“It’s over,” U.S. President Joe Biden declared last week in a somber address to the nation and the world.
There were no celebrations to mark the conclusion of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of a 20-year war that claimed tens of thousands of lives and cost trillions of dollars. It was sadly fitting, and likely inevitable, that the Afghanistan war would end as it did — chaotic, confused and with far more questions than answers.
After two decades of invasion and occupation, the enduring image of the conflict is likely to be the swirling mass of humanity that surrounded Hamid Karzai International Airport in the final days of the U.S. military presence. In our collective memory, the chaos of the final week will always overshadow the more than 100,000 people who were evacuated. Attention will invariably focus on the failures rather than the successes.
Was it worth it? We cannot say. The speed with which the Afghan government collapsed certainly suggests that the project to build a durable government failed. Corruption was endemic and factionalism prevailed. But for two decades, democracy and human rights flourished and may have even taken root. A generation of Afghan women were given new lives and while their future is uncertain, the dream of freedom and greater possibility may prove more powerful than the Taliban’s grim feudalism.
The threat from al-Qaida had been vanquished and the Taliban have said that they will not allow the group, or others that profess its same murderous purpose, to take sanctuary in their country. Only time will tell if those promises are sincere or if the new government will have the ability to enforce them. But if the Taliban wants to avoid the international isolation that marked their first term in power, then they will have to do their utmost to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven.
In that endeavor, many partners, the United States among them, will be ready to help. In his remarks last week, Biden promised to hunt down the perpetrators of the murderous attacks outside the Kabul airport that claimed the lives of 13 U.S. service members and more than 100 Afghans. But Biden also rightly noted that the United States does not need a physical presence in Afghanistan to do that and can monitor, observe and even strike from afar.
Fighting terrorism will demand that Afghanistan work with its neighbors. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes those countries and of which Afghanistan is an observer, is dedicated to combating the threats of terrorism, extremism and separatism. SCO success in countering those dangers will shift regional dynamics since China and Russia are the two primary forces in this group.
While neither Beijing nor Moscow wants to be ensnared in Afghan politics — Russia knows well the price to be paid — both can help a Kabul government that needs to find its feet and fast. Their assistance will be less conditional than that of the West. They will prioritize security without caring overmuch about human rights, but they will certainly seek political influence and economic rewards, mostly likely in the form of mineral rights.
In fact, China already has invested in mining projects in the country. Japan can hope for some influence, but it is unlikely to spend the money, be as indifferent to human rights concerns or provide the military or hard power assistance to match those governments.
Another beneficiary of developments in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which established the Taliban in the 1990s and has supported them ever since. For Pakistan’s strategists, Afghanistan provides strategic depth and can play an important role in Islamabad’s ongoing struggle with India. But there is always a danger that influence can run in the other direction and the Taliban may make common cause with radical Islamists in Pakistan, a terrifying proposition given Islamabad’s nuclear capability.
One of the biggest questions hanging over the end of the Afghan conflict is its impact on the United States. A debate is raging over whether the U.S. has been fatally wounded by this defeat — and there is no other word for the outcome.
Biden insists that the U.S. has secured its primary objectives — an end to the terrorist threat — and must end the drain on its attention and resources so that it can focus on the most pressing security challenges. Allies like Japan should take heart from this reasoning, as it means that Washington will no longer be distracted or diminished by the “forever war.” If the U.S. can follow through on that strategic vision, then it may emerge from this episode strengthened and better able to lead.
Paring commitments in the name of strategic realism is one thing; retreat and withdrawal because of a reluctance to shoulder the burdens of global leadership is another. Biden speaks of the first, while his predecessor, Donald Trump, was driven by the second. If it is the latter, and there is no guarantee that Biden’s will prevail in his administration, much less those that follow, then we could be witnessing the end of Pax Americana and the postwar world order.
The outcome may depend on what other governments do. Accepting U.S. decline and retreat will make both inevitable if partners and allies turn their backs on Washington. The most important lesson from Afghanistan is the need for a realistic assessment of objectives and the continuing alignment of vision with developments on the ground. This will push like-minded countries together to focus on shared interests and pursue the cooperation needed to protect and advance them.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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