Should S.Korea Be Afraid of Afghanistan-Style U.S. Withdrawal?

  • By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University, Senior Fellow in Human Freedom at George W. Bush Institute, and Korea Chair at CSIS in Washington, D.C.

    August 27, 2021 19:41

    Victor Cha

    Around Washington these days, the only topic of conversation is the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many believe that it will set off repercussions around the world among U.S. allies who worry whether they can trust its security commitments, not least in South Korea.

    The amount of materiel and human resources the U.S. invested over four presidencies in Afghanistan is phenomenal. According to the Costs of War Project, the U.S. has spent $2.26 trillion, including $815.7 billion on the military costs of fighting the war, and over $80 billion to train Afghan security forces which have crumbled like a house of cards. Another $36 billion was spent on reconstruction projects. Some 2,442 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded in the war and $296 billion in medical costs has been spent on veterans of the war.

    One would expect that with the scale of investment, the U.S. would not see a cut and run strategy as feasible as it would represent an astounding failure of policy. Yet the decision by the Biden administration to withdraw on the 20th anniversary of the invasion was defended with a political conviction that would impress many unilateralists.

    But how will this U.S. withdrawal will affect the U.S.' commitment to South Korea? Some expected a pullout if former President Donald Trump won a second term, but they did not expect such a response under Biden, and now they are worried that if the U.S. can pull up such deep stakes in Afghanistan, then what is to prevent it from doing the same in South Korea?

    There are three important reasons why no immediate conclusions should be drawn from Afghanistan. First, there is no better measure than success. Afghanistan, by most metrics, has not been a successful engagement. This is certainly the personal view of Biden and the view of most analysts. It fit the definition of a "quagmire" -- that is, the scale of investments itself entrapped the U.S. in a never-ending spiral of more problems and more money.

    By contrast, South Korea is a shining success of U.S. security commitments. It has not only deterred a second North Korean invasion, but also created new equities that benefit both allies in all sorts of areas like climate, green growth, global health, development assistance, emerging technologies, and supply chain resilience, as evidenced by the recent summit between presidents Biden and Moon Jae-in.

    Second, Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan is based on a deeply held view of the futility of the U.S. commitment -- a view that he certainly does not have with regard to South Korea. When the Obama administration in 2009 considered surging 17,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, then-Vice President Biden, according to press reports, was one of the strongest opponents because he believed that the U.S. inherited a situation where it had lost sight of its strategic goals and was now just throwing more money and resources at the problem.

    Biden believed that the invasion of Afghanistan was necessary to remove the Taliban, but he thought the U.S. lost focus on the mission there once it opened a second front in Iraq, and that this then allowed the Taliban to regroup. Biden was also skeptical that the U.S. could engage in successful nation-building in Afghanistan since it did not have a reliable counterpart to work with in the country. Finally, he did not believe that the Taliban posed a homeland security threat.

    But with regard to South Korea he certainly does not have these high levels of skepticism. On the contrary, his decision to invite Moon as one of his first state guests to the White House demonstrated the value he places on the relationship and the longevity of the security commitment.

    Third, the question "Will the U.S. pull out of South Korea after Afghanistan?" is based on a false premise. On the contrary, the Afghan pullout means that the U.S. is better able to stay in South Korea. Biden's thinking is that he no longer wants the U.S. to be tied down in this quagmire but free up U.S. resources and political attention for other issues and areas of the world. Biden said as much when he noted that he would not hand an unfinished war in Afghanistan to the next U.S. president. One of the areas of critical strategic focus for Biden is rejuvenating U.S. alliances around the world, as well as the pivot to Asia. South Korea sits at the intersection of both of these priorities.

    China has mocked the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as another example of declining U.S. hegemony. Nothing could be further from the truth. Afghanistan is a sign of a U.S. strategic reorientation that aims to consolidate strength and rebuild American globalism in support of the liberal international order from which allies like South Korea has benefited so handsomely.

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