The catastrophe in Kabul evoked scenes eerily similar to the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese forces and the less well-known fall two weeks earlier of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. The older generation might also draw comparisons to the swift collapse of Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) government in China in 1949 and its hurried evacuation to Taiwan.
In China and Indochina, the sudden defeat of an ally dealt serious blows to US prestige and created propaganda opportunities for those seeking to sow seeds of doubt about its reliability as a security partner. That pattern is evident again today. China’s propaganda organs are calling Kabul “a clearer demonstration of US impotence than the Vietnam War.”
The administration of US President Joe Biden has much work to do to repair the damage caused by the US’ maladroit exit from Afghanistan, but while the US cannot get a do-over for 20 years of missteps and missed opportunities in central Asia, it can avoid repeating the mistakes made after the Chinese revolution and the fall of Saigon, when it pivoted away from Asia and defunded programs designed to ensure that the US had the personnel needed to navigate Asia’s treacherous waters.
The rancorous, highly partisan “Who Lost China?” debate of the 1950s gutted what limited Asia expertise existed in Washington and left the country ill-prepared to understand later developments on the Korean Peninsula and in Indochina. Then-US senator Mike Mansfield was one of the few members of the US Congress with the expertise and humility to foresee the looming disaster in Vietnam, and warn three presidents against sending troops there.
North Vietnam’s victory sapped what little enthusiasm Congress had ever mustered in support of Asian studies, and two decades of neglect of regional studies followed, undermining the US’ ability to respond to the fluid conditions found in the Indo-Pacific region — today’s ground zero for a great power competition between the US and China.
In the weeks and months to come, Congress is to hold hearings and convene commissions to study how and why the US’ long engagement in Afghanistan ended so ignominiously. Such postmortems are warranted, and should be undertaken with the goal of learning lessons rather than scoring political points, but the US cannot simply look backward. It must prepare for what is ahead — for a future in which the Indo-Pacific region is to be the world’s economic and security center of gravity.
Locked in a strategic competition with China, the US needs to marshal support for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and reinforce the norms that have defined its core interests since the end of World War II.
This is a competition in which the US requires partners, and winning them demands more than pronouncements from the podium. The US and Asia need practical, tangible, on-the-ground initiatives that reassure Asian peoples and policymakers of the US’ commitment to engagement and partnership with regional democracies.
Biden did just that in April during his summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, pledging to strengthen the Mansfield Fellowship Program that trains Americans in the Japanese language and sends them to work in the Japanese government, strengthening the fabric of community across the Pacific.
In his remarks on Kabul on Monday last week, Biden explained his decision to withdraw by repeatedly addressing the use of US “resources and attention” to advance national interests. He is right. For a decimal fraction of the resources expended in Afghanistan, the US could radically alter its level of engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, not through additional hardware and military deployments, but through targeted outreach initiatives, and trade and commercial programs.
Washington should immediately launch programs with Asian democracies patterned on the Mansfield Fellowship Program, beginning with its friends in Taiwan. Washington should invest in new training initiatives for the officials of emerging democracies in Asia.
Washington needs to come together and develop a coherent policy that includes a strengthened commercial diplomacy and export promotion effort. Such smart investments would amplify the US security alliance structure in the western Pacific and reassure threatened democracies such as Taiwan.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan must not be solemnized by the playing of Taps on the bugle. Washington needs to play Reveille — a wake-up call to strengthen US engagement with nascent Asian democracies, while building up its own regional expertise. Let the tragedy in Kabul be the impetus for an era of smarter and stronger US engagement.
Frank Jannuzi is president and chief executive of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and former Asia policy director for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Richard Pearson is executive director of the non-profit Western Pacific Fellowship Project.
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