America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan sows doubts over U.S. security commitment

August 18, 2021

America’s chaotic exit from a war-torn Afghanistan is offering a sobering reminder to South Korea and other U.S. allies that its decades-old security commitments should not be taken for granted, analysts said Wednesday.

The ongoing pullout of U.S. troops has led to the collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul, the Taliban’s return to power and a frenzied exodus of Afghans — an unsettling saga that reflects the U.S.’ apparent tendency to engage only where vital interests are at stake.

The withdrawal to end 20 years of war has cast doubts over President Joe Biden’s “America is back” mantra — synonymous with its stronger global leadership — and left observers here examining implications of the exit on Seoul’s reliance on Washington for security.

“The development shows the reality that unlike in the past, the U.S. cannot intervene in all issues of world conflicts, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia,” professor Kim Heung-kyu, head of the U.S.-China Policy Institute at Ajou University, said.

“It sends the message that Washington, with its finite power, cannot help but make a decision prioritizing U.S. interests, and that it can withdraw needless intervention or investment anytime if allies do not have the capabilities or will to fend for themselves,” he added.

Brushing aside criticism at home and abroad, Biden defended the troop withdrawal and chided the Afghan military for its unwillingness to fight and Afghan leaders for disunity, while stressing the U.S. goal had been preventing terrorism rather than “nation building.”

“American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” Biden said in televised remarks Monday.

He added: “The political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people. … They would never have done so while U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan bearing the brunt of the fighting for them.”

The Afghan situation is hardly comparable to the treaty alliance between Seoul and Washington that has been broadening its role in the Asia-Pacific — now the fulcrum of global power and wealth — beyond just deterring North Korean nuclear threats.

South Korea’s geopolitical value, along with its technological, economic and military strength, may make it unlikely for the U.S. to give short shrift to it, particularly in the midst of an intensifying Sino-U.S. strategic rivalry.

Apparently mindful of U.S. allies’ concerns on the credibility of America’s security support, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Washington’s commitments to allies are “sacrosanct,” and it has no intention to pare down its troop presence in South Korea and Europe.

“The president, as he has said repeatedly, has no intention of drawing down our forces from South Korea or from Europe, where we have sustained troop presences for a very long time — not in the middle of a civil war, but to deal with the potential of an external enemy and to protect our ally against that external enemy,” he said in a press briefing Tuesday.

But the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan offers a cautionary tale given that the relationship with Afghanistan, which Washington once touted as a “strong, long-term, broad partnership” with “many shared interests,” has crumbled hopelessly.

The pullout was only the latest in a set of cases where the removal of the U.S. military footprint put America’s erstwhile partners in jeopardy.

Most recently, former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew troops from northern Syria in 2019, endangering the security of Kurdish allies, credited with operations to defeat the Islamic State group. The departure from Afghanistan also harked back to America’s 1973 exit from the Vietnam War that saw U.S.-backed South Vietnam falling to the communist North in 1975.

“The lesson that we can draw here from cases of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq is that South Korea cannot depend wholly on the U.S. for security without securing its own capacity for survival,” Kim Tae-hyun, professor emeritus at Chung Ang University, said.

Seoul has steadily pushed to beef up its independent military capabilities with an endeavor to retake wartime operational control from Washington. But Pyongyang’s growing nuclear capabilities have overshadowed the effort.

On the flip side, however, the U.S. military departure from Afghanistan could accelerate Washington’s efforts to sharpen its focus on the Asia-Pacific region to rally its regional alliances against an assertive China and a recalcitrant North Korea.

During the past Barack Obama administration, Washington pushed for a strategic pivot to the region under its “rebalancing” strategy, but the policy initiative was hindered by the rise of insurgents in the Middle East.

“It could be Rebalancing 2.0, so to speak,” Nam Chang-hee, professor of international politics at Inha University, said.

“As China has appeared to be increasingly assertive, the U.S. may have to concentrate on responding to that with trusted allies like South Korea and Australia, and intend to forestall any Chinese move to revise the regional status quo,” he added.

The overturning of the Afghan government also marked a bitter moment for South Korea’s decadeslong efforts to help stabilize and rebuild the conflict-laden country through military deployments, provincial development support and expanded humanitarian aid.

From 1991-2020, South Korea provided more than US$1 billion in total in various forms of support to Afghanistan, excluding the costs spent on its military deployments to the country, according to the foreign ministry.

In particular, Seoul had pushed for various cooperation projects with Kabul, including those aimed at tackling COVID-19, enhancing gender equality and spurring economic development. Those projects are now left in limbo as the U.S.-backed Kabul government has collapsed, a ministry official said.

Amid worries that such support could go in vain with the country now in the hands of the Islamic militant group, Seoul officials said that they would watch how the situation will unfold in Afghanistan.

“Korea has made contributions through our provincial reconstruction team, and we can’t say that such efforts will go down the drain,” an official said. “Rather than making a prejudgment, we will watch how things will unfold in Afghanistan, as well as in the international community.”

Despite varying views on the implications of the Afghan case, analysts converge on a caveat: Any bilateral relationship has the potential to change due to domestic politics, the shifting geopolitical landscape and other variables.

“There are of course concerns that if South Korea does not craft diplomatic measures to respond to various scenarios from various perspectives, it could also face an embarrassing situation,” professor Kim of Ajou University said.