Does US withdrawal from Afghanistan really put the world at risk?

 David J. Wasserstein, Opinion Contributor 1 day agoLike|98Germany’s Angela Merkel declares ‘yes, I am a feminist’Daniel Craig says Hugh Jackman helped him through James Bond…a group of people in uniform: Does US withdrawal from Afghanistan really put the world at risk?© The Hill Does US withdrawal from Afghanistan really put the world at risk?

In politics, as in life generally, we play the hand we are dealt, not with the hand we wish we had been dealt. Following 20 years of war, and some $2 trillion in costs, as well as far too many lives lost and shattered, the war in Afghanistan is over.

The Taliban won. America has left. These are the facts. The questions that arise concern where we and the world go from here. What does the exit from Afghanistan mean for the U.S., for America’s position in the world and for the world itself?

For Douglas Schoen and Carly Cooperman, writing recently in The Hill, the exit “comes with grave risks, and at a steep cost to global democratic and anti-terrorist objectives.” They claim the withdrawal means “the inevitable spread of terrorism in the Middle East, threats to Ukraine’s eastern front, and most of all Beijing’s undemocratic actions in Taiwan.”

But that claim confuses two very different things: one, the withdrawal from Afghanistan; and two, how the withdrawal was executed. It should be clear that 20 years of war left the U.S. and the country with few achievements to boast of. A 300,000-man army equipped and trained at immense cost collapsed at the first sign of danger. Major advances in women’s rights look likely to be turned back more or less immediately. The country will not want or be able now to continue the dramatic improvements to children’s education. Half the population now faces the risk of starvation or famine. In the era of COVID-19, Afghanistan stares at health catastrophes with no money, collapsing infrastructure and the threat of international isolation and financial sanctions being used as political bargaining tools. Above all, even the faux democracy that the U.S. imported is gone.

But all that relates to the aftermath of the Taliban victory and the accompanying, if greatly belated, U.S. recognition of political disarray and military defeat. Withdrawal itself, getting out, walking away from this disaster, is not and should not be at issue. After 20 years of increasingly predictable failure in Afghanistan, someone in the White House finally called it quits.

The real concern of Schoen and Cooperman is with how the withdrawal was carried out.

They claim that Islamist terrorists, the Russians and the Chinese will all see what has happened and take heart from a “botched” withdrawal, seeing it as an opportunity to spread violence in the Middle East, Russian power in the Ukraine and Chinese suzerainty over Taiwan.

Is this really so? Their vision is a globalized version of the domino theory. This held that if Vietnam fell to communist influence, so, one after another, would the rest of the countries of South-East Asia. Well, Vietnam did fall, following U.S. defeat half a century ago, but the rest of South-East Asia, while it entered upon an extremely ugly era of political instability and occasionally genocidal violence, remained largely free of those feared domino effects.

No one suggests that the coming years are going to be easy or comfortable for people in Afghanistan. But Schoen and Cooperman draw a straight line from the “botched” ending of America’s longest war to coming disaster in those three areas. Let’s take a look at the arenas that worry Schoen-Cooperman.

First, the spread of Middle East terrorism. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan does not spread terrorism. It restores the pre-U.S. invasion government to that country. That’s not something to celebrate, but it cannot be described as a spread. From its beginnings, the Taliban has proclaimed that its aim and its mission concern its own country, not others. Its hosting and support for al Qaeda may belong to the past.

At the moment, the Taliban looks different from before. It may not be, but if it tries to continue supporting terrorism abroad, there are other ways – ways that need not cost hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Afghan lives – to make our point of view felt.

As to spreading terror over the Middle East, there must be some doubt. Despite the attention it grabs when it occurs, non-homegrown terrorism outside the Middle East has largely died down over the last two or three decades. The terrorism that exists is largely ISIS or ISIS-inspired. It does not, despite ISIS-K, emanate from Afghanistan or the Taliban.

It is hard to imagine that the weak rulers of a landlocked, poor, hungry and unhealthy country in central Asia will spend their efforts and resources on spreading the message of militant Islam to countries hundreds, even thousands, of miles away.

Ukraine is a different case. Schoen and Cooperman insist that Russia is emboldened by the swiftness of the U.S. collapse in Afghanistan and will attempt to increase its pressure on Ukraine. Russia and Belarus will sign an agreement in coming weeks that “could position Russian troops on Ukraine’s northwestern borders – a move that would enfold Ukraine by Russian-controlled borders.” Ukraine has borders with Russia, and with Belarus. But it also has borders with Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland.

Of these five states, four – all except Moldova – are members of NATO, hardly “Russian-controlled.” And Moldova works closely with NATO too. None of these five states, it needs to be said, provides “Russian-controlled borders with Ukraine.” Ukraine’s position is not enviable, and the way in which it was treated by the previous U.S. administration contributed to its current situation. But the defeat of the U.S. in Afghanistan will make little difference to that country or the way in which Russia under Putin deals with it. The solution proffered by Schoen and Cooperman, giving Ukraine membership in NATO, is not going to work, nor will it happen.

Then there is Taiwan. Schoen and Cooperman worry that what Beijing is likely to do in relation to Taiwan is “undemocratic.” No one has ever suggested that Beijing might operate in a democratic manner, in relation to Taiwan or to anything else. But the issue here is not democracy but Chinese ambitions to conquer Taiwan and the real commitment of a stable U.S. administration (as contrasted with the previous one) to the protection of a Taiwan free of rule by Beijing.

The sad truth here is that, whatever the U.S. may say and do, at the moment developments in the Taiwan Strait are moving in Beijing’s favor, not Washington’s. Anything that can change that the other way will be welcome. But the fall of Afghanistan, which offers local strategic advantage for China, is not going to change what happens across that Strait.

Russia and China represent the principal challenges facing the U.S. and the West currently. Afghanistan was a dirty and expensive sideshow. Getting out of that quagmire, messily or not, offers us the best way of avoiding unnecessary distraction, concentrating thought and policy where they matter, re-allocating limited resources and maintaining our edge.

David J. Wasserstein is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. His latest book is “Black Banners of ISIS: The Roots of the New Caliphate” (Yale, 2017).



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