Biden must change course on Afghanistan

Dave Sharma is a member of Australia’s House of Representatives. He chairs the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.

Credibility is a slippery concept in statecraft. Frequently cited, yet poorly understood, it can be used to justify all manner of poor policy choices.

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. The debate over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has contained elements of both.

Washington foreign policy hawks argued that U.S. credibility would be damaged by the abandonment of the Afghan government to fight the Taliban on its own. And that the lives lost, with some 2,448 U.S. personnel killed, and money spent in a military campaign that has lasted two decades was justification enough for staying.

Neither argument should be seen as compelling on its own. Nations need to make cold and unsentimental decisions about national interests all the time. Their overseas commitments, especially military commitments, need to reflect current-day priorities and challenges, not those of yesteryear.

U.S. President Joe Biden gets all this. He is a foreign policy realist in the Democratic tradition. Part of the purpose of his withdrawal from Afghanistan is to refocus U.S. efforts on what he sees as the main game: growing strategic competition with China.

Biden has made a strong start in repairing some of the reckless damage President Donald Trump did to the U.S. alliance system, the cornerstone of Washington’s global reach. He has begun reinvesting in the multilateral system which, for all its imperfections, has provided an indispensable framework for the past seventy years of peace and prosperity.

He has taken America back into the Paris Agreement and is now leading rather than shirking diplomacy for one of the biggest global challenges of our era: climate change.

Meanwhile, he has maintained the better parts of Trump’s foreign policy, including a more muscular approach toward those countries that seek to undermine the global order, such as China and Iran.

Mercifully, he lacks Trump’s personal infatuation with strongman autocrats, from Xi Jinping to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, which was such an unpredictable and unsettling feature of the Trump doctrine. Generally speaking, Biden’s national security approach since assuming office has been sound, predictable, and with an orderly focus on priorities.

Yet despite this strong start, the precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan risks being Biden’s first major foreign policy mistake. With every day that passes, the Taliban’s advance seemingly becomes more relentless.

Almost half of Afghanistan’s 419 districts are now in the hands of the Taliban, as are key border checkpoints, and strategic cities in the north. The U.S and the U.K. are sending in troops to evacuate their embassies and withdraw diplomats. The morale of the Afghan national forces and government is plummeting. 

Afghan security forces keep watch after the American military left Bagram air base on July 5: the morale of the Afghan national forces is plummeting.   © AP

If the Taliban were to prevail in Afghanistan, it would be an immense tragedy for the people of that country, and a terrifying prospect for the many thousands of Afghans who have helped coalition forces over the past two decades.

But its strategic reverberations will be felt much more widely. Russia and China are already moving in, investing in their relationships with the Taliban and positioning themselves for a takeover. The message it sends to U.S. allies and security partners is chilling.

If Washington can tear up a two-decade security partnership overnight, and coldly abandon an ally of two decades to its fate, then U.S. security assurances begin to trade at a discount. Every country that relies upon a U.S. security partnership or formal guarantee will have to factor this in, including in Asia. And U.S. adversaries will do likewise in their own calculations.

This is why credibility is such an important asset, and why it should not be sacrificed lightly. Putin understands this. His willingness to come to the aid of vulnerable partners in their hour of need — be it Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, or Myanmar’s military regime — has bought him outsized influence over these countries and their leaders.

U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has been unfairly maligned in Washington as a forever war. But no U.S. serviceman has been killed in Afghanistan in 17 months. The U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan was no longer engaged in direct combat.

Its ongoing presence provided critical strategic, moral and diplomatic support to the Afghan government and military and, in the scale of U.S. commitments abroad, was now buying security and presence on the cheap. Around the world — from Japan to Germany, South Korea to the Sinai Peninsula — America has seen the value in maintaining a strategic military presence to stabilize a situation, often over decades.

The U.S. 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 Barack Obama was eventually persuaded to return the U.S. military, to rescue the Iraqi government and stop Islamic State’s advance.

President Biden should be prepared to do the same in Afghanistan. Take back Bagram Air Base. Provide air support to the Afghan national army. And redeploy a few thousand troops to advise, assist and boost morale.

It would be a political reversal, but nonetheless an act of prudent statecraft. The alternative, letting the country fall to the Taliban, would weaken U.S. credibility at the very time Biden is seeking to rebuild it.


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