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Did the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan harm U.S. credibility?

Here’s the latest research.

- September 20, 2023

Two years after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, how do policymakers and political scientists view the broader impact? The second anniversary last month prompted updates on life under the Taliban, of course – but also wide reflection on what the U.S. withdrawal means for the United States, South Asia, and the world.

One theme was apparent in initial discussions in 2021 and has persisted: that the U.S. withdrawal caused meaningful and widespread damage to the U.S. reputation for resolve in international affairs. Retired Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery told ABC News, for example, that following the withdrawal, “You really could see us as a very dubious ally… If you’re Taiwan, if you’re Japan or Korea, if you’re Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, you have to be asking yourselves is the United States willing to sacrifice American service members to meet its treaty or stated obligations to us?” 

Montgomery was hardly alone in marking the anniversary by reflecting on the stakes for U.S. credibility. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) told Fox News, “If Biden was willing to leave Americans and tens of thousands of Afghan allies who fought alongside us, why in the hell should China or Russia think he wouldn’t do the same for Taiwan or Ukraine?” And Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) conceded to media questioners that he believed “our withdrawal hurt the credibility of our military and our elected officials with both our allies and our adversaries.”

Does political science research support these views?

How political scientists view reputation and credibility

Reputations are the beliefs that individuals – policymakers, for instance – use to predict the future behavior of others, as Danielle Lupton explains. As Joshua Kertzer has clarified, reputation is related but distinct from credibility, which refers to others’ assessment as to whether a leader or government will follow through on commitments. While political scientists find that reputation does have important consequences in international relations, contemporary research has stressed that not all audiences infer the same lessons from global events.

The current research draws on a long legacy of scholarship. While concerns about reputation predated formal modeling and game theory, economist Thomas Schelling’s disquisitions on the “art of commitment” in the 1960s shaped a generation of research. Political scientists in subsequent decades have now moved far beyond theorizing, and scrutinized the historical record to assess how, when, and why reputations are formed. That research yielded mixed results, with some works (such as those by Daryl Press and Jonathan Mercer) arguing that reputations were less meaningful in practice than policymakers and game theorists might have assumed, while other accounts (such as those by Michael Tomz and Danielle Lupton) arguing for the continued importance of a government’s reputation in shaping the calculations of others.

Leaving Afghanistan sent multiple signals

A decision to abandon a former ally necessarily causes multiple consequences. At one level, the decision might signal the willingness of a patron, in this case the United States, to fight and expend resources under difficult conditions. Yet a country’s reputation for resolve is not the only thing on the line, since abandonment likely frees up important resources that can be used in other contexts. My willingness to do something and ability to do it are related but distinct.

The Biden administration has highlighted such benefits in rebutting criticisms, arguing the withdrawal “freed up critical military, intelligence, and other resources and ensured we are better poised to confront today’s threats to international peace and stability – whether that be Russia’s brutal and unprovoked assault on Ukraine, China’s increasingly assertive moves in the Indo-Pacific and around the world, or terrorist threats in regions around the world.” 

The implication is that additional resources following abandonment may make it easier for a patron to respond to threats and keep commitments elsewhere. But the net effect of these potentially cross-cutting reputation and resource effects on observers’ calculations is not immediately clear.

This is especially the case since allies do not have similar interests and do not face identical threats. Thus prior research by Ronald Krebs and Jennifer Spindel has examined the European reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and found that rather than despairing America’s loss of reputation, European allies largely cheered the exit, believing it would permit the U.S. to devote more money, materiel, and attention to defending them. Krebs and Spindel hypothesized in 2021 an analogous pattern might occur with America’s allies outside of the region following the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

New research: Allies may be more reassured than demoralized by withdrawals

New research by D. G. Kim, Joshua Byun, and Jiyoung Ko brings new data to the question of whether the Afghan withdrawal harmed America’s reputation for resolve in the world. In surveys conducted in early 2022, Kim and colleagues found that when they reminded some respondents of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the reactions of U.S. survey participants differed in comparison to respondents in South Korea and China.

U.S.-based respondents, when reminded about the U.S. withdrawal, assessed that foreign observers broadly would be less confident in U.S. military support compared to respondents who were not prompted about withdrawal. This pattern was also true when the team asked U.S. respondents about South Korean confidence in future U.S. support. While these effects were substantively small, they were statistically observable.

But survey findings from South Korean and Chinese respondents revealed a different view. The surveys there found that reminding respondents of the Afghanistan withdrawal had no discernible effect on assessments of U.S. willingness to defend its allies broadly, or South Korea in particular. In fact, when some respondents were told that the Afghan withdrawal might permit the United States to reprioritize military capabilities away from Afghanistan and toward East Asia, those South Korean and Chinese respondents were more confident in U.S. security promises than their peers that had not received that prioritization message.

Some questions remain unanswered

As Kim and colleagues are quick to emphasize, this new research does not settle the big question of when reputation is worth fighting for. Afghanistan was not a formal U.S. ally and so the U.S. decision to leave may be perceived differently than a scenario involving a treaty partner. 

Notably, future research might seek to assess whether publics in other informal U.S. partners, like Ukraine and Taiwan, infer different lessons than those in South Korea or China. Additionally, while allies thousands of miles from Afghanistan might find prioritization reassuring, other partners closer to the withdrawal, such as India, may learn different lessons. And, on a final note, none of this research mitigates the humanitarian consequences in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover or the dangers to Pakistan next door – these findings merely speak to whether there were other costs far from Afghanistan. Here, the available evidence suggests those reputational costs were neither as uniform nor as large as American public commentary might have indicated.

Image: U.S. Soldiers of 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, U.S. Army Europe patrol the area surrounding Forward Operating Base Baylough in Zabul province, Afghanistan, June 18, 2010. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Eric Cabral/Released.