A US marine provides security for qualified evacuees boarding a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of an evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 24, 2021. Photo: US Air Force via AFP / EyePress / Taylor Crul

Caution isn’t fashionable, but it is too early to know the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. That hasn’t stopped debates from getting louder and more energetic, with emotion substituting for evidence, clarity for reality and projection for facts.

On one end of the spectrum, developments herald the end of US global leadership. On the other, Biden’s decision is part of a strategic vision that prepares the United States for the most pressing geopolitical challenges.

Typical of the pessimists is commentary by a group of Canadian luminaries, former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy among them, who argue that events in Afghanistan are more proof that “the US has lost the primacy it once enjoyed in international affairs,” and are another demonstration of  “faltering resolve for global leadership” that challenges “America’s commitment to work with allies in upholding the international order.”

David Rothkopf, a Washington insider and shrewd geopolitical analyst, counters that withdrawal is “part of a major, generational, foreign policy reset,” that if carried out “consistent with the president’s vision … will be seen as a watershed in a return to American global leadership.” 

If it’s too early to know which is right, we can better understand the factors that will determine the outcome, rather than merely accepting any judgment as gospel.

First, sadly, foreign policy messes are not unprecedented. A brief list includes the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, the subsequent failed Desert 1 rescue mission that resulted in the deaths of eight US service members, and the 1975 withdrawal from Saigon that will forever be remembered by the photograph of a US military helicopter atop a building with a long line of evacuees snaking across the roof.

Three unidentified US hostages speak to the press while their Iranian captors, left and right, watch closely at the besieged US embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Photo: AFP / IRNA-files

There have been violent attacks on US military and civilian personnel: the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that killed 307 soldiers and wounded 150 more; the 1996 Khobar Towers attack that left 19 dead and 498 wounded; and of course, the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that claimed nearly 3,000 lives and left more than 6,000 others injured.

All are dwarfed by the more than 58,000 US soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam. For comparison, fewer than 2,500 US military personnel died in Afghanistan.

That record should encourage caution. Neither the size of the embarrassment nor the death toll tells us anything about US commitment or credibility. US governments survived worse debacles than Afghanistan and the country’s image rebounded. Grim photographs and foreign policy losses are not determinative.

The real damage to US leadership stems from two sources. The first is the readiness of successive administrations to end the assertiveness that characterized US foreign policy since the 1980s and reached its apogee in the George W Bush years.

While their motives differed (and results varied), both Obama and Trump sought to withdraw the US presence from various corners of the globe. In conversations with Asian and European allies, both feared that Trump’s defeat did not remove the “America First” impulse that animated his foreign policy and worried that it could return, even if Trump himself did not.

They saw in Biden’s pledge to “Build Back Better” a muted, but no less pernicious, version of this same sentiment.  

Those like Rothkopf and Harvard professor Steven Walt counter that withdrawal from Afghanistan is not a broader retreat, but is instead an effort to marshal forces and focus on vital geopolitical challenges, most notably China.

Joe Biden speaks at a Build Back Better event last year. Photo: AFP / Olivier Douliery

President Biden has repeated that rationale whenever he has explained his decision-making about Afghanistan – and again this week to mark the end of the withdrawal – and framed “Build Back Better” as a way to rebuild a domestic consensus that would support an activist foreign policy.

US leadership is also affected by the expectations of other countries, both allies and adversaries. Critics warn that US withdrawal is proof that Washington cannot be trusted, whatever its stated intention.

Media in China have encouraged that perception. In this argument, Biden’s refusal to stay in Afghanistan anticipates the fate of US allies elsewhere in the world. Informal surveys of allies (in Asia at least) reveal that they think otherwise.

Allies distinguish themselves from the Afghan government and military and are even offended by the comparison. They continue to believe that they can count on the United States, as long as they are ready to do their part.

Substantial scholarship concludes that past actions don’t weigh heavily on immediate political calculations of credibility by either allies or adversaries. Dartmouth’s Jennifer Lind has looked hard at this problem and “this just isn’t how leaders reason in the midst of crises,” she said.

The second challenge to US credibility focuses on competence. The ugly withdrawal – and no matter how successful it may prove to be, it will likely be remembered for the chaotic first 24 hours – has tarred the US military’s image and sowed doubts about its ability to deliver on promises, regardless of the political readiness to honor those commitments.

Here, the skeptics are on firmer ground. In Calculating Credibility, Daryl Press argues that a country’s credibility is a product of the military power it has to honor its commitments and the interest in doing so, and those calculations reflect the circumstances of the immediate crisis rather than a historical accounting.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Li Gang/Xinhua
Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews a military display by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy in the South China Sea on April 12, 2018. Photo: Xinhua

That analysis distinguishes this moment from debacles of the past. Today, China appears to have both the military capability and the interest that would allow it to check the US if Washington sought to honor its defense commitments. US credibility is threatened by capacity, not intent.

That can be fixed. If Biden wants to boost US credibility (or stop the bleeding), there are several steps to take. First, he must honor the pledges that he made during the withdrawal.

That means tracking down the ISIS-K terrorists that planned and executed the attacks on Kabul airport. More broadly, while the national security environment has evolved and the US must now focus on great power competition, the US national security apparatus must remain alert to terrorist threats and act to thwart and destroy them.

The other promise to be kept is the pledge to compete with China across the various domains of 21st-century great power competition. That demands a real strategy, one that goes beyond the articulation of threats and fuzzy, ill-defined ways to counter them. Empty platitudes and hand-waving cannot substitute for hard choices.

The second step, therefore, is concrete action to strengthen the US capacity to compete across those domains. It means funding the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to boost the US military’s ability to fight. It means redoubled efforts to strengthen alliances, and promoting deeper integration not only between the US and its allies, but among those allies themselves.

Efforts to thicken the weave of security relations must be whole of government projects. The new great power competition is as much diplomatic and economic as it is military. Washington must consult with allies and partners across a range of initiatives, ensuring that all views are heard and all parties are contributing.

A deeply integrated partnership between the US and its allies, one in which dependence runs both ways, is the best way to ensure the all sides live up to their commitments. If this evolution follows the withdrawal from Afghanistan, then the optimists will have been right after all.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).