President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan ushered in the unceremonious close of a conflict that cost over $1 trillion and killed or wounded nearly 25,000 Americans across six presidential terms. A two-decade-long bipartisan investment of American blood and treasure failed, ultimately, to achieve U.S. objectives of permanently expelling the Taliban and building a self-sufficient, democratic nation. As leaders across the world watch the drawdown in Afghanistan and ensuing chaos, U.S. allies and adversaries alike are rethinking their understanding of American power—and its limits.
The Biden Administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has sparked renewed debate about the credibility of U.S. engagement in other parts of the world—and, in particular, over long-standing commitments to Taiwan. This week, the nationalist Chinese outlet, Global Times, ran a stream of editorials arguing that U.S. actions in Afghanistan have tarnished its credibility and suggest it will inevitably abandon Taiwan during a future crisis. Political commentators in Taiwan have similarly highlighted the analogy, accusing the United States of lacking dependability, prompting the island’s leaders to issue statements underscoring the need for greater self-reliance.
Even members of the American strategic community have opined on the comparison, insinuating that U.S. actions today might well foreshadow its response in the event of a Taiwan contingency. Max Baucus, a previous U.S. Ambassador to Beijing, warned that developments in Afghanistan would cause China’s leader Xi Jinping to “test to see the degree to which we are going to stand up for Taiwan.” And former National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien sounded the alarm that chaos in Kabul has effected “serious damage to U.S. credibility abroad,” requiring immediate actions to shore up commitments to Taiwan.
But while these assessments correctly pinpoint the misjudgments and flaws in both Republican and Democrat presidents’ efforts in Afghanistan, comparisons between U.S. policies toward Afghanistan and those toward Taiwan are more wrong than right. In short, U.S. commitments abroad are multifaceted across region and country—taking into account the unique geopolitical landscape and a complex hierarchy of national interests. Afghanistan today is not Taiwan tomorrow.
At their core, Afghanistan and Taiwan hold fundamentally different degrees of strategic value to the United States—and face materially different challenges. President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, at a time when his administration was primarily concerned about disrupting the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus and denying safe havens for terrorists who might pose threats to the U.S. homeland. The subsequent democratic nation-building exercise was intended to establish regional stability and continue counter-terrorism campaigns.
On the other hand, U.S. interests in Taiwan have been long-standing and date back to the 1954 Sino-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty, in which President Eisenhower offered ironclad security assurances to the Republic of China government on Taiwan and robust defense assistance as part of a broader Cold War strategy to defend a network of military alliances in the Asia-Pacific against Communism. Even after diplomatic normalization with the People’s Republic, the United States continued its support for the government on Taiwan, incarnated in the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances.
Today, three decades after its democratization, Taiwan remains not only a close U.S. security partner but enjoys shared values of democracy and freedom. Taiwan is the United States’ ninth-largest trading partner and is deeply integrated into global supply chains, particularly in key technology sectors like semiconductors. In Afghanistan, no such degree of economic and security interests have existed.
Second, U.S. support for Taiwan is part of a broader Indo-Pacific strategy that recognizes that allies and partners are one of America’s strongest force multipliers in sustained competition with China. U.S. commitments to South Korea, Japan, Australia, and other formal treaty allies are part of a concerted effort to deter, disarm, and defeat malign behavior from North Korea and other threats. Failure to uphold such obligations—or even the intimation of doing so—would have a far more drastic impact than ending a forever war in Afghanistan, where the regional balance of power is markedly different, and would dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape.
Third, Afghanistan and Taiwan face fundamentally different challenges. The speed at which the Taliban was able to reclaim Kabul reveals the failure of U.S. counterinsurgency and attempts at nation-building. An Afghan military afflicted with corruption and defections, short on sufficient food and water, ultimately had no will to fight for a government many of its own citizens viewed as lacking legitimacy—even after twenty years of training and equipment. Taiwan, however, is a prosperous and vibrant democracy with elected leaders and a representative government that has the confidence of its people. The challenge it faces is largely an external military threat, not an internal uprising from a fundamentalist, militant insurgency.
To be clear, that the analogy between Taiwan and Afghanistan is flawed does not negate the brute fact that official U.S. policy toward Taiwan has long been—and firmly remains—one of strategic ambiguity. American commitments are purposefully vague and require the United States to assist Taiwan in maintaining a “sufficient self-defense capability,” but stop far short of codifying official relations, let alone a formal security guarantee and designation as a treaty partner.
Moreover, U.S. policy has long been agnostic about issues of sovereignty, instead insisting the ultimate criterion be a peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences rather than a specific outcome. As recent as last month, top Indo-Pacific official at the White House Kurt Campbell reaffirmed that the U.S. “does not support Taiwan independence.”
And while U.S. arms sales have continued in successive Administrations, Taiwan’s government has been slow to improve its own defense capabilities, which would demonstrate it is serious about its security rather than reliant upon U.S. assistance. Today, Taiwan spends a smaller percentage of its GDP on defense than Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. It favors acquiring legacy platforms rather than asymmetric weapons and its force has long been under-equipped and under-trained. And while military spending isn’t everything, many in the American strategic community recognize that Taiwan’s defense “is nowhere where it needs to be.” As Enoch Wu, a leader of Taiwan’s governing party has observed, for decades, Taiwan’s politicians have “gutted the military and continued to base defense planning on the assumption that the United States would always come to the rescue.”
But while these factors would seriously inform a debate over whether the U.S. would intervene in a conflict over the Taiwan Strait, such discourse is utterly divorced from events of late in Afghanistan—and to use the latter to draw conclusions about the former would be unsound and ill-advised. Although there are certainly grounds to legitimately criticize the manner in which the Biden administration is withdrawing from Afghanistan, the secondary effect on diminishing America’s credibility towards Taiwan is not one of them.
Josh Tupler is a Fellow at the Center for International and Defense Policy at Queen’s University and JD Candidate at Columbia Law School.