“As a result of this debacle, it now seems reasonable to question whether Washington is competent enough to assure Australia’s security.”
n July 8th, President Joe Biden declared in remarks at the White House that, “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Six weeks later, the group’s leadership sat behind now-defunct President Ashraf Ghani’s desk in Kabul’s presidential palace. More than twice as many soldiers as were in Afghanistan before the withdrawal were sent back to facilitate the evacuation.
Happening alongside China’s emergence to great power status, the past decade has seen an uptick in literature on the deterioration of the American-led liberal international order. The main dispute is not whether this process is underway but at what point we are at in its evolution. The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan—paired with the United States’ humiliation at the hands of the Taliban—is perhaps the clearest foreign policy indication of this reality to date. Indeed, it may be evidence that the United States is further down the path than we had previously thought. For Australia, a country that relies on a strong and ready America to provide its fundamental security blanket, this development is significant.
However, the United States’ chaotic withdrawal may have a silver lining for Australia. Had it occurred under the Trump Administration, the dominant narrative advanced by much of the media would have been that the event was further evidence—rather, the smoking gun—proving President Donald Trump’s incompetence, buffoonery, and unfitness to be President of the United States. The Taliban’s haste capture of Kabul; its harvest of billions of dollars worth of American-made Humvees, aircraft (including Black Hawk helicopters), and tens of thousands of automatic weapons; the footage of Taliban fighters taking joy-rides in captured American helicopters; the shocking images of Afghans tumbling from airborne American planes, and the reality of Afghanistan returning to Taliban rule just in time for the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks have put on display the extent of the failure. Again, had this been on President Trump’s watch, even his staunchest allies would have struggled to explain it away.
But this debacle occurred under a Democratic President, one who has sojourned among the Washington foreign policy elite for almost five decades. And it was not just President Biden who claimed that events “did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, was also “surprised” at how fast the Afghan government collapsed.
As a result of this debacle, it now seems reasonable to question whether Washington is competent enough to assure Australia’s security. Australian counter-terrorism expert David Kilcullen says it is inaccurate to compare Afghanistan to Saigon, because Afghanistan is much worse. He recently summed up the withdrawal by saying:
“If I had any of my corporals or soldiers that worked for me, and I said, ‘Mate, I want you to plan a withdrawal,’ and the guy said, ‘Right, the first thing I’m going to do is give up one of my two airstrips; the one I’m going to keep is the one that has one runway only and is in the middle of a major city; then, I’m going to get rid of the military people first; then I’m going to pull out the diplomats; and then I’m going to just hope that everybody else manages to get out,’ I would say, ‘You’re an idiot.’ Yet somehow a bunch of generals that supposedly belong to the best military on the planet managed to come up with this ridiculous plan which has led to where we are now.”
The Taliban then held the United States to the August 31st evacuation deadline, while some hundreds, if not thousands, of Western and third-party citizens were still awaiting evacuation, and that is excluding thousands of Afghan allies. (As a point of comparison, the Iranian students of 1979 took 52 hostages.) And as Kilcullen notes, thousands of lives could still be left at the discretion of the Taliban or other criminal organizations, who are no doubt thirsting for a ransom or public execution.
Prior to the fresh question of competence that has arisen from the withdrawal, a main challenge when it came to Australia’s security reliance on the United States was—and remains—whether the United States has the internal willpower and political fortitude to maintain its strategic commitments to Australia. The brisk rise of American isolationism on both the Left and Right in recent years has led Washington to throw various “allies” to their geopolitical wolves, including the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq to Iran, the Kurds in Syria to Turkey, the Ukrainians in Crimea to Russia, and now the Afghans to the Taliban. In each case, the United States acted with cold indifference to advance its own interests. Now, during the presidency of the man touted as a bastion of compassion in contrast to the callous President Trump, the women of Afghanistan were handed to medieval barbarians.
The relationship that Australia shares with the United States is very different from Washington’s partnerships with these nascent national movements in a region that it has yearned to depart for at least a decade. Australia and the United States share strategic interests, historical parallels, and cultural affection. We are both English-speaking colonial settler nations, and the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty has linked our security for 70 years. Australia has been a loyal ally, and American military bases still sit up north.
But a realist would argue that the United States’ commitment to Australia is predicated on Australia’s worth as a strategic asset. For as close as our nations are, Australia fundamentally serves a strategic purpose, namely to facilitate American power in the Asia-Pacific region. From this perspective, the United States’ security commitment to Australia is foremost contingent on its desire to maintain a regional presence. To date, Washington appears to wish to do so.
But the international system is shifting away from an American-led liberal order toward a bipolar or multipolar system characterized by great power politics, spheres of influence, and narrow adherence to national self-interest. The United States’ gradual tilt toward isolationism and its decline in confidence on the world stage, as acutely exhibited in recent weeks, appear increasingly to support the theory of this era being the “Asian century.”
Does the average American or Washington bureaucrat really care about Australia? Do they care enough to send their sons and daughters into harm’s way on the other side of the world, again? Few Americans seem now to recall that Australia was the country providing the third largest number of troops (2,000) within the “Coalition of the Willing” that entered Iraq in 2003. To many Americans, Australia is essentially just a country with cute animals, pretty beaches, and Steve Irwin.
Australia’s main geopolitical threat, China, is far better equipped, resourced, and strategically adept than the Taliban. And yet the United States was utterly humiliated by this ragtag group. For a war-weary and increasingly inward-facing nation afflicted by internal division and institutional decay, the United States is now a shadow of its post-Cold War self. This is a fast-moving reality that Australia will have no choice but to face.
Tom Grein is a Master’s student in London and originally from Sydney, Australia.