People have expressed disappointment at how Afghanistan was packaged and handed over to the Taliban like Santa’s Christmas gift. However, President Biden “stands squarely behind [his] decision” to withdraw “because…it’s the right decision for our [Americans] people.” Perhaps, Biden was right. The swift collapse of the Afghan government despite 20 years of support and military training validates his skepticism that US presence and continued efforts would ever have enabled the government to stand. The withdrawal is probably a blessing as it might have saved American lives. US troops had been reduced from about 15,500 to 2,500, while “the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001” Based on the evidence that the Afghan troops did not have the will to fight, we can say that the American forces would have been in great danger had they been there at the time of the seizure.
However, some scholars argue that a “‘Real chance’ Afghanistan withdrawal ‘destroys’ Biden presidency.” Some journalists believe that it is “Donald Trump’s policy, but it’s Joe Biden’s implementation, and he will pay quite a price for the shambles that is unfolding.” Others claim that it highlights America’s failures in military planning, intelligence, nation-building, and most importantly, failure to protect those it has sworn to defend, leaving them to fall to their death from a moving aircraft.
How will the Afghanistan situation affect the long-term US-Taiwan relations? Will Afghanistan encourage Taiwan to seek its security or seek diplomatic measures towards China? Will the US use Afghanistan to validate why Taiwan needs to continue living under the US security umbrella? This piece argues that the Afghan problem is likely to have a dire consequence on American credibility in Taiwan among the public. However, although leaders will show “over-attention” – the US will become a larger part of their world, paying attention to every little US decision – they will not change much in top-level political policies, and the existing trend will prevail.
Since the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan in 1949, their return to the mainland – as rulers – has remained an illusion, dissipating with time. Since a military return isn’t feasible, Taipei has decided to assert independence, calling the mainland to see the reality of the time and “set aside the baggage of history and engage in positive dialogue.” A move Beijing rejects. The mainland has made conscious efforts to reunify while both sides continue to “respect each other’s choice of development path and social system.” However, the US props Taiwan since the 1950s, and Taiwan exists because of the US security umbrella. The US support was to neutralize the communist threat in the Pacific area. This strategy persists because the US argues China poses a substantial threat, exacerbated by its economic growth and associated externalities.
Through history and legality (the 1992 Consensus), China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province that needs to be brought back at all costs, including force, without any compromise. Aaron Friedberg argues that because America’s support for Taiwan upsets China and China’s Asia domination is inevitable, “the US should stop making Taiwan an irritant in Beijing-Washington relations” to expand China-US cooperation. However, others see China as a power with strategic aims beyond Taiwan and that if the US withdraws, China’s global and regional challenge will persist and grow.
The images from Kabul airport, showing chaos and people’s fear as they flee the country, could send chills into Taiwan’s public, pondering what would happen if the US similarly abandons them. Taiwan’s youth has bought into Taiwan’s independence mantra, in a direct divergence with their compatriots in the mainland. The youth suspect their leaders might cave into China’s pressure for reunification. Thus, they demand more scrutiny in all agreements with China, adequately supervised and monitored by the people to protect their hard-fought democracy and independence ambition. This was the primary demand when they stormed the Taiwanese parliament in 2014. These youth would likely begin to suspect the US’s credibility and willingness to protect them, taking inspiration from Kabul. Afghanistan may sow doubts, shaping the notion that one cannot count on the US. Steven Erlanger agrees that “Afghanistan’s Unraveling May Strike Another Blow to US Credibility,” thus “compounding the wounds of the Trump years and reinforcing the idea that America’s backing for its allies is not unlimited.” Indeed, this “hesitation will now be felt all the more strongly among countries in play in the world, like Taiwan.”
In March 1973, the US military left South Vietnam after signing the Vietnam Peace Agreement. Soon, the governments that the US had supported in Indochina fell to Marxist governments. Marxist successes cascaded into the Global South, including Africa and Latin America. In 1979, the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan to support the pro-communist/pro-Soviet regime rattled by internal rebels. The rebels defied the combined Afghan and Soviet forces to make the conflict extraordinarily costly for the Soviets. The Soviet troops began to withdraw in May 1988, paving the way for the rebels to overthrow the Soviet-backed government in 1992. A weakened Soviet withdrawal preceded the collapse of Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself in December 1991. Therefore, it is not surprising that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan led to the fall of the regime Washington had constructed and propped. President Biden was clear about its anticipation: “there is no chance that 1 year — 1 more year, 5 more years, or 20 more years of US military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.” However, the speed of the fall is noteworthy: “The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.”
Although these precedents exist, Taipei will unlikely change its existing US policies despite leaders’ over-attention because Afghanistan and Taiwan conditions are dissimilar. The US and Taiwan enjoy a robust unofficial relationship and a unique security partnership. The US also ally with others whose security is bounded with Taiwan, such as Japan. The US-Afghanistan relationship was a bilateral partnership guided by the Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement (economic and political commitments) signed in 2012. We cannot deny that alliances can lead to entrapment (entangled in another’s war) or abandonment (abrogating the alliance contract or failing to make good on explicit commitments). However, it is unlikely that the US would abandon Taipei as it did in Kabul, looking at the strings of alliances related to Taiwan and its influence on the US global power. In case of withdrawal, the US would implement appropriate diplomatic measures with Beijing, similar to when it switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei in 1979.
Moreover, the US and Taiwan have a common perceived threat – China – thus, they have similar strategic objectives. Taiwan is concerned with the increasing threat to its independence. Recently, the US is also overly concerned about China’s growing regional and global strength. Apart from the direct security threat, China’s helping hands abroad seem to have elevated its perceived global influence, likely to win friends. Thus, President Biden hopes to repair alliances and engage with them to “meet today’s and tomorrow’s [challenges]… including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States.” However, the US has argued that its strategic objective in Afghanistan was “counterterrorism – not counterinsurgency or nation-building,” which is achieved. Therefore it had no basis in staying in Afghanistan, as both Trump and Biden administrations concluded. Thus, it does not mean that the US is prepared to see its allies fall. Nevertheless, leaders in Afghanistan had no specific interest aside from enriching themselves under the US cover.
Finally, we need to take cognizance that the US-trained Afghan forces were not defeated on the battlefield. They became moles through corruption and betrayed their country. The security forces saw the government as corrupt and illegitimate, prompting them to be corrupt themselves. The semiannual report to Congress in June 2020 reported rampant corruption remained a critical challenge. 80% of Afghans believe that the government was corrupt. The corruption resulted in attritions of 66% of the army and 73% of the police between December 2019 and May 2020. The US was made to believe that Afghan security forces were 352,000. However, the Afghan government could confirm 254,000. Afghan commanders created ghost names for profit. They enriched themselves with serving officers’ salaries. Thus, some officers were not paid for six to nine months.
The Taliban brokered deals with some government officials. Taliban leaders offered money – $150 – in exchange for government forces to hand over their weapons or join them. Since commanders were enriching themselves, “most troops chose to cut deals with the Taliban, surrender, or simply melt away rather than risk their lives for a hopeless cause.” Therefore, it was no surprise that no one was prepared and willing to fight and die for that corrupt and illegitimate government. “Everyone was just looking out for himself.” While Afghanistan ranks 165th on Transparency International’s corruption perception index 2020, Taiwan ranks 28th. Moreover, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Taiwan is the most democratic country in Asia, ranking 11th globally. Thus, it is unlikely that the corrupt practices that made Afghanistan fall could slide Taiwan. Nevertheless, leaders in Taiwan would seek US assurances through its Asia Pacific democratic partners.