers are surely unnerved by the chaos and apparent lack of planning, especially given the Biden team’s insistence his election meant a return to competent, stable leadership in Washington.

Taken in isolation, withdrawal from Afghanistan is not a crisis for U.S. power; but when viewed in the broader context of U.S. foreign policy, if this is the best “the adults” can do, U.S. allies may be wondering what the future holds. Years of bad policy and buck-passing led Washington to this point. Although responsibility for 20 years of failure cannot be laid at Biden’s feet, the responsibility to ensure and rebuild the U.S. reputation for competence is his—and the Afghan withdrawal has done nothing to help that.

Blake Herzinger is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Twitter: @BDHerzinger

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