MANILA – In his stated wish to end America’s “forever wars” and accordingly refocus the country’s foreign policy more directly on China, US President Joseph Biden pressed ahead with a hasty exit from Afghanistan.
Convinced that the United States has done more than enough of its share of responsibility by spending trillions of dollars on nation-building in Afghanistan, Biden repeatedly resisted or ignored warnings by his top defense officials of a precipitous collapse in favor of Taliban forces.
But the “hard and messy” exit and the seamless victory of Taliban forces has sent shockwaves across the world, threatening to undermine America’s credibility and raising questions over its long-term commitments to allies elsewhere, especially in Asia.
In many ways, it may have undermined whatever diplomatic capital was generated by the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent “reassurance” visit to allies in Southeast Asia, namely Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Biden administration’s spectacular failure to predict the sheer speed of the Afghan government’s collapse has already been branded as one of the greatest intelligence failures in decades. Images of US choppers rescuing desperately stranded diplomats and residents in Kabul have revived dark memories of the “Fall of Saigon” in 1975.
Unsurprisingly, China and its regional proxies are trying to exploit the debacle to portray the US as an unreliable and untrustworthy ally, which rushes to intervene in nations just to disown them at their greatest hour of need.
Since coming to power earlier this year, the Biden administration has made it clear that confronting and competing with China is its top strategic priority. “We are in a competition with China to win the 21st century,” Biden declared during his first speech before the joint session of the Congress in April.
Declaring that “America is on the move again”, Biden warned that his country is “at a great inflection point in history” and thus needs to “compete more strenuously than we have” in recent decades.
Biden has since dispatched his top deputies, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin across Asia and Europe to mobilize a counter-coalition against a resurgent China.
Biden’s vow to double down on its strategic engagement with the Indo-Pacific through “a strong military presence” has gone hand in hand with disengagement from the Greater Middle East, including Afghanistan.
Under his watch, Washington has ceased its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, revived nuclear talks to avoid confrontation with Iran, and, most dramatically, expedited the exit of US troops from Afghanistan.
In many ways, the Biden administration began to fulfill what former President Barack Obama tried to accomplish under his “pivot to Asia” policy. It also embraced the former Trump administration’s refocus on “great power rivalry”, especially with China, as the locus of American foreign policy in the 21st century.
“America has sent its finest young men and women, invested nearly $1 trillion dollars, trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, equipped them with state-of-the-art military equipment, and maintained their air force as part of the longest war in US history,” said Biden in a statement amid growing criticism of his hasty withdrawal from the country after a 20-year war.
Warning of mission creep, Biden emphasized that the country’s primary objective in Afghanistan was not nation-building per se but instead “to defeat the forces that attacked this country” – an objective that was accomplished following “the death of Osama bin Laden over a decade ago and the degradation of al-Qaeda.”
But while Biden’s strategic intentions were welcomed at home and abroad, the manner and timing of the withdrawal have been largely seen as an “exit without strategy” by experts and international observers. The first major blow was to America’s credibility, with US intelligence agencies maintaining that the Afghan government in Kabul could last for at least three to six months following the withdrawal of US troops.
Last month, Biden confidently claimed, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”
Cognizant of the “Fall of Saigon” debacle in 1975, as communist forces overran the US-backed South Vietnam regime, Biden adamantly maintained “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan.”
The Biden administration’s reassurances, however, ended up as “an intelligence failure of the highest order,” according to counterinsurgency expert Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.
As such, American intelligence estimates will likely be received with greater skepticism elsewhere in the future. This includes repeated assurances by US officials that the Taliban won’t renew its age-old ties with other extremist groups anytime soon.
But among Southeast Asian countries confronting religious extremism at home, most dramatically in the case of the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, there are deep concerns about Afghanistan once again becoming a breeding and training ground for transnational terrorists.
Beyond America’s operational and intelligence credibility, the debacle in Afghanistan has also strengthened the voice of Sinophiles and US skeptics across Asia.
“They should say the day before yesterday, Vietnam, yesterday, Taiwan and today, Afghanistan. Wasn’t the island abandoned by the US in 1979?” Taiwanese expert Chang Ching told the China state-backed newspaper The Global Times.
On his part, Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University, told the nationalist newspaper, “The US’ fleeing action is a warning to the Taiwan secessionists, or rather, a forecast [of what will happen in the future].”
In Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines, the crisis in Afghanistan will only deepen Washington’s credibility gap. It will also empower Beijing-friendly elites such as populist President Rodrigo Duterte, who has consistently questioned American credibility during his tenure while pivoting to China.
Although the US remains broadly popular among Filipinos, its reliability has come under growing question in recent years. In an authoritative survey by Pulse Asia, nearly half of Filipinos were either undecided (33%) or disagreed (17%) when asked whether the country’s alliance with America has been “beneficial to the Philippines.”
As many as 47% of Filipinos supported Duterte’s move to enhance relations with China and Russia at the expense of the US.
Doubts over American commitment to the Philippines may explain why a Pew Research Center survey showed the majority of Filipinos (67%) prefer warmer economic ties with China rather than confrontation.
The scenes of panic and desperation in Kabul, with Filipino diplomats and overseas workers struggling to escape approaching Taliban forces, have only deepened skepticism vis-à-vis American credibility as an ally. Philippine authorities, including the military, are closely monitoring the situation in order to determine contingency plans to evacuate 130 overseas Filipinos still stranded in the country.
Last year, the Philippine Navy deployed two of its vessels to evacuate Filipinos stranded in Iraq and Libya amid rising tensions in the region.
As one top Filipino official told Asia Times, “Has it become just a habit, or it’s just that they [Americans] don’t care about their allies?”, citing his worries about the fate of US-aligned officials in Kabul.
In fact, many Filipinos from across the political spectrum have invoked the country’s own tragic history, when America swiftly handed formal independence to the Philippines following the massive devastation of the country after the Battle of Manila against Imperial Japan.
In his latest national address, Philippine President Duterte upped the ante, seeking greater reassurance of support from America by demanding new batches of Covid-19 vaccines. According to US White House statistics, the Philippines has already received more than 6 million US-made vaccines, making it the second-largest recipient in the world.
Biden’s withdrawal plan in Afghanistan was largely driven by his aim to refocus America’s strategic resources on China. But its poor execution has undermined broader strategic goals.
As influential US strategist Walter Russell Mead warned on Twitter, “Sentence you won’t be hearing anyone saying this morning: ‘Trust the Americans. They know what they’re doing.’”