The United States military shocked and awed the Taliban forces in Kabul, swiftly retaliating against radical Islamists for giving Osama bin Laden a safe haven in Afghanistan after the World Trade Center attack in New York in 2001.
Twenty years later, it was the Taliban’s turn to shock Washington when Islamist forces swiftly captured Kabul in only 10 days. The Afghan armed forces, which the United States armed and trained, fled in haste, leaving behind aircraft, armored vehicles, weapons and other military equipment.
The mighty Americans, which have the most advanced military in the world, was once more humiliated, its credibility shattered as allies and partners around the world questioned its reliability.
There are no permanent alliances. Alliances are built based on common interests among countries in a given period.
Japan, for instance, treacherously attacked the United States in 1941 but has since become the United States’ closest ally, sharing the burden in securing a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
There is no guarantee the US-Japan alliance will last in the next 50 years.
George Friedman, chairman of geopolitical consultancy Stratfor, predicted in his book, “The next 100 years,” the two allies would be again engaged in another conflict with each other by 2070.
After the US military’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, questions have been raised on Washington’s commitment to its allies and partners elsewhere in the world.
In this part of the world, doubts over its reliability were more pronounced in the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally, after the US stood quietly as China seized control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
The US did not lift a finger when China constructed a makeshift shelter in Mischief Reef, or Panganiban Reef, in 1995, and when it began building seven artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Most Filipinos have been asking if the US will look the other way when China uses force to remove a decrepit transport vessel that ran aground on the half-submerged Second Thomas Shoal, or Ayungin Shoal.
Wasting no time, President Joe Biden swiftly sent his vice president, Kamala Harris, to Southeast Asia last month to reassure nervous allies and partners in the region that the United States would not abandon them in the face of China’s growing presence in the disputed South China Sea.
However, US allies and partners in the region still could not help but rethink their policies after the unexpected and sudden fall of the Afghanistan government, taking into serious consideration the changing political landscape not only in Washington but around the world.
President Biden’s decision to end “forever war” in Afghanistan, Washington’s counterterrorism entanglement across the world, was the main driver for US allies and partners to rethink policies supporting the global war on terror.
Just weeks before the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, President Rodrigo Duterte took back a letter informing the US of Manila’s intention to abrogate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), placing full faith on Washington’s commitment under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to defend and fight alongside the country against an aggressor.
One of the main considerations for the Department of National Defense and Department of Foreign Affairs to recommend the restoration of the VFA was US assistance to the country’s counterterrorism campaign in the southern Philippines.
A small team of US special forces continues to train and advise the local military to fight the small but violent Abu Sayyaf Group, a pro-Islamic State Islamist militant organization in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi.
The US has also authorized the transfer of surveillance gadgets, tactical drones,and precision-guided missiles to crush not only the Abu Sayyaf but other extremist groups, like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and remnants of the Maute group that occupied Marawi City in 2017.
Counterterrorism experts warned that these radical Islamist groups could draw inspiration from the Taliban and launch attacks in the south.
In the last four years after retaking Marawi, the Philippines saw deadly suicide bombing attacks in Basilan and Sulu carried out by foreign terrorists, including women, a phenomenon seen in other Southeast Asian countries, like Indonesia.
The attacks have been fewer compared with two decades ago when al Qaeda rose to prominence after the September 11 attacks. The
Islamist militants in Southeast Asia appeared to have been beaten as the US and its allies also defeated al Qaeda and the Islamic State militants.
The US is also moving from confronting Islamist militants to catching up on a mad race against Russia and China to develop, test and deploy hypersonic ballistic missiles. It is back in the geopolitical chess game.
The Philippines must also learn from the lessons of relying too much from the United States. It has to pursue a more independent foreign policy based on its own national interests, or security interests will run parallel with the United States all the time.
But it should not pivot to China, remaining non-aligned together with other Southeast Asian neighbors, particularly with Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam to de-escalate tension in the South China Sea.
There could be risks in always supporting the US in every conflict it gets into. The country could become a magnet for attacks as an ally and a host to a small US troop presence in five local bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
Unlike other countries where the US has military bases, the Philippines cannot defend and protect itself from potential attacks. It has no credible early warning and missile defense system. It cannot strike back.
The navy and air force have a very limited inventory of short-range and medium-range tactical missiles. It would last only an hour if it survives a full-blown conflict.
Its independent foreign policy is its only potent weapon against aggression.
The Philippines must also strengthen its military, upgrading its capabilities to build a minimum credible defense capability. Any country would think twice in engaging the Philippines in a conflict.
The Philippines cannot rely on its ally, the United States, to modernize its armed forces. For decades after it gained independence, Washington has only transferred second-hand and obsolete aircraft, warships, small arms and other military equipment.
In the last few years, it has offered to sell top-of-the-line weapons systems, which the Philippines could not afford because of its limited resources.
Washington should subsidize weapons acquisition to help Manila stand on its feet and share the burden of challenging Beijing in the region.
September 11, 2001 tied Manila to Washington’s war on terror.
The US opened a second front in the southern Philippines and other parts of the country, from Cebu and Clark to Batanes, became pit stops for the US Air Force shuttling between Diego Garcia and Okinawa as operations intensified in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But the US withdrawal from Afghanistan should also signal the Philippines’s own withdrawal from overreliance on its ally and colonial master.