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A Big Loser in Afghanistan: American Credibility

The loss of U.S. credibility after this pullout from Afghanistan will have grave consequences across the globe.
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August 16, 2021
Kabul police secure areas in the central part of the city on August 13, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Sometimes it can be difficult to interpret the intricate language that diplomats use when they are attempting to delicately navigate the complexities of international geopolitics. As a public service, today I will translate the diplo-speak that U.S. emissaries use when their public statements are difficult to decipher.

The examples are courtesy of State Department spokesperson Ned Price, who has been tasked with the unenviable challenge of explaining the U.S. military’s hasty exit from Afghanistan as that country’s government crumbled in the face of Taliban attacks.

Price said: “This is not abandonment”.

Translation: “This is abandonment.”

Price said: “This is not an evacuation.”

Translation: “This is an evacuation”.

Price said: “This is not the wholesale withdrawal.”

Translation: “This is just a frantic and improvised preparation for the wholesale withdrawal.”

Let’s now move from linguistic gymnastics to the broader ramifications of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rapid takeover of that country by Taliban militants.

The comparisons between this departure and our evacuation from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon almost half a century ago will be flying fast and furious in the days ahead, and for good reason. The long-lasting international impact of the United States’ rapid withdrawal from Vietnam was a generation of U.S. adversaries who learned that if they simply waited long enough, the Americans would eventually get bored and go home. The loss of U.S. credibility after this pullout from Afghanistan will have equally grave consequences across the globe.

The comparisons between this departure and our evacuation from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon almost half a century ago will be flying fast and furious in the days ahead, and for good reason.

For awhile, America’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 had put to rest the perception of America’s diminishing resolve. Osama Bin Laden miscalculated that the attacks would drive the U.S. from the Middle East as they had Southeast Asia in the 1970’s. Instead, the Americans declared war on Afghanistan, drove the Taliban from power and ultimately killed Bin Laden and his top lieutenants. But now, in the wake of the debacle in Afghanistan, the memories of Vietnam are reasserting themselves, and U.S. friends and foes alike are asking fresh questions about American staying power.

The greatest potential damage could be in the Middle East, as Iran and its various client organizations consider the benefits of patiently waiting out the Americans until we eventually leave them to pursue their nefarious goals in that region. Israel’s most determined adversaries think back not just to Vietnam, but to the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon in the aftermath of the bombing of a U.S. military instillation in Beirut in 1983, when 240 American servicemembers were killed. The idea of outwaiting the Americans has driven Iran’s strategy for decades, and it shapes the tactics on which Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and others have relied ever since. Now the questions will grow louder again, and Israel’s opponents will be motivated to dig in and wait for what they will see as an inevitable opportunity to strike.

It is worth noting the contrast between the frenetic exit from Afghanistan that both Donald Trump and Joe Biden pushed forward and our country’s more careful and gradual withdrawal from Iraq. While there will soon be no American military presence in Afghanistan, the 2500 US troops remaining in Iraq will serve a vital purpose in an advisory and training role. The small, continuing U.S. force can train the Iraqi military, provide it with intelligence and support it against Iran and other potentially hostile regional powers. The result is a relatively stable political environment, one in which Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi feels sufficiently comfortable in his position that he is attempting to organize a summit that could get his neighboring rivals — Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — around the same table for the first time in years.

There are certainly differences between the challenges the U.S. has faced in these two countries. In pulling out of Afghanistan, Biden advisors argue they were committed to honoring an agreement brokered by the Trump administration (which doesn’t excuse the terrible execution of the withdrawal). Trump made no such pact about a withdrawal of forces from Iraq, which has allowed Biden to attempt to resolve that “endless” war far more effectively than the rushed evacuation in Afghanistan.

That doesn’t mean that Iraq is safe or secure. But the fundamentals are there for a possibly better path forward. By contrast, the losses in Afghanistan will be immense, both in terms of the devastation of the country itself and the equally severe damage to U.S. credibility around the world for years to come.

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