It was heartbreaking to watch, but of no real surprise — that was my initial response when Kabul had fallen to the Taliban.
Since I was director for the war-torn country at Japan’s Foreign Ministry for two years in the mid-1990s, it was particularly personal for me.
At the time, I frequently visited Afghanistan and Pakistan. I visited Kandahar in 1997 for talks with Taliban officials a few months before Osama Bin Laden reportedly moved his new residence to the Pashtun city. That was just four years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Right after the Taliban takeover, a U.S. friend of mine emailed me stating that he was watching the events in Kabul with great dismay and disappointment. He said: “The imagery from there conveys both a sense of incompetence and weakness on the part of the Biden administration.”
As a serious observer, my friend also asked about, for good reason, “how these events are being perceived in Northeast Asia” and particularly in Tokyo and Beijing. I am rather optimistic about Japan’s position, but, to my surprise, some in Tokyo seem to share his concerns.
The Asahi Shimbun, for example, wrote: “To the international community, it appears that Mr. Biden has abandoned the Afghan people” and it “will leave a major scar on the prestige of the United States.”
As a former Middle East hand, I do not buy such shallow analysis.
This journalist does not seem to know how wars are traditionally fought in Afghanistan. He or she may not even know why the militia group is called the Taliban in the first place. If so, it would mean they know little about the Taliban, which means “students” in Pashto and is derived from the Arabic word for student.
For sure, the plight of those vulnerable Afghans at risk must be resolved. But it is equally important to note what is happening in Central Asia and the Middle East, with the region-wide geostrategic transformation that is unfolding.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, with its unwinnable war there, has strategic implications elsewhere as well, particularly for the Indo-Pacific region as it pertains to the rise of Chinese power and influence. And all the regional powers, such as China and Russia, will have to adjust to the new reality in Central Asia and the Middle East accordingly.
Questions are being raised about the Biden administration’s handling of the latest tragedy to befall Afghanistan and concern is mounting about the credibility of the United States going forward, as well as other issues. My takeaways are the following:
The will to fight
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on CNN, “You cannot buy (a) will to fight.” But make no mistake. Afghans have a strong will to fight when their families or tribes are threatened. The reality is that there never was widespread loyalty to the former government of Afghanistan.
That was to be expected, particularly given the corruption and incompetence that prevailed throughout the leadership of the erstwhile national government.
The reality is that wars in Afghanistan are more often fought through deal making and bribes, rather than by weapons. The national armed forces of Afghanistan virtually evaporated before the Taliban’s latest advance with very little fighting taking place.
Alliances help those who help themselves
Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his friends did not help the Afghans, and they had to pay the price.
For Japan — another U.S. ally in the Indo-Pacific region — this means that if we don’t have the will to fight and defend ourselves, we will be like Afghanistan.
In this regard, the fall of Kabul may not damage our alliance with the U.S., as my friend may have feared.
It may, however, potentially have an impact on the Trans-Atlantic alliance and NATO. The tragedy was that when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan 20 years ago after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — which stipulates that an armed attack on one party is considered an attack on all parties involved. Involving its European allies in America’s own “forever war” in Afghanistan may have left a lasting scar on NATO.
America should have known that Afghanistan would probably never change its ways, and the U.S. should not have stayed there for 20 years, or even for a year.
China and North Korea
Much has been made about the Afghan Army being poorly trained. But how about China and North Korea? In contrast, the two countries may be providing top-notch training, equipment and massive funding for their armed forces, but will their soldiers and sailors really choose to fight at the critical moment should they go to war with the United States and its ally Japan?
It is important to note that during World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army and the Imperial Japanese Navy both had the nation’s best and brightest in their ranks and were well funded, but obviously that was not enough to ensure victory.
Is China different? My U.S. friend told me that he wondered if the People’s Liberation Army was just “a paper tiger.” He noted that the Chinese armed forces have “lots of equipment but no real war-fighting experience or ability to make decisions at the unit level, which is crucial in warfare.” I agree with him.
Avoid the blame game
When President Joe Biden said he could not trust the Taliban, he was right. No matter if the group guarantees blanket amnesty or safe passage to airports, in Afghanistan, that is meaningless. In that country during times of war, telling lies is an often-used battlefield strategy.
In April when President Biden announced the withdrawal, no one expected such an abrupt collapse of the Afghan military nor the swarms of people who flooded the tarmac of Kabul Airport seeking escape. The U.S. news media blamed an intelligence failure for the current situation or said it was evidence of bad planning by the Biden administration. Perhaps there is some truth to both of those ideas.
That said, expecting the Biden administration to be prepared for all of the above is asking for the impossible. Critics may say that crisis management should account for all possible worst-case scenarios. However, no one can plan anything if there’s such a worst-case scenario in which the entire strategy would fall apart in the first place.
Of course, the buck stops with the president of the United States. But if American journalists start criticizing for the sake of criticizing, it will only benefit the Taliban and will not help the Afghans, particularly those who assisted foreign forces, and who are currently most at risk. Now is the time to focus on ensuring their safety.
As far as U.S. allies and friends in the Indo-Pacific region are concerned, the tragedy in Afghanistan is heartbreaking but not a surprise. Biden’s strategic decision, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman said, “could still be right,” and many in Tokyo are hoping so.