South Korea’s Takeaway from the US Afghanistan Withdrawal

“They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”

President Joe Biden’s Aug. 10 speech marked the end of all remaining hope in Afghanistan. The Taliban, an open advocate of Islamic fundamentalism, has already taken control of all major cities. It is only a matter of time until the capital, Kabul, is fully occupied. Women’s and children’s rights are projected to regress, and a tragic end can be foreseen for the country, with no trace of democracy left.

Despite these concerns, all U.S. troops will withdraw as scheduled by the end of this month. Twenty years after the collapse of the New York World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the conflict that was “unwinnable, unstoppable and unquittable” finally came to a close.

The Afghanistan withdrawal, which is expected to be disastrous from a humanitarian perspective, has been drawing criticism not only from within the nation but from major allies such as Britain and France. In 2014, former President Barack Obama announced a plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, which he shelved when terrorist attacks resumed. Biden, who was vice president at the time, firmly stated, “I do not regret my decision,” as if he intends to finally complete the plan that was aborted seven years ago.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 to destroy al-Qaida and attack the Taliban, it could not have known that it would be dragged into a conflict that lasted six years longer than the 14-year-long Vietnam War. It has spent as much as $1 trillion for the Afghanistan war and in reconstructing the nation. Nonetheless, the Taliban retained its influence and power in the region. The U.S.-backed Afghanistan government, hampered by corruption and incompetence, was unsuccessful in increasing its military power, ensuring security for its people and promoting human rights.

More disturbing than the recognition by the White House that the war was a failure is that lives of more than 2,400 U.S. troops were lost during the conflict.

According to a July poll by Politico, 59% of Americans supported removing troops from Afghanistan. This is more than twice the number of people opposing it, whose responses comprised only 25% of the total. The outcome explains why former President Donald Trump and Biden, despite the radical differences in approach to alliances and foreign policy, have taken the same stance regarding Afghanistan. 76% of Democrats, Biden’s base of support, were in favor of the decision — an overwhelmingly large proportion when compared to the fact that only 42% of Republicans shared the same opinion. It would not have been difficult for Biden to figure that focusing on keeping China in check with bipartisan support is a better choice than continuing the largely unsuccessful nation-building program in Afghanistan.

The dire situation that began to unfold in Afghanistan after the U.S. gave up on its “world police” role inevitably brought the Korean peninsula to mind, where geopolitical tensions are continuing to escalate. When the war began, former President George W. Bush emphasized the role of U.S. financial aid in the development and rebuilding of Afghanistan. Twenty years later, Biden is standing in support of the polar opposite. “[It’s] the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country,” the president said in his July 8 remark.

Unlike Afghanistan, South Korea emerged to be America’s core ally and economic partner through its rapid economic development following the Korean War in the 1950s. Thus, it may be inappropriate to equate the situations in the two countries. However, it is hard to simply ignore Biden’s statement, “They’ve got to fight for themselves,” when considering the fact that South Korea’s national defense relies heavily on the U.S. and that relations between North and South Korea can easily influence U.S.-China relations. U.S. troops stationed in Korea, Japan and Europe are unmistakably a source of America’s economic and political power, but their tremendous costs have also drawn a number of criticisms from within the nation.

The Afghanistan withdrawal is a live example of the dangers of leaving national defense in the hands of a foreign country. Although South Korea should continue to maintain the U.S.-Korean alliance along with the value of democracy and economic interests embedded within, it must not be neglectful of building the power to defend itself.

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