Lessons learned from U.S. exit from Afghanistan must be applied in future

A more cautious approach might have minimized confusion in Afghanistan.

It is regrettable that many people who wanted to leave the country have been left behind, creating a situation that could undermine confidence in the United States.

The United States has completely withdrawn its troops, who had been stationed in Afghanistan for 20 years. U.S. President Joe Biden declared that the United States had ended “the longest war in American history,” and appealed to the American people, saying, “I believe this [withdrawal] is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America.”

Biden’s idea of shifting the focus of the U.S. national defense strategy from the “war on terrorism” to the power competition with China and Russia is understandable. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is an extension of this strategy shift.

However, the situation in Afghanistan has changed drastically since Biden decided to withdraw U.S. troops completely from the country this spring. His administration must not have expected the Afghan government to collapse so quickly and the Islamist Taliban to seize power.

Terrorist attacks near an airport in the capital Kabul in late August have seriously delayed the evacuation by several countries of their citizens and Afghans who cooperated with them. The withdrawal of the U.S. troops who were in control of the airport has made the task more difficult.

There are still things that the United States should do, such as pressing the Taliban to protect foreign nationals and respect human rights. Utilizing lessons learned from the withdrawal, the United States needs to continue to be involved in matters related to Afghanistan.

As the Taliban takes over the reins, their ability to ensure the smooth operation of the airport and safe departure from the country is being tested. If the airport remains paralyzed, relief supplies from other countries will not arrive, and the legitimacy of the regime will not be recognized.

Japan dispatched three Self-Defense Forces planes to the Kabul airport, evacuating one Japanese and 14 Afghans whom the United States asked Japan to transport out of the country. But Japan was not able to evacuate about 500 Afghans, many of whom were employed by the Japanese Embassy and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

The main reason for this is that it took a full eight days from the fall of Kabul for Japan to decide on the dispatch of SDF aircraft. The Japanese government’s long-held habit of using civilian aircraft and relying on foreign forces to avoid sending SDF personnel abroad may have led to the delayed response.

Based on the lessons learned in the latest incident, it is important for Japan to make efforts to collect information on a regular basis and enhance preparedness so that quick decisions can be made when a crisis occurs.

The Self-Defense Forces Law, which was the basis for the dispatch of SDF aircraft, stipulates that safe transportation is a prerequisite. This is inconsistent with the reality that it is only in emergency situations that there is a need to dispatch SDF personnel.

Air transport carries less risk of being involved in combat than land transport. A more elaborate discussion should be made on what kinds of activities are constitutionally possible.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 3, 2021.