U.S NAVY/Central Command Public Affairs/Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/Reuters
A Marine assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit escorts a State Department employee to be processed for evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this photo taken Aug. 15, 2021, and released by the U.S. Navy Aug. 18.

After Kabul, hard questions about American global leadership

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Among foreign policy and international affairs analysts, the judgment is unusually uniform: The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and collapse of the government have dealt a severe setback to American prestige as the preeminent global power.

“For a world where the U.S. remains the last great power with enormous material and value interests going on in tandem, the idea of enlightened U.S. leadership has been dealt a tremendous body blow,” says Professor Robert Lieber at Georgetown University. “There’s no getting around it: The chaos and incompetence we’re seeing in Kabul badly undercuts American credibility, it is devastating to our allies, and it emboldens our adversaries.”

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan strikes at the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. But an American ability to learn from mistakes may help restore its leadership.

Daniel Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, notes the withdrawal “seems to have been addressed with very little consultation.” “In that sense,” he says, “it’s Biden’s version of ‘America First,’ and the impact of that is something the administration is going to have to tend to with our allies.”

Yet he holds out some hope for restored U.S. leadership. “This is a moment for something I always say, which is, ‘Never underestimate America’s ability to shoot itself in the foot.’ But the second part of that,” he adds, “is, ‘Never underestimate America’s ability to heal itself from shooting itself in the foot.’”

As Afghan provincial capitals fell at blitzkrieg pace last week, with the national capital, Kabul, the ultimate prize in the insurgent Taliban’s sights, the White House chose the moment to inform the world that President Joe Biden would host a “leaders’ summit for democracy” at year’s end.

With America’s 20-year effort to bring democratic governance, universal education, and human rights to Afghanistan crashing down, the timing and pomp of a statement proclaiming that U.S. leadership would “galvanize” efforts to defend against authoritarianism, fight corruption, and promote respect for human rights globally, seemed darkly risible.

And yet the evidence is just as glaring that the universal values that underpin the tattered and retreating – some even say finished – seven-decade-old Pax Americana remain inexorable motivators of the human spirit. It can be seen in the 70% of Afghan girls attending school before the government fell, or in the fearless local human rights groups that emerged and in the political pluralism that very imperfect democratic rule fostered.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan strikes at the U.S. commitment to democracy and human rights. But an American ability to learn from mistakes may help restore its leadership.

With America’s “longest war” in Afghanistan lost and its democratization project there a shambles, where does that leave American leadership – with allies and adversaries – going forward? And whither the core American interest in the effort to spread and fortify Western values?

Among foreign policy and international affairs analysts, the judgment is unusually uniform – that American leadership and prestige as the preeminent global power have suffered a severe setback.

“For a world where the U.S. remains the last great power with enormous material and value interests going on in tandem, the idea of enlightened U.S. leadership has been dealt a tremendous body blow,” says Robert Lieber, professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University and the author of several books on U.S. leadership.

“There’s no getting around it: The chaos and incompetence we’re seeing in Kabul badly undercuts American credibility, it is devastating to our allies, and it emboldens our adversaries of every kind – including terrorists,” Professor Lieber says.

Noting that the original post-9/11 reason for the war was to end Afghanistan’s use by Al Qaeda as a safe haven, he adds, “Afghanistan under the Taliban will once again become a magnet for terrorists of every stripe. But it will also give tremendous inspiration to lone wolves in other countries – and that will be a problem particularly for our European allies.”

Broad geopolitical impact

The geopolitical repercussions not just of the U.S. retreat, but of the conditions under which it is taking place, will stretch around the globe, others say. Some are zeroing in on the Indo-Pacific region, where U.S. presidents since Barack Obama have turned their attention as China has pursued its global rise.

India over the past decade has been strengthening its ties with the United States as a hedge against China, for example. But how will the U.S. departure from the neighborhood affect New Delhi’s calculus?

Another area of concern: NATO, which joined the U.S. in Afghanistan and undertook its most significant out-of-area mission since its post-World War II founding. Under what conditions would NATO allies accompany the U.S. outside Europe in the future?

For some analysts, it is not so much the U.S. departure from Afghanistan as it is the botched pullout that will affect perceptions of U.S. leadership and allies’ trust in it.

“There’s a pretty wide understanding that the U.S. is leaving because Afghanistan is not a core national interest, that what is in the national interest will be Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. I don’t think allies are really going to worry about that all that much,” says Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

“What is more disturbing is that this all happened in a way that took the Biden administration by surprise, and seems to have been addressed with very little consultation with allies,” he says. “In that sense it’s Biden’s version of ‘America First,’ and the impact of that is something the administration is going to have to tend to with our allies.”

Some European leaders are not waiting for consultations with the U.S. to express their dismay at how the allied withdrawal from Afghanistan is unfolding. The U.S. withdrawal is “the greatest debacle that NATO has experienced since its foundation,” Armin Laschet – widely expected to become Germany’s next chancellor after September elections – said Monday.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden walks from the podium after speaking about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, Aug. 16, 2021, in Washington.

The White House is already being bombarded with questions about what the chaotic departure from Afghanistan might signal to worried allies. At a press conference Tuesday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan contrasted the 20-year U.S. presence in Afghanistan with enduring U.S. commitments in Europe and South Korea.

“We gave 20 years of American blood, treasure, sweat, and tears in Afghanistan,” Mr. Sullivan said, but he drew a distinction between that kind of commitment and “our commitments to allies and partners [that] are sacrosanct.” He cited Taiwan and Israel – or South Korea and Europe – “where we have sustained troop presences for a very long time ... to deal with the potential of an external enemy and to protect our ally against that external enemy.”

Biden’s vision of leadership

At the same time, it is President Biden who has placed democracy and human rights at the center of his vision of American leadership. With the end of the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan coming on his watch, there will be no separating what becomes of the values the U.S. sought to instill there from Mr. Biden’s broader credibility and the fortunes of U.S. efforts to nurture those values globally.

The world will be watching to what extent the U.S., now the defeated opponent to a Taliban-governed Afghanistan, can encourage moderation on the part of the country’s new rulers.

The real challenge will be, “What can be done – if anything – to moderate the way in which the Taliban governs ... and enforces its interpretation of Islamic law and customs,” as well as “to limit repression ... and the tolerance of terrorism,” says Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in comments on the center’s website.

Some are seeing signs of an evolved Taliban in the initial public statements coming out of Afghanistan’s new leaders.

In a statement Tuesday, Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission, said the new government is offering amnesty to Afghans who worked with and assisted the U.S.-led coalition. In addition, he said the Taliban are “ready to provide women with environment to work and study, and the presence of women in different structures according to Islamic law and in accordance with our cultural values.”

U.S. experts with experience in promoting civil society and in particular women’s participation in governance say they will be watching both how the Taliban proceed and what the U.S. does to rally international pressure to preserve some part of the gains made by Afghan society over two decades.

“Right now we see the Taliban trying to attenuate the concerns the world has as they move to govern the country, but obviously the course they take remains to be seen,” says Wardah Khalid, a Washington-based foreign policy analyst who also works to increase Muslim Americans’ political engagement.

Noting that President Biden said this week that the U.S. would aim to lead with diplomacy rather than with the military, Ms. Khalid says she will be “watching for signs that U.S. leadership is indeed moving in that direction and can be effective” in influencing Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Encouraged by women

Moreover, she says she is encouraged by signs that women in Congress are not leaving the question of Afghan women’s prospects to the administration but are already proposing legislation to mold any future diplomacy with the Taliban government based on treatment of women.

“I really think it’s the direction that American young people especially want to see the country taking” in terms of global engagement, Ms. Khalid says.

The Fletcher School’s Professor Drezner says it’s easy in the shock of the moment to conclude that the 20-year commitment in Afghanistan was a “waste,” or that the disastrous withdrawal means an era of American leadership is closing. But he cautions against such conclusions.

“You just can’t generalize, especially in the heat of the moment, that we didn’t accomplish everything we set out to do in Afghanistan, therefore we can’t do anything anywhere anymore,” he says.

Moreover, he says he is counting on what he says history has shown to be America’s ability to learn from its mistakes – as he says America did after the 1975 departure from Vietnam.

As signs that America still possesses this ability to “heal itself” in the wake of an international disaster, Professor Drezner says he will be watching for two things in particular: the effort the U.S. makes to “embrace all of the Afghans who assisted us [and] to send the signal that those who help us aren’t going to be abandoned,” and then a “9/11-type bipartisan commission” that will look deeply at answering why and where a policy initially supported by virtually everyone went wrong.

“This is a moment for something I always say, which is, ‘Never underestimate America’s ability to shoot itself in the foot.’ But the second part of that,” he adds, “is, ‘Never underestimate America’s ability to heal itself from shooting itself in the foot.’”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to After Kabul, hard questions about American global leadership
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2021/0818/After-Kabul-hard-questions-about-American-global-leadership
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe