Taiwan and the Instrumentalization of the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Written by J. Michael Cole.

Image Credit: 210818-D-BN624-0120 by U.S. Secratary of Defence/Flickr, License: CC BY 2.0

After nearly twenty years in Afghanistan, the US withdrawal from the country has shaken the geopolitical environment like little else has in recent years. While planned for months, the rapid gains made by a reinvigorated Afghan Taliban and the scramble to exfiltrate Afghans and family members at high risk of retaliation from the militant group suggest a severe intelligence failure of the US and allied countries. 

However, most of the analysis surrounding this epochal development has focused on what withdrawal can tell us about future US engagement with the rest of the world and the reliability of its commitments to security partners like Taiwan. Furthermore, much of the commentary has tended to instrumentalize the matter. Thus, the withdrawal is used to underscore preconceived ideas about the future role of the US as a guarantor of security and stability within the international system.

Competitors to the US, such as China, have used the withdrawal to propagate the narrative that the US is a declining power that cannot be relied upon. Moreover, it focuses on how US imperial ambitions and interventionist tendencies have resulted in the destabilization of countries like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Implicit in this propaganda is the idea that countries that rely on US security guarantees should think twice about their relationship and perhaps reassess it altogether. Editorials in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece, the Global Times, have not even tried to conceal the direct link that the party has made between the depiction of the US as an unreliable partner and Taiwan, whose survival as a sovereign state is predicated mainly on continued US arms sales and security relationships, which for decades have acted as a deterrent against an attempted military takeover by Beijing. Undoubtedly some of this propaganda aims to discourage the Taiwanese public by convincing them that no matter what they do, the American cavalry will not come roaring across the seas to defend them. Ultimately, they are on their own. Some voices within Taiwan’s opposition camp, chiefly the Kuomintang (KMT), have also used this development to assail the Tsai Ing-wen administration with accusations that she has been playing with fire by both defying Beijing and relying—too much in their opinion—on the US for security assistance. 

The Afghan pullout has also served as ammunition for groups on the Left, such as Libertarians, who have long called for the US to end arms sales to Taiwan and renege on any security guarantee it may have extended Taipei. Those voices in the “abandonment” camp have tended to regard such involvement by the US as overextension, imperialism, and the unnecessary meddling in the affairs of other countries, which could well drag the US into war—possibly nuclear war—with nuclear powers like China. On the other hand, those in the Realist camp will no doubt also see recent developments as evidence of the advisability of US retrenchment and the necessity of ceding spheres of influence to regional powers like China, Russia, and Iran. 

Meanwhile, other critics of the Biden administration have tended to regard the withdrawal from Afghanistan as a sign of weakness that sends the wrong signals to longstanding US allies and partners, from Israel to Taiwan. Notwithstanding reassurances by senior US officials, such as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who stated that “our commitment to Taiwan and to Israel remains as strong as it’s ever been,” sceptics who have long advocated for more overt support for Taiwan are now using the apprehensions caused by US withdrawal from Afghanistan—and the lack of staying power that this decision supposedly underscores—to call for the abandonment of US “strategic ambiguity” in the Taiwan Strait and the adoption of clarity. In other words, for the US to unequivocally commit to defending Taiwan should it be threatened with invasion by China. 

US withdrawal from Afghanistan, therefore, has served as a plot device similar to that used in Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon, in which an incident gives rise to various, often self-contradictory, viewpoints. Governments and analysts have interpreted the withdrawal to suit their agendas, judging it not on its own merits but rather to reinforce—and to propagate—their policy preferences. Much of this, however, has tended to ignore the facts. And when it comes to Taiwan, the facts have been very clear: US support for Taiwan is steadfast and growing, in large part due to the growing strategic value of the region in which Taiwan is located and the role that a democratic partner—democratic, essential to the global supply chain—plays in countering the nefarious ambitions of an increasingly repressive revisionist regime across the Taiwan Strait. Ultimately, what matters is not so much what US officials tell us about American intentions in the Taiwan Strait and the Indo Pacific, and even less what analysts outside government circles forecast. The pith, as it were, lies with demonstrations of US policy, of which continued US arms sales to Taiwan is but one expression. Continued—and in fact intensifying—US naval patrols near Taiwan in the East and the South China Sea, surveillance by US spy planes, transits in the Taiwan Strait, and the deepening of ties between the US and Taiwan on various fronts (including democracy protection and promotion), point to steadfast support for Taiwan that is based on a clear understanding on the value of Taiwan, both as a partner to the US and a player within what is arguably one of the most important parts of the globe in the 21st century. 

Analogies to Afghanistan and Vietnam, of which there have been many, are entirely false and do everybody a disservice in trying to make sense of the implications for Taiwan. Still, this type of oversimplification serves a purpose if the only intention is to tell a good story. When Afghanistan served as a base for messianic terrorist groups like al Qaeda that had the will and the capability to strike against the US or its allies, Afghanistan was consequently the focal point of US strategic calculations. But that focus has shifted, both because the US did accomplish its initial mission in Afghanistan—counterterrorism—and because of the emergence of China as the single most important challenger to the US-led democratic order. A readjustment of US strategic priorities, therefore, was long overdue. The Biden administration has taken a reputational hit for deciding to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, most of which were by now playing a largely supportive role rather than combat missions, but it had to be done. By putting that two-decade adventure behind and acknowledging that nation-building in Afghanistan was a Quixotic enterprise, one which no amount of additional years and billions of dollars and human blood could remedy, the US is freeing itself so it can concentrate its not infinite capability on areas that matter the most to it and the community of democracies. Unless Afghanistan once again becomes a haven for international terrorist organizations, it is unlikely that the US will return to the country. Moreover, instability will conceivably become the responsibility of regional powers, including China, as the breakdown in Afghanistan can have real repercussions for the Belt and Road Initiative and stability along China’s frontiers. 

The US “forever war” in Afghanistan has ended. With that move, Washington and its allies now have an opportunity to reduce distractions that have complicated their ability to respond to the greatest security challenge to the world order in the 21st century, one whose ability to upend the world order is far more significant—by orders of magnitude—than that of any group like al Qaeda, ISIS, or the constellation of extremist organizations scattered across Afghanistan at the height of their power and influence. Moreover, Taiwan is on the very frontlines of security, and this ideological challenge is foremost on Washington’s mind. As a result, the contention that it could suffer a fate similar to that of Afghanistan simply does not stand the test of scrutiny. 

With all that renewed focus on Taiwan, however, also comes responsibilities. Taiwan’s elevated importance does not signify that it can take a backseat and let others ensure its security. As President Tsai remarked recently, “Taiwan’s only option is to make ourselves stronger, more united and more resolute in our determination to protect ourselves.” If there is one thing that the US experience in Afghanistan can teach us, it is that even the world’s top superpower cannot bend reality to its will, no matter how hard and long it tries. As the US makes the Indo Pacific its top security priority, it will need the force multiplier that only an alliance can bring. And in that, there is a role for Taiwan, provided it does what is necessary to join in.

J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada, and the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC. He is a former analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in Ottawa. You can find his recent writing on this topic for the Global Taiwan Institute here

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Reflections from Afghanistan to Taiwan’.

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