US President Joe Biden’s announcement that all American troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, thus ending what is arguably America’s longest war, may have great political significance in his country.
But his bold decision, after fluctuating deadlines set by his two predecessors – Donald Trump and Barack Obama – seems to have reignited the geopolitical debate over the dependability of Washington as a reliable ally in the world.
At the moment, there are about 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan, although the number fluctuates. Additionally, there are 7,000 foreign forces in the US-led coalition there, the majority of them belonging to NATO allies.
Those questioning the decision are not impressed by the standard argument that Afghanistan will prove to be another Vietnam for America unless Washington opts for a quick exit from a country, which otherwise has great strategic significance as an economic corridor connecting South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle-East.
American Wars — Vietnam vs Afghanistan
It is said that the war in Afghanistan is strikingly different from it was in Vietnam. At the peak of the Vietnam War, there were more than half a million (500,000) American soldiers fighting in that country’s civil war. And that saw the deaths of more than 58,000 American soldiers.
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In contrast, the largest number of US troops in Afghanistan was 10,000 (one-fifth of the number in Vietnam) between 2010 and 2011. And since 2001, a total of only 2312 US military personnel have died there (as per the latest estimate).
The war in Vietnam had provoked an outcry in US domestic politics and was extremely unpopular. It had opened rifts in the American social fabric. But as in Afghanistan, the US has fought with a volunteer army, employed far fewer troops, and sought to keep casualties low, there have been no comparable domestic protests or street demonstrations involving people at large.
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There have been critics, no doubt; but unlike in Vietnam, the war in Afghanistan has never aroused an opposition potent enough to force discussion of a withdrawal.
Finally, in Vietnam, the US was fighting a formidable army of North Vietnam (then one of the largest standing armies of the world), which was drawing substantial outside support from the Soviet bloc and China.
Video: US President Biden announcing the withdrawal of troops from #Afghanistan, says: “It is time for American troops to come home.” pic.twitter.com/KrgXgZ2p2b
— TOLOnews (@TOLOnews) April 15, 2021
In a marked difference, the US enemy in Afghanistan has been mainly the Taliban insurgents, a far smaller military force backed mostly by Pakistan.
Thus, operations in Afghanistan have not been marked by the complexity of the great power rivalry that was the case in Vietnam; Russia and China are equally opposed to the Islamic fundamentalism inherent in any Taliban takeover of the country.
More than its implications on the Afghan polity, analysts making the aforementioned points are worried over the ominous signal that the US troop withdrawal will have on the credibility of the US as a dependable military partner in other parts of the world.
Is The US Abandoning Its ‘Afghan Ally’?
Their argument is that once the US is seen as abandoning a partner or an ally (in this case the elected Afghan government), other allies or partners of the US will apprehend similar “disloyalty” in the future. Thus, the Afghan instance can damage, or even destroy, America’s alliances with other states.
In other words, there is always the interdependence between developments in one alliance with those in other alliances, so runs their logic.
It may be noted that between 1948 and 2014, the US had as many as 66 defense commitments, including commitments to NATO members and Rio Treaty partners (most countries in Latin America).
The US is also linked to formal alliances with South Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, Liberia, and some small Pacific island states that previously were US territories.
The major reason for US defeat in Afghanistan was that the commanders confused technology and firepower with strategy. They were constantly outmanoeuvred by Taliban. Each allied commander in ISAF had his own rules of engagement as a result of which 10 different wars were fought. pic.twitter.com/THCFgnHf9M
— Fidato (@tequieremos) April 15, 2021
In the 1980s, Washington created a new category of partners called “major non-NATO allies” (MNNA), primarily to ease arms transfers and facilitate military cooperation.
Currently, 17 countries are designated as MNNAs: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Kuwait, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Tunisia. Taiwan is also treated as an MNNA, without formal designation as such.
However, from the above list, it is also clear that the US has never been a very loyal ally in the strict sense of the term. So the case of Afghanistan is not arising for the first time. America’s loyalty has depended on its changing geopolitical needs as well as the reciprocity of loyalty from its allied or military partners.
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Take, for instance, the case of Pakistan, which despite getting billions of dollars worth of economic and military assistance has moved closer to China. As a matter of fact, America’s weary military alliance with Pakistan has cost the Americans nearly $40 billion since the September 11 attacks.
Therefore, for Pakistan to expect that the US will always side with it and not move closer to India has always been too realistic to be achieved.
US Would Rely On Democratic Govts
The US now realizes that nondemocratic regimes are inherently unreliable partners, though entering into alliances with them is much easier. But then not only the longevity of these regimes are suspect because of their very nature (always vulnerable to democratic pressures from below), thus raising questions over their successors’ commitment to the alliance; their rulers, when strong and stable, also renege on their liability to the alliance in the absence of the restrictions of a constitution, an independent judiciary, and an elected legislature in a true sense.
In fact, it is much easier for authoritarian regimes to violate treaties. We have the glowing example of how Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov literally cheated the Americans after entering an agreement with the then Bush administration in March 2002 to set up the Karshi-Khanabad airbase (also known as K2) in southern Uzbekistan for launching operations into Afghanistan, but not before grabbing US assistance, both direct and indirect, worth of nearly $400 million.
Biden is following in Trump’s footsteps in Afghanistan, including embracing his Faustian bargain with the Taliban. Biden's Indo-Pacific policy is Trump's policy. Biden's vaccine hoarding policy ("Americans must be taken care of first") embodies Trump's "America First" approach.
— Brahma Chellaney (@Chellaney) April 15, 2021
Policy-makers and analysts in the US now prefer closer military relations with democratic countries willing to host the military facilities for the American troops with base facilities to those that are authoritarian.
Security alliances or interactions among democracies are much more enduring. There may be occasional hiccups because of domestic developments of the democratic partners, but despite all that, the governments do continue to honor their security commitments because those deals are guaranteed by an established legal order.
That explains why notwithstanding the differences among the leaders from time to time, America’s security relations with Israel, Germany, the UK, France, Australia, Japan, and South Korea are fundamentally sound.
The US stands out to many around the world as the country their own nation can rely on most, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
Pluralities or majorities in around half of the 17 countries where an open-ended question was asked named the US as their most dependable ally going forward.
Israelis are the most likely to name the US as a reliable partner (82%) among the countries surveyed. People in Australia and Canada – countries that, like South Korea, are American allies by treaty – are also more likely to name the US as their top ally than any other country.
Another survey conducted in 2018 in 14 countries that have hosted large US military deployments, including Japan and South Korea, with approximately 1,000 respondents in each, has found that people in the host country generally feel positive or have neutral attitudes toward the US personnel stationed in their country.
In Australia, only 11 percent of the people were against the alliance. The respective figures were 15 percent in South Korea, 19 percent in the UK, 16 percent in the Netherlands, 20 percent in Portugal, 26 percent in Germany, and 27 percent in Japan.
In other words, an overwhelming majority in democracies is in favor of a stable security alliance with a fellow democratic America.
Security alliance with America has also been economically beneficial to the host countries, helping their investment, trade, political development, and economic growth, directly and indirectly.
According to the recent report, the US currently has approximately 174,000 active-duty personnel deployed to overseas locations in approximately 140 countries. The Department of Defense Comptroller’s Office estimates the total cost of overseas bases and deployments at $24.4 billion in the fiscal year 2020. These figures generally exclude the costs of ongoing combat operations.
The moral of the story is thus clear – the US has got a much better record in keeping its military commitments to fellow democracies and that the latter do appreciate the American commitments.
Viewed thus, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, may not be a real test of US loyalty.