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Opinion: The narrative of America in retreat is false

Strategic competitors like China benefit from such narratives, as they suggest the US will not or cannot live up to its security commitments. That argument, however, doesn’t hold up, as the reasons for America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rationales for other US commitments are vastly different.

Consider first the notion that the US is abandoning its allies. President Joe Biden suggested that part of his withdrawal rationale was that without the Afghans’ will to fight the American military mission could not succeed. The United States spent 20 years in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban and training the Afghan military, spending approximately $2.26 trillion. While reports corroborate Biden’s logic, suggesting Afghanistan’s political leaders and its armed forces made deals with the Taliban, what does this say about US commitment to defend formal allies like Japan or South Korea or quasi-allies like Taiwan?
Rather than freely giving up to adversary objectives, these actors have endured decades of coercion and keep resisting. Taiwan has suffered diplomatic isolation and economic and military coercion from Beijing; South Korea has faced economic coercion from Beijing and military belligerence from North Korea; and Japan has endured increasing provocations and military threats from both. Instead of wavering, these governments have generally taken harder positions, firmed up their militaries, and strengthened relationships with the US and sometimes other countries to rebuff external provocations. There is a will to fight, which the US has undoubtedly seen through its decades of working with them.
Saying the US is not reliable suggests that it does not have the resolve to uphold its commitments. While it is tempting to paint the US withdrawal as simply not having the resolve to continue the hard fight, it conveniently overlooks the fact that through April 2,443 US service men and women lost their lives for Afghanistan. These people died for Afghans they never met and for a country they likely never lived in. It is confounding how anyone can question the resolve of a country which has sacrificed its most precious treasures for strangers.
While the US has not yet sacrificed any lives to defend Taiwan or Japan, it has done so for South Korea. But for all three, US commitment to their security is unquestionable. With Japan and South Korea, the US has a permanent forward military presence and formal defense treaties; with Taiwan, there is the Taiwan Relations Act, which not only sets the legal foundation by which the United States has sold defensive weapons to Taiwan, it explicitly states that any effort to determine Taiwan’s future by other than peaceful means is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the US.

Rather than backing down, the US has strengthened its commitments to these partners as adversaries have increased provocations. While the resolve to defend these partners has never been tested, or at least not recently in the case of South Korea, it is dangerous to assume Washington will not respond assertively since its actions have indicated a trend of strengthening, not weakening, its defense commitments.

World is deeply shaken by America's retreat
Finally, the outcome in Afghanistan does not suggest the US has walked away from its interests or is unable to maintain the global order. While President Biden indicated that it is not in America’s interest to engage in counter-insurgency operations or nation building, he did not say it is withdrawing from global engagement. Quite the contrary, he said withdrawal helps the US focus its attention and resources on America’s vital interests, including the use of force if necessary.
Although not specified in his White House speech, the Biden administration has consistently emphasized its concern with China and its challenge to established international rules. And whether it be statements with fellow democracies or mini-lateral formations like the Quad, the US is focused on preventing autocrats from abusing existing norms to gain any advantage.
While it may be a cold reality that involvement in a burgeoning civil war in Afghanistan is not in the US interest, it would be a mistake to conclude that the government is unwilling to deter Chinese behavior or incapable of stopping autocratic regimes from threatening an entire region. In fact, it could even enable the US to free up resources and focus more on countering Chinese behavior.

None of this is meant to laud or criticize the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan; rather, it is a caution on what lessons one draws from that decision. Contrary to what China and other nations may think, US withdrawal is not some kind of omen for the fate of Taiwan or any US treaty ally. Nor does the withdrawal carry any widespread message about America’s reliability or credibility.

The United States is a nation — backed by a deep bench of very capable allies — which sees that it is in its vital interest to deter autocrats from adventurism and challenges to the world order. Drawing lessons from the narrow case of Afghanistan to speak about broad US resolve or credibility comes with an inherent risk that adversaries may choose to ignore at their own peril.

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