The chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan has sparked concerns among its allies about the credibility of commitments to its strategic allies. It has been popular to compare the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan with Saigon in 1975, but this has generated some debate among scholars of US foreign policy.
Harvard’s Stephen M Walt noted in Foreign Policy magazine, what has happened in Afghanistan is “tragic but it’s not a strategic disaster”. From a historical perspective, he wrote, the US retreat from Saigon was similarly not a strategic disaster in that it did not lead to the collapse of Nato. Nor did it force American allies in Asia into the Soviet or Chinese spheres of influence. Nor did the chaotic end to the Vietnam War cause the US client states in the Middle East reevaluate their relationships with Washington.
By contrast, Francis Fukuyama has pointed out in The Economist that the desperate escape of the Afghans from Kabul is a strategic misstep which signifies the end of US global hegemony. He believes that this is as much determined by domestic challenges – such as the severe polarisation of American society at the end of the Trump presidency – as by any global power shifts.
Former US national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger has argued in the same publication that the unilateral decision to withdraw could damage Washington’s relationships with its allies.
The fundamental concern is how America found itself moved to withdraw in a decision taken without much warning or consultation with allies or the people most directly involved in 20 years of sacrifice.
Recent events in Afghanistan are likely to exacerbate the decline in America’s global reputation, something identified by a survey taken at the end of the Trump administration by the influential Pew Foundation.
The withdrawal has prompted an ongoing debate about the reliability of the US as an ally, especially in the case of Taiwan, under perennial pressure from China, which sees the island as part of its sovereign territory.
State-affiliated Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, claimed that the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan meant that Taiwan was likely to be “abandoned”. The paper’s editorial on August 16 reminded its readers that Taiwan is not a member of Nato:
The way the US maintains the alliance with Taiwan is simple: It sells arms to Taiwan while encouraging the DPP authorities to implement anti-mainland policies through political support and manipulation.
Biden quickly responded, insisting that Taiwan and Afghanistan are “fundamentally different situations”, adding that:
We made a sacred commitment to article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our Nato allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.
Within hours, US officials rowed back on Biden’s statement, taking pains to stress that US policy towards Taiwan has not changed. This highlights the nature of the US relationship with Taiwan which is often summed up with the words “strategic ambiguity”. The US provides Taipei with the means weapons systems and training to defend itself against a possible attack. But it leaves open the question as to whether it would intervene militarily in such an eventuality.
Beijing responded to Biden’s comments by asserting “Taiwan as a inalienable part of Chinese territory”:
No one should underestimate the Chinese people’s resolve, determination and strong ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
An editorial in the Taipei Times concluded that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan would provide both opportunities and challenges for Taiwan. Opportunities in that Washington is clearly shifting its focus to face what it sees as the growing threat from China, which, “as the leading democracy in the Indo-Pacific region … is firmly placed at the forefront of democracy against dictatorship”.
But this will be balanced by the challenge of continuing Taiwan’s journey from a rapidly developing “tiger economy” to an outward-facing, highly technocratic society which is “becoming a nation on equal terms in the global village”.
As far as China’s insistence that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan showed Washington’s unreliability as an ally, the editorial saw an ulterior motive at work:
The view that today’s Afghanistan is tomorrow’s Taiwan is intended to challenge the mutual trust between Taiwan and the US.
Veteran former Dutch politician and diplomat, Gerrit van der Wees – now an academic in the US focusing on east Asia, pointed out in a recent article that Biden’s statement should not be interpreted as a change in US policy towards Taiwan. Instead it should be seen as “a welcome move in the right direction and a step toward "strategic clarity”.
Describing strategic ambiguity as a tactic rather than a policy, he quoted US State Department official Ned Price’s statement on August 19 that “peaceful resolution of cross-strait relations consistent with the wishes and best interests of the Taiwan people” are a key component of US foreign policy.
Today, it is much more certain than it was even two or three years ago that the United States, with assistance from Australia, Japan, and others, would come to Taiwan’s defence in the case of an attack.
Even when Washington’s tactics regarding Taiwan remain strategically ambiguous, the clear shift from a “war on terror” in the Middle East to a focus on the Indo-Pacific should give an indication of the direction of travel in Washington. But a lot will depend on how Beijing and Taipei interpret the signals coming out of Washington.