What should Australians take away from 20 years of war in Afghanistan? What are the implications of the withdrawal from Afghanistan for Australia and other US allies? A selection of USSC experts below give some brief analysis
Victoria Cooper, Research Associate
I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this weekend. As the protagonist flees Saigon following the US withdrawal, he details the heat of bodies jammed together in queues, the smell of fire on the tarmac, the cruelty of waiting, the sourness of leaving home and knowing what and who is left behind, the grief of shouting and being unheard. The Sympathizer animated the still images I saw from Afghanistan. Secretary Blinken said, 'this is manifestly not Saigon', but if nothing else the visual signals are familiar. As a researcher, I feel that I continually run the risk of making stale, emotional-less observations about foreign policy, but The Sympathizer has shaken my propensity for emotional disconnect in a way only good storytelling can.
Thomas Corben, Research Associate
America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has mixed implications for Australia and the Indo-Pacific. The good: the Biden administration is following through on its pledge to reduce US commitments in the Middle East and to focus more on China and the Indo-Pacific. That’s just as well, because the Biden team hasn’t yet nailed its regional strategy. The bad: the unilateral instincts on show in Washington’s departure from Afghanistan will raise questions for Australia and other Indo-Pacific partners – less about US alliance commitments, but more about the administration’s willingness to work more closely with key allies in formulating and executing its regional strategy.
Gorana Grgic, Lecturer in US Politics and Foreign Policy
The image of Afghans running alongside a US military transport plane taking off from Kabul will not just be seen as one of the defining images of president Biden’s foreign policy legacy, but rather, something that is much greater than his presidency. That photo, accompanied with the president’s 16 August speech on Afghanistan, encapsulates the definitive end of the post-9/11 era. While many are now focusing on Biden's lack of sorrow about humanitarian failures in the last stage of US withdrawal (and rightly so), the core of his remarks was an unequivocal statement on US foreign policy direction moving forward. Crises such as the Taliban takeover are deemed yesterday’s threats and US-led nation-building abroad a relic of the unipolar era.
Jennifer Jackett, Non-Resident Fellow
Afghans are now at the mercy of Islamist fundamentalists. While US interests necessitate a re-focus to the Indo Pacific, to be a credible global power the United States needs to be able to engage in strategic competition with China and support the impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The United States rightly needs to prioritise its efforts and resources in response to the complex array of global challenges this century – authoritarianism, climate impacts, technological change, and terrorism, to name a few. But trade-offs need to be careful not to come at the expense of the key principles and values that the United States is fighting for.
John Lee, Non-Resident Senior Fellow
Given the high likelihood that the Taliban remains as brutal as ever, especially regarding their attitude to women and girls, the pull-out means the Biden administration has lost considerable domestic and international moral standing and authority. But strategic incompetency and moral failure in Afghanistan does not presage how matters will unfold in the Indo-Pacific context. Afghanistan was a legacy issue for Biden which was handled extremely poorly. However, American, and allied interests, equities, and successes in our region are far more extensive. China will not read too much into events over the last few days and neither should we.
Jared Mondschein, Senior Research Fellow
Opinions on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan seem like a Rorschach test: Views on what occurred this week are often more telling of firmly held opinions on what occurred in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. If the US withdrawal from Vietnam has any parallels to Afghanistan, then this debate is unlikely to result in any overwhelming consensus. Yet the undeniable fact remains that after having lost thousands of US lives and trillions of US dollars, the same Taliban government in power on September 11, 2001, will once again be in power on September 11, 2021. Instead of trying to reach a consensus, perhaps it’s worth asking ourselves a question: Beyond deciding what lessons there are to learn, are we capable of learning lessons
Brendon O’Conner, Postgraduate Coordinator and Associate Professor in American Politics
After the US-led coalition invaded and occupied Afghanistan for 20 years and relied on locals to support this occupation the United States, Australia and other coalition partners owe those who worked with them in Afghanistan asylum. In 2002 then Secretary of State Colin Powell told George W. Bush: "'f you break a state, [by invading it] you own it.' Twenty years later, many lives have been lost in Afghanistan and Iraq and over US$2 trillion has been spent by the United States. The lesson we should take from both cases is that invading other nations is nearly always a bad idea.
Susannah Patton, Research Fellow
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan does not change Australia’s strategic outlook. President Biden’s 16 August speech is instructive. Biden said the US would not maintain a military presence where it did not have a vital national interest at stake. The US would focus on present challenges from China and Russia. The US would act in its own self-interest. Domestic political opinion would count. These are uncomfortable truths, but they are not news to Australia. US allies and partners have long understood, perhaps better than Americans themselves, that the United States is neither infallible nor endowed with unlimited resources and power.
Ashley Townshend, Director of Foreign Policy and Defence
America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years’ of conflict has been seized on by commentators as a reason to doubt US security commitments in other parts of the world. This is not true. America’s commitments should be judged on the strength of the perceived national interests and priorities at stake. These have been missing in action in Afghanistan for years. But they’re alive and well in the Indo-Pacific. From the perspective of US allies and partners in this part of the world, divesting from the Middle East might enable the US military to prioritise competition with China – provided the humanitarian tragedy in Afghanistan doesn’t become a political distraction. An orderly withdrawal would have been infinitely better both for the people of Afghanistan and America’s own ability to move on.
Toby Warden, Research Associate
The decision by the Biden administration to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was motivated by the conflict’s increasing irrelevance to American strategic interests and decreasing public support for sustained military operations. From the perspective of US allies in the Indo-Pacific, the withdrawal is unlikely to significantly erode the credibility of American security commitments as they are underpinned by Washington’s vital stakes in upholding the regional order. Indeed, it may help provide assurance to allies if it means more military resources and operational attention will be rebalanced to the Indo-Pacific.
Bruce Wolpe, Non-Resident Senior Fellow
The US war in Afghanistan has failed. Vietnam failed. Iran is the biggest winner out of the Iraq War. What are the lessons here? Why does the United States have such an agonising time learning them? The lesson may be not to fight wars to impose democracy from the outside, but to leverage it from the outside with those on the inside who want it. For those who pose existential threats of terror, mass destruction, genocide and naked aggression: meet force with force. But that means you can’t – you won’t – save all who need to be saved from tyranny, oppression and atrocity.