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Learning from Afghan failure

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By Park Yoon-bae

The chaotic U.S. exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban's return to power speak volumes about America's foreign policy and its future courses of alliance with other countries.

The Biden administration completed the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the evacuation of American citizens and Afghan refugees from the war-torn country at the end of last month. Yet Washington has suffered a setback, because it failed to carry out an orderly exit.

It is perplexing to discern that the U.S. learned a lesson from the failure the hard way. The Afghan case has hurt the pride of America, one of the so-called "G2" powers, along with China. It has also left an indelible mark on the U.S.'s global leadership.

This failure in Afghanistan, however, does not mean that the U.S. has totally failed in its war on terrorism. The U.S. had produced some successful results over the past 20 years since it invaded Afghanistan. It toppled the Taliban regime, which offered sanctuary to al-Qaida, which is accused of plotting and carrying out the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. It also killed al-Qaida founder and leader, Osama bin Laden, in 2011.

But with the Taliban's comeback, the Afghan situation has now returned to square one. This reality is what is considered most humiliating for the U.S., which has so far spent more than $2 trillion to wage its longest war there.

The Afghan war seemed to be unwinnable, as was the case with the Vietnam War. The George W. Bush administration, which started the war in Afghanistan, apparently ignored the lessons from the failure of the Soviet Union there. The USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a Moscow-backed Afghan coalition to remain in power. But the Soviets eventually had to leave the country after losing a nine-year war with the Mujahideen.

Afghanistan is of vital strategic importance geopolitically, located in South Asia and bordering Iran, Pakistan and China as well as three Central Asian countries: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At that time, the Soviet Union wanted to use Afghanistan as a foothold to advance into South Asia, while the U.S. was interested in curbing Moscow's influence in the region.

However, both the Soviets and Americans paid little attention to the complexities of Afghanistan's unique politics, religion, history, culture, ethnic patchwork and many other factors. They mistakenly believed that they could do anything they wanted: to push for regime change, prop up governments that lacked popular backing, or in various direct and indirect ways impose their own values and systems on Afghans.

In fact, the U.S. had tried to implant an American-style democracy in the Muslim-majority country, which has long resisted foreign intervention. Its efforts for nation building there completely fell apart after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the government armed forces surrendered to the Taliban without any resistance.

So we cannot but ask a question: What has the U.S. accomplished in Afghanistan over the past two decades? The U.S. poured an astronomical sum of its tax dollars into a bottomless pit, wasting Americans' blood and tears, and also costing the lives of many Afghans.

Of course, such a failure cannot be attributed simply to the Biden administration's miscalculated carrying out of the withdrawal. Rather, it apparently stems from fundamental and structural problems within Washington's foreign policy establishment. It makes people call into question the current state of Pax Americana, which has contributed to world peace since World War II.

The U.S. should learn from its failure so that it can avoid repeating the same mistakes and create a better future for the world. No superpower can maintain peace only through force. The U.S. saw its soft power significantly weakened under the rule of former President Donald Trump. His "America first" policy left America alone in terms of its foreign relations.

Now, President Joe Biden must double down on keeping his promise to restore the U.S.'s global leadership and rebuild a rules-based international order. He declared that "America is back." But, the Afghanistan case has underscored the message that "America has left."

As such, Biden has given the impression that he might have abandoned his efforts to reverse many of the isolationist foreign policy decisions made by Trump, and returned to carry out the withdrawal, which was in fact initiated and set up by his predecessor. This impression is evident in the remarks he made right after the Taliban's recapture of Kabul.

Reflecting fatigued public sentiment inside the U.S. over the expense and length of the war in Afghanistan, Biden said much to the effect that America would neither engage in any war that does not serve the U.S.'s interest nor remake a country through the deployment of U.S. forces. And he implied that he would shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy to the Indo-Pacific region to check the rise of China.

So the Biden administration is expected to strengthen the U.S.-led international coalition against China, possibly by expanding the scope and role of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, and comprised of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.

Consequently, South Korea may face growing U.S. pressure to join the Quad. The intensifying competition between Washington and China could force Seoul to choose sides. Then, the dilemma will be that the Moon Jae-in administration could find it ever more difficult to keep the balance between the two global powers.

South Korea has so far maintained a policy of relying on its traditional ally, the U.S., for defense and security, while depending on China, its largest trading partner, for economic growth. However, such a policy may need to see change in the not-too-distant future. If that happens, we will need a paradigm shift that can help us go beyond the great power rivalry. We should realize how dangerous it is for us to put our fate unconditionally at the mercy of either America or China.

The author (byb@koreatimes.co.kr) is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Times.

Park Yoon-bae byb@koreatimes.co.kr

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