Afghanistan, Taiwan, and America’s “Fighting Spirit”

Andrei Lungu | 18 September 2021

It didn’t take long for Beijing to use the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government as the basis of a propaganda campaign against the credibility of Washington’s commitment to Taiwan. The reaction in the United States has largely centered on denying that the Afghanistan withdrawal has any relevance for Washington’s commitment to Taiwan or U.S. credibility and deterrence. Unfortunately, this reaction ignores the long history of how the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has seen Washington’s ability to fight wars.

In October 1950, the leadership of the newly proclaimed People’s Republic of China (PRC) sent Chinese troops into North Korea, to confront U.S. and allied soldiers who were getting close to its border. The party leadership was well aware of the immense military, technological, and economic gap between the PRC and the U.S. Three years later, going against the desire of the South Korean government to continue fighting, the United States signed an armistice with China and North Korea. The CCP leadership judged that it won the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. This “victory” cost China over 400,000 lives (the U.S. estimate), similar to the number of U.S. soldiers killed in all of World War II. The United States, meanwhile, suffered 36,574 deaths in the Korean War, which Washington was keen to end in 1953.

How did such a badly equipped army manage to achieve such a result against the strongest military in the world? For Beijing, the answer was “fighting spirit,” combined with the willingness of the party leadership to sustain heavy casualties in order to achieve its political goals. CCP leaders came to see “fighting spirit” as just as important as the material military balance. After the Korean War, a specific view of the United States would crystallize in Beijing: While the U.S possesses unquestionable military superiority, it lacks “fighting spirit” and the resolve to sustain heavy casualties to achieve its political goals. So, while its superior military power allows it to inflict more casualties on the enemy, Washington eventually withdraws from military conflicts once the costs become too high.

Over the decades, as Beijing watched U.S. military interventions in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, or Syria, this belief that the United States will eventually bow out of foreign wars without achieving its political goals grew stronger. The Afghanistan withdrawal simply reinforced this long-held view.

The party leadership is well aware of the strength of the U.S. military; it knows that Washington is trigger-happy and always concerned about credibility, and that it has a strong commitment to Taiwan. But Beijing doubts just how determined the United States would be in a potential Taiwan war. As Thomas Christensen documented almost two decades ago, this view used to be well-understood, raising some alarms even when the military balance of power was unquestionably in the United States’ favor.

It is in this context that the Afghanistan withdrawal took place. In order to preserve deterrence, this is how National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan tried to reassure Taiwan of the U.S. commitment: “We believe that our commitments to our allies and partners are sacrosanct and always have been. We believe our commitment to Taiwan and to Israel remains as strong as it’s ever been.” That might appear reassuring. However, this is how George W. Bush defined the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan in 2002: “Our commitment to a stable and free and peaceful Afghanistan is a long-term commitment.” In 2006, Condoleezza Rice said that “we consider Afghanistan to be a friend for the long term. The commitment of the United States is a strong commitment but also one that will be an enduring commitment.” That was after she promised, in 2005, that “[t]he Afghan people have a long-term partner in the United States. We are not going to leave, as we once did. It was a mistake for us.” This is how Barack Obama defined the partnership with Afghanistan in 2014: “Our personnel will continue to face risks, but this reflects the enduring commitment to the Afghan people and to a united, secure and sovereign Afghanistan that is never again used as a source of attacks against our nation.” In 2011, Hillary Clinton also had something to say about not leaving: “The United States is not walking away from the region. We will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Our commitment is real and it is enduring.”

All those promises ended with this from President Joe Biden: “I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for president that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end.”

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This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in the The Diplomat. You can read the full article in The Diplomat.

Photo Credits:  A US Marine firing a machine gun in Japan (Flicker/U.S. Indo-Pacific Command)

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Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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