It is unclear just what the United States has gained from withdrawing the small, affordable, and effective deterrent force that had remained in Afghanistan to support its security forces. It is unnervingly obvious what we’ve lost: national prestige, vast sums of political capital, credibility on the world stage and, most tangibly, our security. The world is much more dangerous today than it was just 72 hours ago.
As recently as August 12, when the elected government in Afghanistan still controlled most of its provincial capitals and the country’s total implosion was still evitable, U.S. intelligence officials warned that America’s abandonment of its ally in Central Asia would allow al-Qaeda to reconstitute itself. The Taliban never renounced violence or its affiliation with the group responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks, despite repeated overtures from American negotiators to do so. And although that particular Islamist terror group remains a diminished presence, if the “pressure comes off, I believe they’re going to regenerate,” U.S. Centcom commander Gen. Frank McKenzie said.
Accordingly, the Defense Department will reportedly revise its previous estimates suggesting the threat from groups capable of exporting terrorism out of Afghanistan had been relatively low. Today, that threat is unknown, but few believe that the Taliban will do anything but provide succor to fundamentalist terror sects with revenge on their minds. As one source in government privy to the Pentagon’s deliberations told Axios, “the timeline in terms of threats has accelerated.”
And the threat to American lives and interests arising from our humiliation in Afghanistan does not begin and end with non-state actors. The world’s irridentist great powers are watching closely, and they are no doubt emboldened by our fecklessness.
The Chinese Communist Party has already demonstrated its willingness to court international condemnation in its quest to impose its sovereignty on the greater Chinese sphere. The crushing of Democracy in Hong Kong in direct violation of the terms of its handover to the CCP from Britain in 1997 should be evidence enough of that. And in the months that followed that insult to Western proceduralism and power, the People’s Republic has openly flirted with finally retaking the island nation of Taiwan by force. “This problem is much closer to us than most think,” Navy Adm. John Aquilino told a Senate committee in May. He speculated that a Chinese operation designed to rapidly change the facts on the ground and force the U.S. to recognize them could occur in this decade.
“We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in 2019. Bejing’s reservation of its prerogative to retake the Republic of China through force has thus far been deterred not just by America’s assets in the Pacific but also by our willingness to use them and by the assumption that the American public would support that mission. That deterrent has no doubt suffered a devastating blow, and China’s propagandists won’t let us forget it. “The grand strategy seemed flawless and inspiring for Washington, until the U.S.’ epic defeat and chaotic retreat in Afghanistan mirrored how shaky it is,” read one representative exercise in chest-thumping via China’s Global Times. “The point is, if the U.S. cannot even secure a victory in a rivalry with small countries, how much better could it do in a major power game with China?”
In Europe, too, the United States has much to lose. In 2008, Russia invaded and functionally annexed large swaths of territory in Georgia. In 2014, Moscow invaded Ukraine, outright subsuming the whole of Crimea into the Russian Federation. And Moscow isn’t done yet. Only months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened the Western world with a renewed assault on Ukraine designed to capture more of its territory along the Black Sea coast. The tools Moscow uses to secure the reconquest of the post-Soviet space are myriad: emigration to rebalance local ethnic demography; exporting Russian passports to non-citizens, propaganda, energy blackmail, and cyber warfare. But the use of force is not off the table. And Russia’s territorial ambitions are not limited to Ukraine.
The notion that Russia might test NATO in a Baltic state has kept American strategists up at night for years. Today, such an experiment must appear even more tempting from the Kremlin’s perspective. Estonia has already been the target of many such provocations—among them, a crippling 2007 cyberattack on the nation’s infrastructure and a sophisticated 2014 raid by Russian forces across the Estonian border, abducting a local police officer and putting him on trial. A more direct provocation that would try NATO’s commitment to the treaty’s mutual-defense provisions is far easier to envision today than it was on Friday night.
Eighty years ago, the West’s appeasers howled in unison “Why Die for Danzig?” Why wouldn’t today’s “peacemakers” be just as inclined to question the value of a global war against Russia over Tallinn? At least, that’s what the Kremlin’s hungriest revanchists must be asking themselves.
It’s a perfectly rational question. After all, even America’s allies were shocked to watch the United States so callously sacrifice an ally for no discernible strategic purpose and under no perceptible pressure from the voting public. Our caprice has shaken the faith that we will defend our partners’ interests around the world if we’re unwilling to bear the modest burdens associated with preserving our own.
As the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reported over the weekend, U.S. allies are fit to be tied over the shambolic handling of Afghanistan. “U.S. allies complain that they were not fully consulted on a policy decision that potentially puts their own national security interests at risk,” Sly reported. One German official raged over the Biden administration’s haughty disregard for European security. “We’re back to the transatlantic relationship of old, where the Americans dictate everything,” she snarled. Another British parliamentarian wondered aloud about whether America under Joe Biden would or even could stand up to its peer competitors if it is “being defeated by an insurgency armed with no more than [rocket-propelled grenades], land mines, and AK-47s?” And in the Middle East, which continues to be menaced by an increasingly extroverted Iran, some are now conceding that American involvement in the region ends up ultimately being more trouble than it’s worth.
Advocates for American retrenchment abroad fancy themselves a serious sort. They don’t think America should commit its resources to the defense of interests on purely moral grounds. So, if they are not moved by the sight of Afghans we abandoned to the Taliban clinging to U.S. transport planes, tumbling to their deaths from hundreds of feet up, perhaps they will be moved by the grave implications to U.S. interests and global security. If not, we can safely assume that their interests are not as benign as they insist. Perhaps pursuing what’s best for America at home and abroad isn’t their only or even foremost motive.