George Orwell wrote that “the quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.” The Biden administration tried that idea on for size in Afghanistan.
But here’s the problem: Losing a war rarely means you put the unpleasantness behind you and move on to things you’d rather deal with. Instead, lose a war and you just might end up with other, bigger problems, and maybe other wars.
All eyes are glued on Afghanistan and the sudden collapse of the government and its forces – and the frantic American bugout. Recriminations and blame-shifting have started and will continue. But it’s worth a look at what’s coming next, and not only in Afghanistan. The ripple effects will be worldwide and are worrisome.
We’ve seen this before. When America appears weak, confused, distracted and at its own throat, only bad things happen.
Wars that don’t really end
Consider some of the things that happened after South Vietnam fell to communist North Vietnamese forces in 1975 – while the United States stood by with eyes primly averted while tens of thousands were executed, hundreds of thousands were tossed into prison camps and the ‘boat people’ exodus led to immense suffering and dying.
The blow to American prestige and reliability was grievous and it encouraged America’s enemies – led by the Soviet Union, but also extending to various terror groups – to move on a number of fronts:
- Moscow stepped up aid to Soviet-backed communist insurgents in Central and Latin America. They eventually took over in Nicaragua while amping up violence and instability in El Salvador, Colombia, Peru and elsewhere.
- The Soviets established a military presence in the Horn of Africa and helped solidify an earlier Marxist takeover in Ethiopia, along with attendant mass slaughter.
- The Marxist Khmer Rouge went to work in Cambodia and slaughtered a third of the population to set the stage for a Marxist utopia.
- The Cubans, Soviet clients, dispatched a military task force to Angola in summer 1975 and when the US government – scarred by the Vietnam collapse – refused to intervene in any serious way, the Cubans installed a pro-Soviet, Marxist regime. This was a piece of the puzzle that led to 40 years of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and scuppered any chance of Southern Africa developing in a more humane way.
- In 1979 the Soviets went into Afghanistan – following a Marxist coup attempt in 1978. And the country has been ravaged ever since.
- Soviet propaganda and political warfare – aided by local sympathizers in the West and elsewhere – had a major boost from the US defeat in Vietnam. This was a serious problem well into the 1980s. The propaganda even threatened NATO via aggressive campaigns such as the one against the deployment of Pershing Missiles to Europe, and the one claiming the “neutron bomb” was the “capitalist bomb” – destroying only people, not buildings. Recall the hysterics after the TV movie The Day After or the Greenham Common “peace protests.” Even Jimmy Carter thought nuclear disarmament was the top priority – after his 13-year-old daughter, Amy, told him so.
- Vietnam gave a shot in the arm to other anti-West terrorist groups – such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany and the Italian Red Brigades – backed by the KGB, the East Germans and other Soviet Bloc intelligence services.
- In 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown and a brutal Islamic regime installed. Say what one will of the Shah, he was a pussycat compared with the Ayatollah and the mullahs and didn’t cause trouble nor promote terrorism in the region and beyond. The Middle East has never been peaceful, but Islamist Iran has caused immense trouble for the last 40 years.
- The Chinese moved to grab territory in the South China Sea as South Vietnam was falling – and later, unopposed by the United States, grabbed islets in Philippine waters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken says of the fall of Kabul, “This is not Saigon.” But he appears to have another Saigon in mind. Few people agree with him.
What’s coming now with Kabul fallen?
It will of course be bad enough in Afghanistan. The United States recently flew a rainbow flag at the Kabul embassy to demonstrate progressive street credentials. It’ll now be the Taliban flag.
The Taliban flag will also flutter over the soccer stadiums where attendance used to be mandatory to watch stonings.
But it won’t stop there. This time, it will be primarily Beijing, rather than Moscow, that will be stoking and spreading the fires designed to torch democracies and expand its hegemony. Some likely outcomes:
- We can expect the Chinese to start telling leaders and concerned partners around the globe that America lacks the will – or even the ability – to challenge Beijing, beyond furrow-browed expressions of “serious concern.” Stepped-up CCP political warfare worldwide will likely include trumpeting that the Americans are unreliable – and couldn’t even defeat 75,000 Taliban, so how can they stand up to close to three million trained, armed Chinese military personnel.
- In Southeast Asia, expect stepped up Chinese pressure on Taiwan – and maybe the seizure of Malaysian territory and increased bullying of the Philippines, while daring the Americans to do something about it and gaining momentum every time they don’t.
- ASEAN is already wavering – just listen to Singapore’s Prime Minister all but saying the future is China. And that was before Kabul fell.
- The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will perhaps move ahead and complete the naval base it’s building (but denying) in Cambodia. It may not even feel the need to deny it anymore.
- Japan will feel the heat in the East China Sea. Expect a full court press around the Senkaku Islands, for starters. The PLAN will swarm and warn off the Japanese. And maybe there will be “administrative fees” for Japanese ships transiting the South China Sea.
- Expect the PRC to directly challenge US forces in the South China Sea and nearby areas. To date the Chinese have been just shadowing and complaining about the US naval presence. Expect obstruction and ultimatums.
- Don’t be surprised to find Chinese bases established in Central and South America.
- In Africa, the Chinese will go all out and finally cut some basing deals on West and East Coast ports.
- In the South Pacific, political warfare will enter overdrive and the PLAN will be in more places, more often and in larger numbers – and perhaps secure those ports they have been trying so hard to get.
- Beijing will also continue full speed ahead with its nuclear weapons buildup – as already seen with the missile silo construction – aiming to outdo and intimidate the Americans and all regional rivals.
- There will be even more Beijing support for Venezuela and Cuba, and drug smugglers, as they destabilize their neighbors.
- Beijing will put proxies into action: encourage Pakistan to try to weaken India (including with the redeployment of terrorists no longer “needed” in Afghanistan); possibly encourage the Argentines to have another go at the British over the Falklands; offer more overt support for North Korea, and – who knows? – maybe a suggestion Pyongyang cause some trouble for the South Koreans, the Japanese or even the Americans.
- Expect the PRC to intensify its assault on the US dollar to displace it as the world’s reserve currency, and thus remove America’s most potent remaining lever for pressuring China – as well as gutting the US economy and its ability to fund the American military.
Others will be using the opening to their advantage – and to the disadvantage of the United States – as well.
The Russians will step up pressure on the Baltics and Ukraine, while also blackmailing the Europeans. And they’ll cooperate with the Chinese, and vice versa, to keep the Americans back footed.
Iran? It will cause trouble in the Middle East free from the restraint of the Trump years.
And expect to hear more from Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and beyond. The fall of Kabul was a huge boost for jihadists worldwide – outdoing Donald Trump’s finishing off ISIS.
As for US partners and allies, what country anywhere is going to believe US promises? Instead, in the case of Japan and maybe South Korea and Taiwan, they’ll be dusting off nuclear weapons blueprints. In other places, especially if close to China, governments will be looking to not provoke China and even lean toward Beijing.
The South Korean leftist regime will be secretly pleased that it was right all along about the Americans – and become more difficult to deal with. President Moon Jae-in said he was “euphoric” on hearing America lost in Vietnam. He must be equally delighted now.
Nobody knows exactly what’s coming, but something is. America and the free world’s enemies smell blood – or weakness – and will push.
One hopes America is ready. But the Biden administration has not shown much backbone or competence. And the Chinese are acting already as if they feel they aren’t the least bit intimidated.
They claimed they mopped the floor with Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and lambasted Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan (and Kurt Campbell) in Alaska. It will only get worse now.
Especially as one big difference from post-Vietnam is that the American financial and business classes will fund the PRC’s overseas activities and military buildup. They never did that for the Russians.
So, will the US military’s ruling class save the day?
The USA has just lost the last two major regional contingencies – despite overwhelming airpower, plenty of excellent troops and unlimited support from the public and the public treasury.
And they were led by an entire generation of officers who designed joint service campaigns unrestrained by civilian meddling (no possible “stab in the back” blame nonsense), and then decorated themselves with campaign awards and ribbons.
And this, despite losing the Afghan campaign for hearts and minds to an irregular force with a 12th-century view of human rights, no belief in democratic government and supported with a safe harbor and only minimal funding provided by the intelligence service of a third-world government.
Sadly typical of such commanders was one three-star who served two tours in Afghanistan and then served as US Ambassador in Kabul, who once boasted that he would be known as the “father of the Afghan military.” Really.
The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, appears more interested in understanding “white rage” than in defeating America’s enemies.
As for the navy, who are today’s Nimitz, Burke, Spruance and Halsey? If they exist, they are well hidden. The new Navy Secretary said his four top priorities are: China, climate, culture, and Covid. He’s right on the first one, but the other three have nothing to do with beating China or anyone else.
And these are the people that are going to take on America’s enemies who are flush with confidence and momentum?
China, Russia and other adversaries may reckon, however, that if they wait a while it will get even easier as the Biden Administration dismantles – intentionally or otherwise – America’s defenses, debases the currency and turns Americans against Americans.
These are perilous times, and America had better wake up fast. We will pay for what happened in Afghanistan.
We’ve seen this before.
Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years of experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive and US Marine Corps officer. This article was originally published by And Magazine.