Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Afghanistan Hasn't Damaged U.S. Credibility

| Aug. 21, 2021

The withdrawal has been tragic—but it hasn't been a strategic disaster.

As predictable as the sunrise, a chorus of reflexive hard-liners, opportunistic foreign adversaries, and even some usually sensible commentators have concluded that U.S. credibility has been damaged or destroyed by the debacle in Afghanistan. Uber-hawk Bret Stephens of the New York Times is now convinced that "every ally — Taiwan, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Israel, Japan — will draw the lesson that it is on its own." In an overt attempt to undermine Taiwanese morale, the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times agrees with Stephens and warns Taiwan's leaders that the U.S. military won't fight if Beijing were to attack, implying the fall of Kabul is an "omen of Taiwan’s future fate." Even the usually sober-minded Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times believes Biden's credibility has been "shredded" and that the disaster in Afghanistan "fits perfectly" with the claim that "American security guarantees cannot be relied upon."

Stephens is probably beyond redemption at this point, and the Global Times is a propaganda rag whose views should be discounted, but everyone else needs to take a deep breath and relax. In fact, there are ample reasons to believe that the tragic outcome in Afghanistan will not affect U.S. credibility very much and maybe not at all.

The first reason is simple logic. Deciding not to continue a futile war for less-than-vital interests tells you absolutely nothing about whether a great power would fight if more serious interests were at stake. No one would conclude that withdrawing from Afghanistan after 20 years, 2,500 Americans dead, and more than $1 trillion spent implies that the United States would not fight fiercely to defend Alaska, Hawaii, or Florida. Nor should any serious person conclude the United States would not fight to prevent China from establishing hegemony in Asia or to thwart a (highly unlikely) Russian assault on NATO. The reason is simple: In each of these instances, we are talking about vital interests that could affect U.S. security in profoundly significant ways.

Moreover, by eliminating a long-term drain on U.S. resources (even a minimal U.S. presence in Afghanistan was costing more than $40 billion a year), getting out of Afghanistan will allow the United States to focus time, money, and attention on bigger priorities. America's ability to defend other interests and the attention it can devote to them will increase, making its remaining commitments more credible rather than less. As George F. Kennan said in the context of Vietnam, "There is more respect to be won in the opinion of the world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives."

History offers a second source of reassurance. The United States suffered an equally humiliating defeat in Vietnam, after losing more than 50,000 troops. Yet the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent fall of Saigon did not cause NATO to collapse, did not lead U.S. allies in Asia to realign with the Soviet Union or China, and did not inspire America's various Middle East client states to run for the exits. Kennan was right: Ending that war allowed the U.S. military to undertake a much-needed rebuilding of its conventional forces—especially in Europe, which had been neglected during the Vietnam era—and 14 years later, it was the Soviet Union that ended up in the dustbin of history. Yes, dominos did fall but mostly in Eastern Europe....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Afghanistan Hasn't Damaged U.S. Credibility.” Foreign Policy, August 21, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt