The humiliation of the United States and the total collapse of Afghanistan will be a disaster for American power for years to come.
Many pundits have compared the current catastrophe in Afghanistan to the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. In quite a few respects, those commenters are not wrong, and the similarities are echoed by the images coming out of Kabul today. The photo above is eerily reminiscent of the famed images of a helicopter airlift from the US Embassy in Saigon and videos coming out of the Kabul airport are just as heartbreaking and terrifying as those from South Vietnam almost 50 years ago. Our precipitous withdrawal will lead to thousands of refugees, greater civil violence, and horrible human rights abuses by a totalitarian Islamic dictatorship that sees its mission as forcibly bringing jihad to the entire world.
But in some ways, this collapse is worse and could lead to an even greater debasement of American perception and power overseas. First off, Afghanistan’s collapse happened immediately, whereas the South Vietnamese government held out for years after US troops officially left the country. Part of that rapid collapse must be laid at the feet of the Afghan government and military, which have been corrupt and incompetent since the early days of American intervention. Another part of the blame falls on the American national security establishment, which seems to have utterly failed to prepare for the withdrawal that has been promised by political leaders for over a decade. Those political leaders, especially our current President, also shoulder a great deal of the blame for this complete shambles; the Biden team has consistently focused on weak-kneed messaging and whistling past the graveyard instead of actually doing contingency planning for the re-Taliban-ization of Afghanistan. As I’ve written before, I see this withdrawal as fundamentally flawed and counter to American national interests; but the way that this evacuation is happening and the total failure of the US to withdraw in an orderly manner has been the rotten cherry on top of a garbage sundae.
We left rapidly, with no military support on the ground for our diplomatic personnel and civilians, and our President seems to have thought that this would not embolden the Taliban to attack with gusto to fill the security vacuum we were leaving. The quotes from both Biden and his team have been staggering to read given the reality on the ground in Kabul, where former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled and our embassy has been closed down after burning sensitive documents. Here’s a taste of Biden’s comments, only made a month ago – in response to a question asking whether a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was inevitable, Biden answered “No, it is not.” He also said the following, which is honestly almost hard to believe in light of what’s happened since: “The Taliban is not the south – the North Vietnamese Army. They’re not – they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a embassy in the – of the United States in Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.” I would say that I’m shocked, but Joe Biden has been consistently wrong on nearly every foreign policy issue he’s ever touched; why would this be any different? Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not exactly covered himself in glory either, but his remarks in June to Congress look almost funny in hindsight; he said, in regards to Afghan allies applying for visas, that “Whatever happens in Afghanistan, if there is a significant deterioration in security…I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.” Reader, that is almost exactly what has happened. The Taliban has essentially taken the entire country over in a weekend. One during which our President is on vacation, no less. Absurd dereliction of duty all around.
Besides the horrors about to be visited on the Afghan people and the impact on the Americans who faithfully served their country for years in Afghanistan, there is another long-term concern that worries me deeply – the impact on our national prestige and how that impacts the risk-reward calculations of our geopolitical foes. After the embarrassment that was the fall of Saigon and the American lack of political resolve in the Vietnam War, our enemies were emboldened and violence that hurt our national interests rose. Less than 5 years after the fall of South Vietnam, hundreds of Americans were held captive by a budding theocracy in Tehran, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and American power seemed to be on the wane in the face of adversity. Our modern adversaries are taking very careful note of our epic display of weakness here, and the images and videos of our humiliation are being broadcast around the world via the Internet in a way that they never could be in 1975; there are budding jihadists across the globe who are watching the military success of their Afghan compatriots in real time and thinking, “Why can’t we do that here?” Still, the bigger worry is that the leaders – and the people – of our Great Power rivals are watching this just as intently. If Vladimir Putin saw President Obama’s weakness in Syria as license to take Crimea illegally (and he did), what will he be thinking today watching Obama’s Vice President display an even greater capacity for incompetence and capitulation? If I were a leader in Ukraine, Georgia, or the Baltics, I’d be looking to arm my country as quickly as possible. And Putin isn’t the only wolf licking his lips right now; Chinese dictator Xi Jinping is greedily eyeing Taiwan in the same way. China was already pressuring Taiwan in unprecedented fashion, and now they must be watching the US inability and unwillingness to support a long-term military mission and seeing an opportunity to act. The CCP has also already begun to co-opt the Taliban into its own version of global order with diplomatic recognition & Belt and Road funds. Lesser powers like Iran and North Korea are paying close attention as well, all of which will lead to further foreign crises in the coming years.
What happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay in Afghanistan, as we so painfully learned on a bright Tuesday morning almost 20 years ago. This debacle of a withdrawal will not only impact Afghanistan and open the door for more terrorist action against American assets and citizens, it will embolden our enemies throughout the world, cause destabilizing conflicts, and reduce currently free people to a life of unfreedom and despair. I wish it were not the case, but we must be ready for the consequences of our actions – they won’t be good.