By Max S. Kim*
The unthinkable has finally hit home hard. Joe Biden’s botched and ill-prepared Afghanistan pullout has become the worst diplomatic and military blunder in US history. It has practically killed Biden’s political life and irrevocably damaged the credibility of the Biden-Harris White House.
The Taliban wants to stick to the Aug. 31st evacuation deadline. If the US fails to evacuate its citizens and Afghan allies by then, which the State Department admits is more likely, a hostage crisis will be looming for the stranded in Afghanistan. The picture is uglier than a nightmare.
Western countries and also India have been frantic about evacuating their nationals and emptying their embassies. But China, Russia, and Turkey have kept their embassies open in Kabul. Pakistan even welcomed the Taliban’s return. That plainly tells who stands behind the Taliban.
The real concern is that, as Newt Gingrich put it, “Biden surrendered to the Taliban” and the Biden White House has become their hostage, which opens the door to unprecedented defeats in US foreign policy in the coming days.
What caused the rapid meltdown of the Afghan government and its US-trained armed forces? When you have no perceived or tangible common values to uphold and defend, you have no will to fight and shed blood. With its territory encompassing numerous ethnic and linguistic groups, Afghanistan is inherently prone to conflict and has difficulty with centralized governance. Their multiethnic and cultural divergences accept no common values and ideological identities that apply across the board.
On the other hand, it is cautiously predicted in a latest in-depth analysis that the Taliban, in the absence of foreign invaders that caused ethnic factions to come together under one banner, may soon collapse, due to internal conflict, and Afghanistan will more likely become ethnic statelets. In that case, continuous civil war among the Afghans can spill over to the neighboring countries such as Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China’s Xinjiang province.
Days after Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban, the Voice of America quoted current and former State Department officials as saying that the US will not be able to defend South Korea unless their people are willing to defend their country and freedoms.
The timing of their warning is quite telling and seems eerily prescient. There are compelling reasons why South Korea may be the next in line after Afghanistan’s fall.
First, South Korea has long lost its ideological identity established in its 1948 Constitution. Their governments have pursued ideological assimilation with North Korea since Kim Dae-Jung took power in 1998. The bloody riot in Kwangju in 1980 that aimed for subversion of the government was repackaged as a civil movement for democracy, and through the remaking, a new generation of anti-US political leaders has been created and trained.
Second, the current Moon administration has accelerated their effort to eliminate internal hurdles to forming an inter-Korean coalition government. The lawmakers have altercated the existing Constitution with core Communist values and crafted bills that restrict individual freedoms and rights. National resistance against that is either minimal or has been ineffective.
Third, the South Korean military no longer identifies North Korea as their main enemy or threats against whom to defend their people and nation. Following the Inter-Korean Military Agreement of Sept. 19, 2018, the South’s Defense Department removed their troops and all surveillance and security measures from the inter-Korean border and introduced a new no-fly zone over it.
Fourth, the South Korean governments have only done their minimum towards the US forces stationed there and stepped back from joint military readiness with the US. Moon has sabotaged the US military’s efforts to build THADD missile defense units in South Korea, citing Beijing’s concern, and infuriated the Trump administration by letting anti-US South Korean protesters block all land roads to the proposed missile sites, which forced the US to use airlift only.
Fifth, the majority of South Koreans have been misled with the belief that the US troops will not withdraw from South Korea because Korea’s geopolitical importance is vital to the American interests and strategic points. The US interests are for the region, not South Korea in particular. If the Korean Peninsula has any strategic importance to the US, it was mostly during the Cold War era which saw the need to contain the Soviet Union’s advancement.
Sixth, Japan is the most dependable US ally in the region. The two nations have ramped up joint military drills in response to the regional geostrategic needs. They both see the importance of Taiwan for their regional security. By contrast, South Korea has further alienated Japan and aligned more tightly with the Chinese Communist Party.
Seventh, and most importantly, there is an increasing probability that the fate of Kabul may be repeated in Seoul one day. Seoul is vulnerable to sudden attacks from North Korean commandos. If Seoul and its critical infrastructure fall in their hands overnight, will Moon order his generals a fight back and ask the US forces for help? Or will he order a ceasefire and a surrender to North Korea, as Ghani did in Kabul in favor of “peace and no bloodshed”? What choice is left for the US if that happens?
Some concerned South Koreans already know the answer as that is what they see as increasingly more likely. Will South Korea have another presidential election this time? Should the Biden White House have to launch another massive evacuation operation overseas?
*Max S. Kim received his PhD in cognitive science from Brandeis University and taught at the University of Washington and the State University of New York at Albany. Besides his own field of profession, he occasionally writes on regional affairs of the East Asia, including the two Koreas.