The End of the Afghanistan War and its Significance for the Korean Peninsula
Written by Bong, Youngshik for the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. Translated by NKR Intern Samuel Dodge. Original Korean article can be found at https://www.yinks.or.kr/.
With the departure of the US military’s final C-17 transport plane from Afghanistan’s Kabul International Airport (Formerly Hamid Karzai International Airport) at 11:59 p.m. local time on 30 August 2021, the US has, in keeping with the total force withdrawal deadline introduced by President Joe Biden on 8 July, marked an end to the longest war in US history. Initiated in October 2001 under the umbrella of “Operation Enduring Freedom” in retaliation for the 9/11 Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, the Afghanistan (henceforth Afghan) War has come to its conclusion after 20 years with the victory of the Taliban and the defeat of the United States. In a statement on 30 August, President Biden announced, “The past 17 days have seen our troops execute the largest airlift in US history, evacuating over 120,000 US citizens, citizens of our allies, and Afghan allies of the United States. . . Now, our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan has ended.” The image above, released on August 31st by the US Department of Defense, depicting Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne, under the title “The Last American Soldier to Leave Afghanistan” defies belief as the likeness of the US superpower.
The Afghan War may have ended, but the international politics and security lessons and implications left behind by the Afghan War’s cessation and the US’s withdrawal cannot be simply encapsulated as, “America’s loss, and the Taliban’s victory.” Particularly when one considers the grave reality of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula -- endlessly buffeted by the ever-present goal of denuclearization and South/North Korean reunification as well as the influence upon peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula of the ROK/US alliance and US/China hegemonic competition -– it is clear that an accurate understanding and analysis of the Afghan War is vital to coping with the Korean security environment.
First, was the US war in Afghanistan ultimately a catastrophe?
Second, in the wake of the Afghan War, will the US reduce or abandon its existing security pledges and alliances? In particular, what is the likelihood of a US withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula?
1. Was the US war in Afghanistan a catastrophe?
The answer to the question of whether Operation Enduring Freedom was a success, or a failure must be judged, above all else, on what the primary goals of that operation were. Over the past 20 years in Afghanistan, the US has continued to wage war on the Taliban in the face of enormous sacrifice and cost. In that time, the US has suffered 2,448 troop deaths with another 20,722 injured, 770,000 total combatants, and war expenses totaling over 1 trillion USD. On top of which were considerable indirect losses, including the failure to block the rise of China and the degradation of the US’s international public credibility and image.
There is no doubt that the US war in Afghanistan was a failure, however, it is necessary to separate the war into its early and late stages and evaluate it by period. When the George W. Bush administration initiated the Afghan War in October 2001, the stated goal was the elimination of the Al-Qaida (as primary culprits of the 9/11 terror attacks) foothold in the region and the apprehension of associated terrorists. The Bush administration started the war when the Taliban refused the US demands to hand over Al-Qaida forces. Shortly following the outset of the war, the Taliban regime collapsed and Al-Qaida and other terror organizations, having lost their main footholds, were rendered mere shadows of their former selves. After a 10-year manhunt, the Obama administration eliminated Osama bin Laden in May 2011. After suffering the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, US public opinion strongly supported the Afghan War as a necessary military action and a just war, a sentiment which persisted for some time. The primary target of anti-war sentiments in the US has always been the Iraq war, not Afghanistan. The rise of public support for bringing the Afghan War to a close, occurred only after OEF did not end with the expulsion of the Taliban, but rather transitioned into more than 10 further years of the confronting the Taliban as the US government pursued its new expanded goal of establishing a modern nation-state in Afghanistan.
President Biden has been the recipient of scathing public sentiment and criticism for failing to bring the end of the Afghan War and the US withdrawal to a successful close. It is still too early to judge to what degree this criticism will affect the US mid-term elections in November 2022. However, it is worth noting that the critical public sentiment is not in response to the decision to end the war itself but to the negative consequences of the cessation of hostilities and troop withdrawal; that there are still more than 12 months remaining until the mid-terms; and that the biggest issues in US domestic politics are the economy, coronavirus response, and the alleviation of social conflict.
2. In the wake of the Afghan War, will the US reduce or abandon its existing security pledges and alliances? In particular, what is the likelihood of a US withdrawal from the Korean Peninsula?
What US security policy experts and former officials can agree upon, is that the decision to end the war should not be seen as a unilateral judgement of the Biden administration alone. For the past 20 years since 2001, the ‘War on Terror’ has been the focus of US foreign and security policy. As it sunk deeper and deeper into the War on Terror, the US fell prey to significant repercussions including the loss of its economic edge, the permittance of China’s rise, masses of human casualties, social discord, and widespread distrust of the government. The decision to end the Afghan War can be said to be the first major step towards the United States breaking free from the shadow of the 9/11 terror attacks, renewing its global leadership, and taking the helm of a new foreign and security policy. In fact, the withdrawal of US troops should be seen as the ratification and implementation of outgoing Trump administration’s February 2020 negotiations with the Taliban, more so than as a decision of the Biden administration. President Biden briefly deliberated between withdrawal and a troop surge, but in April he ultimately resolved to end the Afghan War, even going so far as to move the withdrawal deadline up from the planned 11 September to 31 August. It is even said than when President Biden visited Kabul in 2008 as vice-president and witnessed the state of the war in person, he was already certain that ending the war and withdrawing US troops was the correct answer. Now, as the US has withdrawn, Afghanistan under Taliban rule has become a potentially dangerous nation for Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China to fret over.
It has been predicted that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will serve to widen the gap between the US and its allies. This is because the United States will follow a path of ‘National Interest Primacy’ (placing national interest first), and allied nations will grow increasingly distrusting of US security pledges. However, such predictions are problematic is several ways. In the 21st century, the security concern that the US and its allies must primarily cooperate on is not international terrorism or the Afghan war. Pan-global cooperation on non-traditional security risks has become more important than ever. Since taking office, including at the G7 summit this past June, President Biden has time and again emphasized responding to climate change amid a global health crisis, strengthening democracy, cooperation in the high-tech sector, and competition with China from a base of law and universal values as primary issues for security cooperation. It is not that the US will shun cooperation with other countries, but that it will seek cooperation in different sectors than the past, that forms the core of the ‘Biden Doctrine.’
Considering this point, the ROK/US alliance and Republic of Korea has emerged as a more valuable country for security cooperation with the US than ever before. Among the lessons that the US has learned from its defeat in Afghanistan, the one that cuts the deepest is that no Great Power, not even the US, can construct a modern nation out of a failed state. The Soviet Union failed, and the US, after trying in Vietnam and Iraq, failed once again. In contrast, South Korea, which in the years since the Korean War, has succeeded in the rarely in human history achieved simultaneous pursuit of democracy and economic development, is the US’s proudest and most reliable partner nation. Even without the US Forces Korea (USFK), Korea is an economic powerhouse with the worlds 6th most powerful military in addition to being a fully developed democratic nation. Furthermore, considering the existence of the North Korean military treat, as well as China and Russia’s military power, there is little reason for the US to reduce its military projection on the Korean Peninsula.
Finally, South Korea and the United States, as allies, should carefully examine and respond to North Koreas demeanor regarding the US’s cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan. In light of the US’s defeat, North Korea may have come to underestimate the US’s willingness to exercise its national and military power. However, the United States’ position towards North Korea, armed with advanced nuclear warheads and long-range missiles, is inevitably different than that towards Afghanistan and the Taliban. One potentially dangerous scenario is where the North Korean regime, seeking release from economic sanctions against it, misjudges the state of US vigilance against the spread of terrorism and the degrading situation in the Middle East, and engages in arms deals or other forms of trade with international terrorist groups.
On 17 August, a Voice of America (VOA) broadcast, citing a report by the Israeli private institution the Alma Research and Education Center, reported that Lebanon’s Islamic militant group Hezbollah had constructed an underground tunnel with North Korea’s help. According to the report, North Korea’s Korea Mining and Development Trading Corporation (KOMID/ 조선광업개발무역회사), a subject of UN and US sanctions, signed a 13 Million USD deal with Hezbollah in 2014 to provide Hezbollah with technology and materials. Just as in 2007, how after the Israeli Air Force carried out a sudden covert operation within Syria and destroyed the al-Kubar reactor, it was claimed that North Korea was involved in the construction of the reactor, the Hezbollah deal could serve as evidence that North Korea is involved in the militarization of terrorist organizations that are on the receiving end of grave concern and stern treatment from Israel and the United States. As a result, there is the risk that the US’s North Korean policy could grow even more hardline as it gets wrapped up in the pan-global anti-terror policy, nuclear non-proliferation policy, and Middle East peace policy. South Korea and the United States need to clearly warn North Korea of such a dangerous possibility early and through the proper channels.
*** Bong, Youngshik is a Research Fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.