Credibility Controversies: The Implications of Afghanistan for the Indo-Pacific
Should policymakers be worried about the credibility of American security commitments now that the war in Afghanistan has come to an end? Amid the Taliban’s rapid takeover and Washington’s chaotic departure, many pundits and some politicians quickly struck a cynical tone. Echoing longstanding tropes, they declared that losing and leaving would wreck trust in U.S. promises and weaken respect for U.S. threats. That could push allies to go their own way and prompt adversaries to go on the march.
Academics and analysts, by contrast, have drawn very different and much more sanguine conclusions. Building on recent research, most argue that Washington’s security commitments are unlikely to suffer. If anything, the United States might benefit from a credibility boost following its withdrawal. Relieved of the operational burdens that Afghanistan imposed and free of the strategic distraction that it represented, Washington can devote greater attention and additional resources to more serious threats from China and Russia. That should inspire confidence in allies and instill caution in adversaries.
Optimistic takes are a useful corrective to the doom and gloom that often pervade discussions of credibility, especially if a dose of optimism dissuades policymakers from adopting costly but unnecessary steps to fix something that is not badly broken. Yet they also risk going too far in the opposite direction. That could undermine the case for reasonable measures to repair any harm. It could also dampen the urgency to exploit opportunities the withdrawal creates.
Although some aspects of U.S. credibility might come through unscathed, the potential for damage is real and the prospect for gains is tenuous, at least when it comes to one critical factor: perceptions of military power and effectiveness. Optimists may underestimate the degree to which past operations could influence assessments of future performance and overestimate the extent to which the United States will reorient its strategic focus after the withdrawal. This has significant implications for Washington’s next steps, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, which is now its highest-priority theater. Dealing with any credibility damage and making any credibility gains after the war in Afghanistan will require concrete steps that not only enhance U.S. military power, but also demonstrate those improvements.
In the recurring debate over U.S. credibility, pessimistic voices often command the most attention. Today, there is a surplus of commentators who assume that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will have dire consequences by casting doubt on America’s willingness and ability to stand up to adversaries, stand alongside allies, and stand firm when challenged.
In their view, opportunistic rivals like China and Russia, sensing weakness and seeing a window of opportunity, could go on the offensive by provoking crises or starting conflicts. Concerns about the erosion of U.S. deterrence are hardly new. But these warnings come at a time when threats like a Chinese assault on Taiwan are now being discussed as near-term challenges, even by some senior U.S. officials. Meanwhile, apprehensive U.S. partners might lose faith in American security commitments, which could lead them to break away from the United States or bandwagon with its competitors. The need to assure allies is also a longstanding source of anxiety. Nevertheless, that anxiety is arguably becoming more pronounced now that Chinese and Russian defense modernization efforts are undercutting American military advantages.
The specter of crises, conflicts, and strategic realignments is guaranteed to grab attention, but an emphasis on rare events almost certainly inflates the potential consequences of credibility damage. In reality, Washington is unlikely to face newly emboldened adversaries poised to test its mettle or increasingly fickle allies on the verge of jumping ship. Nevertheless, it should still be concerned about adversaries attempting to extend their influence quietly, as well as allies trying to insulate themselves from abandonment gradually. That makes it important to understand the sources and severity of any credibility damage, even if the dangers are less immediate or more subtle than some pessimists suggest.
Most of those who have taken up this task have poured cold water on the notion that U.S. credibility will be worse off with the end of the war in Afghanistan. From their perspective, the factors that most influence credibility are likely to be just fine and could even improve, notwithstanding the difficulties associated with Washington’s departure, or the broader failures of the past twenty years that are back in the spotlight.
For instance, recent events should do little to harm perceptions of U.S. interests, or how much Washington seems to care about its obligations in other parts of the world. As many scholars note, credibility is often context-specific and security commitments are not necessarily interdependent. Consequently, allies and adversaries in regions like the Indo-Pacific should not conclude that the United States is less determined to support or stop them, respectively. In fact, departing from Afghanistan could clarify U.S. interests by demonstrating that policymakers have their priorities in order and finally are prepared to emphasize the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, the Biden administration has tried to send this message by linking the withdrawal to a looming competition with China.
At the same time, Washington’s reputation for resolve, or inherent willingness to use force and absorb costs in defense of its interests, should also be in good shape. This controversial element of credibility has reemerged as an important one in recent years. Not surprisingly, many commentators have claimed that the departure from Afghanistan will raise doubts about U.S. reliability and resilience. Rather than being tarred with the brush of backing down from a fight, though, Washington can stake a claim to sustaining a military intervention for nearly two decades and stubbornly refusing to admit defeat. It also managed to avoid any serious domestic opposition to its presence in Afghanistan despite the passage of time and limited progress. Those considerations alone showcase its steadfastness and stamina.
Finally, scholars suggest that the departure from Afghanistan might not hurt estimates of American capabilities, or Washington’s capacity to enforce threats and uphold promises. Of course, the previous two decades of conflict had already lowered the bar by creating a more permissive environment for competitors to improve their relative military power. If context matters, however, then the type of counter-insurgency operations that characterized the Afghanistan campaign, as well as the evacuation efforts that characterized the American departure, should offer few meaningful lessons for audiences that are more concerned about a major conventional conflict — whether those audiences are prospective instigators or possible victims. In fact, there is an argument to be made that U.S. capabilities, and thus its credibility, will improve going forward, perhaps by a significant margin. Now that Washington no longer needs to devote as much attention to Afghanistan, it can emphasize building up military strength in the Indo-Pacific and developing tools to deal with China. Consequently, U.S. allies in the region should be more confident that it will have their back, while Beijing should be on its guard.
In sum, research suggests there are many reasons not to worry about U.S. credibility after Afghanistan and, if these arguments are correct, few reasons to set about restoring it. This conclusion may be overly optimistic, however, particularly when it comes to the capability piece of the credibility equation, for two main reasons.
First, it prematurely discounts the notion that Washington’s involvement in Afghanistan, up to and including its departure, could damage estimates of its military power. As Paul Huth explains, when it comes to deterrence and assurance, “States can develop reputations along two dimensions. One would be a reputation for a willingness to use force to protect the state’s foreign-policy interests, and the second would be a reputation for having powerful military capabilities.” Put another way, states don’t just have reputations for resolve, they also have reputations for strength, which can compensate for ambiguity over how well their forces would actually fight. Notably, even scholars who downplay past behavior as a predictor of current credibility acknowledge that previous military performance can influence projections of military power.
In the case of the war in Afghanistan, the United States could not raise effective local security forces despite an enormous effort over many years. It struggled to implement a quick and orderly departure for its personnel, citizens, and partners on the ground once the Afghan government fell. And, most importantly, it was unable to defeat a far weaker opponent, even though it dedicated enormous human, material, and financial resources to the cause. Those failures could tarnish Washington’s image as the world’s most capable military power and leave audiences wondering how it would hold up against a much more serious rival under much more difficult circumstances.
Admittedly, the connection between a counter-insurgency campaign and a major conventional conflict might seem strained at first glance given the unique political and military dynamics associated with the former. Yet analysts and officials often make this connection by touting combat experience as a critical factor that differentiates American forces from those of U.S. rivals, particularly China, as well as an important contributor to military effectiveness. Much of that hard-won experience came in Afghanistan, however, not in high-end fights.
Second, regardless of whether allies or adversaries have downgraded their assessments of U.S. military strength, optimistic claims about credibility gains come with a major caveat. Specifically, this argument assumes that the United States is on the verge of a strategic adjustment that will enhance its capabilities, particularly in and for the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, key audiences expect Washington to do just that. This assumption might not be correct, though.
Although the war in Afghanistan is certainly one reason why the Department of Defense has been slow to adjust force structure, basing posture, and operational concepts for competition with China, it is not the only reason, and many of the other organizational, political, and technical obstacles that have been in the way still remain. More practically, the prior reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan leaves few opportunities to expand military presence in the Indo-Pacific as a direct result of the withdrawal. Meanwhile, the adoption of an over-the-horizon counter-terrorism strategy could prevent Washington from repurposing surveillance and strike assets for other theaters, and may provide a rationale for a significant military footprint in the Middle East. That could include continued aircraft carrier deployments to the Arabian Sea. Simply put, the barriers to rebalancing might be lower, but they have not gone away.
Signals of Strength
In the end, Washington’s involvement in Afghanistan might not influence the credibility of its other security commitments nearly as much, or as adversely, as many pessimists maintain. But any influence the Afghanistan experience does have might not be as negligible, or as beneficial, as more optimistic assessments suggest. Rather, it could turn out to be a case of mixed signals and missed opportunities. Policymakers have incentives, therefore, to take steps that mitigate potential credibility damage, leverage the withdrawal to realize credibility gains, and avoid a situation where Washington fails to meet the expectations it has set for itself.
What would that look like?
When policymakers fear that a state’s credibility is in doubt, they usually turn to a standard playbook of corrective actions: making public statements that reaffirm existing security commitments, offering quiet assurances to allies and private warnings to adversaries, launching high-profile diplomatic engagements with strategically important partners, ramping up arms sales to keep those partners close, and deploying military forces to show the flag near potential flashpoints. The problem, though, is that these measures are often designed to combat skepticism about interests and questions about resolve, not questions about capabilities and skepticism about strength. Addressing the latter set of concerns requires a very different set of actions: successfully employing forces in operations that are relevant to the commitments in question, holding exercises that simulate those operations, conducting experiments that showcase emerging technologies or the novel application of existing technologies, and deliberately releasing information about new or sensitive systems through exhibitions of various sorts.
After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, there are likely to be fewer questions about what the United States is willing to do in other theaters when push comes to shove and more questions about what it can accomplish against its rivals when put to the test. If so, policymakers should not expect measures that are aimed at improving perceptions of U.S. interests and resolve to repair or improve American credibility, at least not on their own. Instead, they should focus their attention on practical steps to create and communicate military power — two closely related but distinct objectives.
For example, the Biden administration should use the upcoming global posture review to begin enhancing presence and addressing operational challenges in the Indo-Pacific — and not make the mistake of assuming that subtraction in Central Asia equals addition elsewhere or that an unchanged air and naval footprint in the Middle East represents a sustainable situation. It also means making tangible progress in preparing for major conventional conflicts against well-armed state rivals, especially China, whether through near-term programs like the Pacific Deterrence Initiative or longer-term efforts like the joint warfighting concept — each of which got off to a rocky start and needs to find its footing. Policymakers should consider selectively easing restrictions on classification to create opportunities for revealing new systems rather than just concealing them — even, in some cases, at the cost of sacrificing a potential future warfighting advantage in exchange for current gains to deterrence and assurance. Lastly, they should develop a portfolio of capability demonstration options that showcase progress in developing new operational concepts and that unveil new systems — not simply options that increase the visibility or frequency of military activities involving legacy concepts and forces.
Evan Braden Montgomery is the director of research and studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and the author of In the Hegemon’s Shadow: Leading States and the Rise of Regional Powers. This piece draws on his recent Journal of Strategic Studies article, “Signals of Strength: Capability Demonstrations and Perceptions of Military Power.”