The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has shocked the world community, particularly the US and its Western allies. The US withdrawal has prompted speculation about the strength of its commitments in Asia: Could Taiwan count on US military support during an attack? Taiwan’s premier Su Tseng-chang recently asserted that Taiwan will not collapse like the Afghan government did. President Tsai Ing-wen also came out with a tough-sounding message.

To be sure, Afghanistan and Taiwan are distinctly different places with different histories and circumstances, so any comparison risks being facile or superficial.

Afghanistan. File Photo: Pxfuel.

However, the debacle in Afghanistan still holds some useful lessons for Taiwan.

The events of the past week have demonstrated, tragically, that even a major global power like the US is not invulnerable. When Taliban forces entered Kabul in mid-August, it was a shock to the US and other Western governments. As late as August 12, US officials were insisting that Kabul would fall “within 90 days.” Days later, the Taliban made a mockery of that prediction.

They advanced into Kabul as Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani fled by plane to Qatar. Thousands of desperate and panicked Afghanis and Westerners crowded the city’s airport. Meanwhile helicopters hovered over the rooftop of the US embassy to pick up staffers, recalling scenes of the American flight from Saigon in 1975.

Certainly Afghanistan and Taiwan differ in many ways. The former was a beleaguered and corrupt state struggling to pay a demoralized military, and beset by a strong local foe. The latter is a developed democratic nation with a modern military and internal stability. What’s more, the military threat to Taiwan is external and would involve not counter-insurgency but large-scale naval, air and potentially land battles.

Tsai Ing-wen
Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Taiwan President Office, via Flickr.

There is a popular assumption that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the chaotic evacuation from Kabul signifies not merely a loss of prestige but also a decline in US’ power. If that’s true, Taiwan has good reason to fear, since any expected US support would be critical in fending off any attack from China. However, other observers note that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will enable it to focus more on East Asia by allocating more manpower and resources to a potential threat from China.

There is no doubt that US intelligence about the state of the Afghan leadership, its army units, and their morale was deeply flawed. However, American personnel on the ground in Afghanistan seem to have had a clearer picture of the problems than the senior US officials, who appeared clueless right up to the moment the Taliban moved into Kabul.

One would hope the US has better intelligence about Taiwan, especially the island’s military capabilities and resolve, and that US military and civilian leaders won’t be as ill informed in a crisis situation. This is a concern since American forces are not based on Taiwan (regardless of what a US senator mistakenly tweeted recently) and hence there is barely any joint military training between US and Taiwan forces, as well as little direct open communication between senior US and Taiwan military commanders and officials.

In any case, it would be a mistake for Taiwan to be complacent and rely solely on the support of its allies. Tough words from officials like President Tsai need to be followed by action. Taiwan’s resolve to defend itself must be taken more seriously. Tsai has called on Taiwan to practice “self-reliance” and be stronger and more united. But she has offered no specifics about how this would be accomplished.

There are concrete ways in which Taiwan’s defence readiness can be upgraded. Taiwan’s conscription period, at just four months, is woefully inadequate and the training standard has come under criticism. In comparison, other Asian nations like South Korea and Singapore have mandatory conscription periods between 18 and 24 months.

The Taiwan government is working to reform the military reserve system for men who have already completed conscription. But that adjustment to lengthen reserve troops’ training won’t be implemented until 2022-2024 and will only apply to several thousand reservists out of a potential pool of hundreds of thousands.

Taipei Taiwan flag
Photo: Leahahaha via Flickr.

Taiwan’s government also needs to step in to better prepare the public for a military conflict. An uninformed and unprepared civilian population could quickly lose morale. Taiwan might follow the lead of Sweden, which issued booklets to their civilian population in 2018 instructing them what to do in case of an invasion. The authorities could also consider holding classes to instruct civilians what to do during a military attack. At least one Taiwanese organization has been holding weekend camps for locals to learn life-saving measures. But without the help and coordination of authorities, such efforts are limited in scope and impact.

Taiwan most likely will not meet the same fate as the Afghan government. Given the high stakes for the balance of power in East Asia, the US would certainly do more to support Taiwan in a potential conflict. However, Taiwan’s leaders would be wise to keep in mind the recent events in Afghanistan, and act with more self-initiative, thoughtful planning and urgency to improve national defence.

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Hilton Yip is a writer who has worked in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong over the past decade. He has a strong interest in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.