Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
An earlier version of his article was first published in the Taipei Times under the title Afghanistan Comparisons Fail and can be found here
The scenes from the tragic events unfolding in Afghanistan are heart-wrenching. One would have hoped that the withdrawal by the United States and its Allies could have been planned such that it would be taking place in a more orderly fashion. Many an analysis will be written on this topic.
For now, all efforts must focus on getting all those who want to leave out, including the Afghans who worked with Western forces as interpreters and guides and who now fear retribution by the Taliban. The West has a moral obligation towards these people.
However, the focus of this article will be to examine the fundamental differences between the situations in the two countries. A brief scan of the internet shows that Beijing’s propaganda machine is already hard at work to capitalize on the moment by publishing several articles implying that Taiwan could befall the same fate. For example, on 16 August 2021, Beijing’s mouthpiece, the Global Times, already had three such articles on its pages, with titles such as “Afghan abandonment a lesson for Taiwan’s DPP”, and “Taiwan fears becoming the next chess piece that the US casts away.”
It is thus essential to point out how the situations in Taiwan and Afghanistan are fundamentally different.
The first difference is the origin of the threat: the threat was an internal one in Afghanistan: the Taliban finds its supporters primarily among the Pashtun, with some 42% the largest ethnic population group. In Taiwan, the threat is external: a Communist regime from across that Taiwan Strait that intends to snuff out the existence of a free and democratic nation at its doorstep, as it is an example of what China could be under a different political system.
The second difference is the nature of the threat: the Taliban hid among and behind the civilian population, thus gradually infiltrating and undermining the pro-government forces. China’s military will have to cross the Taiwan Strait – a 110 mile wide stretch of often rough water – with ships and aircraft that are relatively easy targets for the defending forces. In addition: Taiwan’s coast is generally made up of rough terrain, with few beaches, which can also be easily defended.
A third difference relates to the nature of the government supported by the US and its Allies. In Afghanistan, “nation-building” was challenging: the Asraf Ghani government was widely regarded as corrupt and inefficient, while elections were flawed at best. In Taiwan, the DPP government of President Tsai Ing-wen has shown itself to be efficient and effective, while elections in Taiwan are lauded as entirely free, fair and open. Moreover, Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, Afghanistan hardly so.
A fourth difference is related to the second and third points: Afghan government soldiers were well-trained by the Americans, but the corruption in government and higher military circles often evaporated their salaries, which were not paid for months. The soldiers were also frequently assigned to locations far from their homes, giving them little incentive as they were not defending their home territory. Taiwan, to the contrary, is small, and the military there has a solid incentive to fight, as this is where they grew up, and this is where their home is.
A fifth difference relates to the American commitment: in Afghanistan, the US came in to fight terrorism. After 20 years of involvement costing billions of dollars, the US and Allies decided to withdraw. In the case of Taiwan, the US is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait (a regional strategic imperative; see more below) and help Taiwan preserve its hard-fought freedom and democracy. These are indeed the reasons that the US has actually intensified and deepened its engagement, coordination, and cooperation with Taiwan over the past years.
A sixth difference relates to economic importance to the rest of the world. Internationally, Afghanistan does only play a minor economic role and has few significant export products. However, Taiwan is punching way above its size and weight: Taiwan is the EU’s 7th largest trading partner in Asia for a total two-way trade in 2018 of Euro 50.5 bln – more than twice of trade with Indonesia, more than three times as much as with the Philippines. Taiwan is the US’ 10th largest trading partner, for a total two-way trade in 2019 of US$ 85.5 bln. And more than 50% of the advanced chips used in cars and computers are manufactured by one company, TSMC, which happens to be in Taiwan. Taiwan is thus a key element in the global high-tech supply chain. Any disruptions will be immediately felt around the world.
A seventh and final difference relates to strategic importance: located astride the major East Asian shipping lanes, a free and open Taiwan is essential for the economic lifelines of South Korea, Japan and the nations of South-East Asia. If China gained control of Taiwan, it would not hesitate to use its influence to impose its political will on those nations and strangle these lifelines. Therefore, Taiwan’s continued existence as a free and democratic nation is a prerequisite for the continuation of the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region.
In closing: the Chinese side will continue its bluster and intimidation and attempt to capitalize on Afghanistan’s fall and paint the US as a declining and withdrawing power. Yes, the US is reducing its footprint in the Middle East, but the stated purpose is precisely to focus better on the new threats posed by state actors such as China and Russia. So, if anything, we can expect more attention and resource allocated to the Far East instead of less.
And lastly, the Taiwanese people have fought long and hard to achieve their vibrant democracy. But, unfortunately, the current regime in Beijing has shown that it doesn’t respect human rights: it has sent millions of Uyghurs to the equivalent of concentration camps; it has destroyed thousands of Buddhist temples in Tibet and is making significant efforts in erasing the Tibetan culture; it has gradually eradicated freedoms in Hong Kong through the passage of the National Security Law, and basically snuffed out the “One country, two systems” experiment there. The Taiwanese people have watched these developments closely and are convinced that they do not want to undergo a similar fate.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016, he served as chief-editor of “Taiwan Communique.” He currently teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University and current issues in East Asia at George Washington University.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Reflections from Afghanistan to Taiwan’.