American soldiers on the tarmac of the Bargam airbase. Photo: AFP / Jimin Lai

Time will tell if America’s abrupt abandonment of Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of US commitment – in what appears to be more a retreat than withdrawal – will be a defining moment in Joe Biden’s presidency.

But while analysts and commentators contend the move will severely weaken American prestige in the short term, there’s good reason to believe it will do little to dent Washington’s long-term goals and relations in regions more core to America’s strategic interests – not least in Southeast Asia, a key theater in its rising rivalry with China. 

America’s Afghan withdrawal is unlikely to have dented its reputation too much in Southeast Asia, said Le Hong Hiep, of Singapore’s ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute research center in Singapore. “Southeast Asia may eventually benefit from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan,” he added.

That no doubt will be the message when US Vice President Kamala Harris visits Vietnam and Singapore, two key US partners, later this month. Most Southeast Asian governments have so far kept their thoughts on America’s Afghanistan debacle to themselves. 

When Biden affirmed his administration would stick to the predecessor Trump government’s withdrawal earlier this year, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said in July “there should be a peace solution rather than abandoning [Afghanistan altogether], because Afghanistan will be facing a lot of security problems.” 

Some regional leaders had previously questioned the purpose of the US intervention. Lee Kuan Yew, the late Singaporean “founding father” and former prime minister, remarked in a 2009 interview:

“There was no country for the last 30, 40 years. [Afghans have] just been fighting each other since the last king was chased out, right? How on earth are you going to put these little bits together? It’s not possible.” 

Afghan passengers sit as they wait to leave the Kabul airport in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee the group’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

Several years ago, Indonesia President Joko Widodo suggested his government might try to act as a mediator for peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban, though the mission failed when the Taliban refused to show up.

But because of the speed of the Taliban’s rout and the shocking scenes as foreign nationals and Afghans race to escape, Southeast Asian governments were forced to evacuate most of their diplomats and citizens from Afghanistan over the weekend.

Indonesia has now evacuated most of its diplomatic staff from Kabul. The Indonesian Foreign Ministry said on Monday it will only leave a skeleton staff behind, though they too might be evacuated depending on security concerns.  

Dozens of Filipinos have been transported from Afghanistan to nearby Doha before a possible return home, while Manila said it was willing to take refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Vietnam has also withdrawn its citizens from the country.  

The Taliban’s assumption of power poses security concerns for the wider region. An official at Singapore’s Internal Security Department was quoted this week by the Straits Times as saying the Taliban’s return could lead to “increased terror-related activities in Southeast Asia.”

Indonesian security officials are also concerned that the Taliban’s victory may inspire new activity from ISIS and Al-Qaeda’s associates in Southeast Asia, including Jemaah Islamiyah. 

A government worker removes ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) flags painted on to walls near Veteran Street in Surakarta City, Indonesia, in an attempt to discourage the promotion of the jihadist group in the region. Photo: AFP Forum/Agoes Rudianto
A government worker removes ISIS flags painted on walls near Veteran Street in Surakarta City, Indonesia, in an attempt to discourage the promotion of the jihadist group in the region. Photo: AFP Forum / Agoes Rudianto

The knee-jerk reaction for many pundits has been to equate the current crisis, which will see Afghanistan descend back into tyranny and religious brutality, as the biggest failure in US foreign policy for decades.

Others have speculated that US prestige will struggle to recover and its retreat from Afghanistan will greatly embolden rivals China and Russia. 

Indeed, Chinese and Russian propaganda has claimed that America’s retreat from Afghanistan shows other potential US allies, such as the Philippines and Taiwan, that American assurances of protection should not be trusted.  

But America’s flight from a long and direct intervention in Afghanistan will likely mean the opposite through greater commitment to other regions.

This, of course, is of little consolation to the Afghans, who trusted in Washington’s promise of building a liberal democracy.

“In the short term, the usual individuals will publicly cheer recent events – and many already have done so,” said Bradley Murg, distinguished senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. 

An editorial published this week in Fresh News, a mouthpiece of the Cambodian government, a close ally of China’s, argued that the Afghan debacle has laid bare America’s failed attempts at spreading democracy and human rights internationally. 

It also questioned why international human rights groups that frequently critique Cambodia’s authoritarian government haven’t yet rebuked the US for its actions in Afghanistan.

But as the dust settles, disengagement from Afghanistan was necessary and will provide the United States the opportunity to focus squarely and precisely on the future maintenance of its position in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific as a whole.

In some ways, the final US withdrawal from Afghanistan was also the culmination of a shift in Washington’s attention away from the Middle East first envisioned back in the early 2010s, when the Barack Obama administration first broached its “pivot” to Asia in 2011. 

US President Barack Obama gestures after speaking about US-Laos relations at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane on September 6, 2016. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

Skeptics asserted at the time that this was an after-the-fact response; the US was shifting its policy to disguise its failure in the Middle East that was apparent even in the early 2010s. 

But the Obama and then Trump administrations did significantly bolster their attention to the region, which the latter rebranded as the “Indo-Pacific.”

Of the few Southeast Asian government officials who have publicly spoken about how the Afghanistan retreat impacts US power in the region, most have stressed that nothing has really changed. 

Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr has been busy on Twitter defending Biden’s actions and praising their bilateral relationship with the US, including Manila’s recent restoration of the Visiting Forces Agreement that allows the US to rotate troops and equipment on Philippine soil. 

“Sometimes America wants to withdraw from the world’s stage; seasonal thing; but don’t nudge her along let alone push her off the stage,” he tweeted on Wednesday. 

American interventions in the Middle East have long been a source of controversy in Muslim-majority Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia – and its withdrawal from Afghanistan may remove this as a point of diplomatic contention. America’s appeal in Indonesia and Malaysia dropped to historic lows immediately after the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan. 

Biden has sought to defend his decision to fully withdraw US troops through his insistence that America cannot fight so-called “forever wars.” While this has been widely critiqued as illogical, as US troops have been stationed in South Korea since the 1950s and in Europe since the 1940s, the logic appeals to the ASEAN spirit of non-intervention in other members’ affairs. 

A Jakarta Post editorial concluded: “A lesson we can learn from Afghanistan is no matter how strategic a country is, in the end, it should stand on its own feet … We feel very sorry for the Afghan people. But as Biden has said, it is up to the Afghan people to decide the future of their nation.”

On a more fundamental level, it’s apples and oranges to assume that the failure of a policy in the Middle East will have much bearing on US actions in other parts of the world. 

With the exception of Myanmar – although Washington has had as little to do with the country as possible since the February military coup – American policy in Southeast Asia is neither about regime change nor regime-building.

Washinton has no interest in altering the communist regimes of Laos and Vietnam, and it now includes the Vietnamese Communist Party’s apparatchiks amongst its most ardent allies in Asia. 

Neither has Washington exerted much effort in rolling back the authoritarian turns of Thailand and Cambodia.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) hugs Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha (L) during a signing ceremony at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on September 7, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, right, hugs Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Instead, US security concerns in the region are more conventional, designed to support national sovereignty, secure the trust of conventional partners and counter the expansionist ambitions of China.

Neither are areas of potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific, such as the South China Sea disputes and Beijing’s threats to invade Taiwan, analogous to US intervention in the Middle East. 

Defending the likes of the Philippines and Vietnam in their South China Sea disputes, as well as Taiwan against a direct Chinese invasion, would resemble conventional warfare, compared with the asymmetric conflict against theocratic guerillas in Afghanistan. 

Moreover, US activity in the Middle East often focuses on trying to revive economies in impoverished and unmanageable states, a near-impossible task in just a matter of decades.

In Southeast Asia, by comparison, its test is how to better engage with some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, while weaning them off Chinese largesse. There is also the case that US security interests in Asia are far more internationally palatable than its state-building efforts many see as ideological in the Middle East. 

This year has seen several influential European countries, not least Germany, engage in “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea, a means of defending international rules against Beijing’s claims of dominance in the contested maritime area. 

America’s aspirations in the region are also in line with those of Japan, India and Australia, as well as other key allies. Never was there such international agreement on America’s goals in the Middle East, which hampered its policy and success.

Obvious comparisons have been made between the tragic scenes in Kabul this week and the fall of Saigon in 1975, but America’s engagement abroad didn’t end with the close of the Vietnam War, far from it. 

The following year it launched covert operations in Angola and by the early 1980s it had swapped its focus on fighting communists in Southeast Asia to combating them – whether real or imagined – in Central America and the Caribbean. 

If history shows us anything, a US withdrawal in one part of the world usually means even greater engagement in another.