August 2021

The new credibility gap


There is no sugar-coating of the fiasco in Afghanistan this week.

The Taliban's takeover is a tragedy for Afghanistan's people, especially its women and those who have thrived under a modicum of freedom and enlightenment these past two decades.

Afghanistan under the Taliban might once again become a rallying point and safe haven for extremist Islam and an exporter of terrorism, just as it was prior to the American invasion.

Though the Taliban's control seems complete for now, Afghanistan may yet become engulfed by civil war, as the traditional warlords and powerbrokers sidelined during Ashraf Ghani's ineffective rule reassert themselves.

Most troubling of all, however, is the destruction of America's standing and credibility in the world, following the debacle of US withdrawal and the collapse of the Afghan state.

Credibility is a slippery concept in statecraft.

Frequently cited, yet poorly understood, it can be used to justify the continuation of all manner of military deployments, and to transform a minor conflict in an insignificant region into a test of strength.

It is a close companion of the sunk costs fallacy: where the continuation of a policy is justified not by its prospects of future success, but by reference to all that has been spent in supporting it to date.

So the fact that the United States lost over 2000 lives in Afghanistan, and spent more than $2 trillion over two decades, was never reason enough to continue its presence.

Nor does credibility necessarily require that the United States continue to prop up a failing ally or remain engaged in a 'forever war'.

Nations need to make cold and unsentimental decisions about national interests all the time.

Their overseas commitments, and especially military commitments, need to reflect current-day priorities and challenges, not those of yesteryear.

The debate around any strategic commitment needs to focus on what comes next, not what has gone before.

But it is here that Biden has failed miserably with respect to Afghanistan.

As a strategic commitment, the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan was buying security on the cheap.

It stabilised the Afghan government. It kept the Taliban at bay, and stopped terrorist groups re-establishing themselves.

It maintained a strong US foothold in Central Asia, with the ability to project power from Bagram air base a source of continued distraction for nearby US adversaries including Iran, Russia and China.

No US serviceman had been killed in over 20 months. The US troop commitment to Afghanistan was less than one-fifth of that which it has maintained in Korea for seven decades.

This shrunken US presence was politically sustainable in Washington, and remained welcome in Kabul.

Biden claimed that the purpose of the US mission had crept into "nation building", a task that would never be complete.

If the metric of success was to turn Afghanistan into the Singapore of Central Asia, then as a mission of course it was doomed to failure.

But perfection of this nature does not exist in the real world of statecraft.

Instead, throughout history, nations have recognised that stability and equilibrium, even if they involve messy compromise, unsavoury partners, and considerable ambiguity, are assets worth preserving.

Around the world — from Japan to Germany, Korea to the Sinai Peninsula — the United States has seen the value in maintaining a strategic military presence to stabilise a situation, often over decades.

The United States provides over $6 billion in aid every year to Egypt, Jordan and Israel, all in the cause of keeping the peace and maintaining its influence in the Middle East.

When Islamic State started running rampant through Iraq and Syria, President Obama was eventually persuaded to return the US military, to rescue the Iraqi government and stop Islamic State's advance.

With his blind subservience to a withdrawal timetable set by his predecessor, his hasty and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and his unwillingness to exercise any military leverage with the Taliban, Biden has presided over the needless destruction of the valuable stability and equilibrium which had prevailed in Afghanistan.

He has also shredded US credibility, with the message it sends to US allies and security partners a chilling one.

If the United States can tear up a two-decade security partnership overnight, and coldly abandon an ally of two decades to its fate, then US security assurances begin to trade at a discount.

Every country that relies upon a US security partnership or formal guarantee will have to factor this in, including in Asia. And US adversaries will do likewise in their own calculations.

This is why Afghanistan is already the talk of Taiwan.

US prestige and credibility can recover. It has been through similar moments of national humiliation and soul-searching before, from the fall of Saigon in 1975 to Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Hope is not a policy though. And here in Australia, we should read the memo from Afghanistan closely.

Whilst the US alliance will remain valuable and in many ways indispensable for our security for decades to come, we cannot treat it as a given.

We need to be pursuing greater self-reliance in our national defence, and the establishment of independent and sovereign capabilities, if we are to safeguard our nation into the future.