A Note on US Military Policy
Goodbye Kabul, hello Taipei
The Biden administration has determined that maintaining the dependent regime in Afghanistan is not a vital US interest. Kabul should fall any day now. The United States, China, India and Russia are talking to the Taliban with the understanding that the latter will take over the country. The moment calls for some reflection on US military policy.
Branko Milanovic asked the obvious question on Twitter.
The United States attempted to build a state in Afghanistan and failed. Biden did not fail. In fact, Biden was opposed to Obama’s escalation; an attempt that was soon abandoned. It is just not possible to build a modern state in Kabul that can gain the allegiance of the fragmented population of the Afghan shatter belt—particularly in the Pashtun frontier. Biden just recognized the bitter truth that the American attempt had been in vain.
The NY Times asked a more pointed question. ‘The Afghan Military Was Built Over 20 Years. How Did It Collapse So Quickly?’ It’s not just the Afghan military. The Iraqi military, also created and maintained by the US, collapsed even more spectacularly in 2014 when ISIS conquered Mosul, driving away a defending force that outnumbered it ten-to-one. Only anthropological terrain, Iranian reinforcements and American air cover made defending Baghdad feasible. The ARVN in South Vietnam proved not much more resilient. In all three cases, American military advisors no doubt tried their best to forge robust military instruments. So, what went wrong?
Is it simply hard to forge competent military instruments in the third world? That doesn’t seem right. Militaries in the third world—many of them armed by the United States—are, if anything, too powerful relative to society. Most of them can effectively hold their territory against guerrilla forces. The problem is not the lack of control but its opposite—they have too much power. So, the problem can’t be institutional incompetence per se.
The stability of the military instrument and the state formation is joined at the hip because the controlling variable for both is state legitimacy. Morale in the army, specifically its willingness to defend territory, is a function of mass allegiance. Mass allegiance in the state is undermined by the loss of state legitimacy. It is transferred to the next in line of claimants to national identity. This is why multiethnic states usually break up along ethnic lines.
In Iraq, Baghdad’s Shia bias undermined the legitimacy of the Iraqi state in the Sunni triangle, which is why it fell so rapidly to ISIS. South Vietnam was an artificial creature of Washington—‘the mandate of heaven’ was always with Ho Chi Minh. In the Afghan shatter belt, the United States had replaced the precarious state formation of the Taliban with an artificial state that tried to contain the power of the dominant ethnic group. The Pashtun people of the Af-Pak frontier never transferred their allegiance from the Taliban to the state propped up by the Western powers. Nor did the Taliban ever relinquish their claim to the throne in Afghanistan. Pakistan played a double game with the United States. It has preferred to have the Taliban’s energies directed north rather than south. This gave the Taliban unlimited stamina and patience. They were always going to outlast the American occupation.
The stability of the Afghan military instrument and the state formation in Kabul was always at risk of a successful challenge by the Taliban if the US withdrew its military presence. The dispositive evidence that state legitimacy has collapsed for the Kabul regime is that regions far from the Pashtun base, in particular, the northern forces that were willing to fight the Taliban, have now surrendered. Kabul will fall. The United States should let it.
The United States should abandon Afghanistan because it is irrelevant to the global balance of power. China is finally acquiring a second-strike capability. This development means that the United States would soon no longer enjoy escalation dominance against China, as it does not against Russia. Whatever the nuclear balance of power, the United States needs an effective military strategy in Europe and the Western Pacific—given the effective two power standard.
A few years ago, US strategists were considering three war strategies with China. The United States could blockade all Chinese sea lines of communication at Malacca. Maritime denial, whereby US forces would deny China military access to blue waters in the Western Pacific, including those within the First Island Chain. And deep strike, whereby US forces would target the reconnaissance-strike complex (C4ISR) on the mainland.
Because China cannot distinguish between a strategic first-strike and an attack meant to deafen and blind it in a conflict over maritime control, the potential for escalation is too high for deep strike to be viable as a limited war strategy. Under conditions of mutual strategic deterrence, you need a clearer delimitation of the military conflict. Deep strike is thus ruled out.
Maritime denial is still viable. But in a confrontation over Taiwan or the South China sea, China will be able to hold all US surface assets in the Western Pacific at risk. The United States cannot rely on undersea assets alone because of the limited firepower of the quietest US nuclear submarines. This has prompted the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment to embrace the ‘archipelagic strategy’ of relying instead on hardened and survivable land-based strike platforms on the First Island Chain.
This is a good plan for a general regional confrontation. And the US can threaten maritime denial if China pulls off a successful sea-borne invasion and occupation of Taiwan. But it is possible that the US threat to escalate to a regional confrontation may not deter China from presenting a fait accompli simply because it may not think it credible. The White House will, after all, have to make the difficult call to go to war with China in order to deliver on the threat with no guarantee that it will work. Even if the US could somehow commit to delivering on the threat, that may not deter a regime truly resolved to absorb Taiwan and reunify China if Chinese policymakers reckon that they could prevail in a regional war.
The United States needs to decide whether it will defend Taiwan once and for all. From the perspective of general deterrence, the most obvious place to hold the line is the territorial status quo. During the Cold War, the United States could hold the line in West Berlin because of symbolic deterrence—a forcible Soviet occupation would’ve meant a state of war between the two great powers, which deterred Moscow. But Taiwan is not Berlin. China considers Taiwan national territory, and the Taiwanese to be Chinese. So, symbolic deterrence may not work as well as it did in Berlin.
If China is to be successfully deterred from presenting the United States with a fait accompli in Taiwan, what the United States needs is a military strategy of direct denial. Put simply, Biden should put a division in Taiwan to directly deny a Chinese attempt at occupying the island—this is Dunn’s “Drive them back into the sea” proposal on the pages of Military Review. If putting a division on the island is thought to be too confrontational, the US should put divisions nearby, ready to be deployed under possibly extremely contested conditions.
But not only would this mini “over-the-horizon” alternative be more costly in the event of a surprise Chinese attack on Taiwan and the deterrent effect weaker, it would also make it harder to delimit the military conflict to the island and thereby control escalation. The US would in effect be threatening to escalate a strictly cross-strait conflict to a regional war. If the US puts a division in Taiwan, China may lash out but at least the military conflict over Taiwan between the two great powers can then be sharply limited to Taiwan. The Chinese can be explained the logic of war limitation and escalation control. The United States should, of course, never be opposed to peaceful reunification if the Taiwanese desire it.
In sum, Biden has made the right call to abandon Afghanistan to Afghans—let them determine their own fate. Instead of panicking, he should let Kabul fall. US military policy should be geared to holding the line against China. That requires thinking harder about deterrence and war limitation.