Chaos has engulfed Kabul. The nation’s government has fled while U.S. and other embassies burn documents and hurry to the airport. Those Afghans who fear for their lives under Taliban rule are literally waiting at the gates, desperately trying to get out. It’s Saigon all over again.
I like and respect Joe Biden. He’s doing great work in restoring decency and democratic norms to our country after they were under attack for four awful years under Donald Trump. And Biden is re-establishing America’s role as a force for good in the world.
Or at least he was until now. Biden’s decision to follow Trump’s lead in abandoning Afghanistan has led, as most observers said it would, to a humanitarian disaster with worse to come. Since a majority of Americans supported the pull out and since they tend to ignore foreign policy unless it results in American casualties, it’s not clear whether this will cost Biden anything in term of political capital with American voters. But it was the wrong thing to do on multiple levels.
The Taliban are murderers and thugs. They will turn back two decades of progress. by, literally, hundreds of years. Girls will not be allowed to go to school. The rights of women will be obliterated. Those who don’t follow their strict Islamic edicts will be subject to torture and murder.
Biden’s withdrawal will also embolden terrorist groups in the region and around the globe and it will benefit America’s enemies, most notably China. (China and Russia are keeping their embassies in Kabul while America abandons its own.) Strong men who would turn back liberal democracy will be encouraged by America’s retreat here. Two decades of investment in blood and treasure are wiped out in a matter of days.
The Taliban was being held at bay and some measure of stability was being maintained by only about 3,000 American troops plus a contingent of allied soldiers. American casualties had been reduced to near zero. In truth, that may have not lasted. The relative calm might have been broken had America negated Trump’s deal and announced that it was staying.
But it still would have been worth the cost. We went to Afghanistan to track down and kill the men responsible for the 9/11 attacks. We stayed for the same reason that firefighters stay on the scene of a fire long after it’s been put out. Fires can rekindle. American and allied troops, not to mention intelligence personnel, in Afghanistan were providing security for the mainland U.S. by simply being in the terrorists’ backyard.
A collateral benefit of our presence was that an entire generation of Afghans grew up knowing life under liberal democracy. No, we did not create a stable government. No, clearly, we did not create an Afghan military in the image of our own. But those were always secondary goals. American military presence in Afghanistan propped up the government and the military, and that was good enough.
Yes, we had been there for a long time, but we’ve been in Europe and South Korea, and with much larger troop contingents, for much longer. The U.S. presence there helps maintain the peace and sends a clear message to the world that we will defend democracy and liberal values.
Biden now owns a decision that has worked out much worse, I’m sure, than he had hoped or thought, but which was predicted by most experts in the field. The suprise isn’t the outcome, but the swiftness with which it happened.
What will happen now is that thousands of Afghans will be killed and tortured. Human rights, especially those of women, will be cast aside. An international terrorist culture will be emboldened.
As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, let’s hope that this folly doesn’t result in a repeat of a similar disaster on American soil sometime in the not so distant future.
Welcome to the 180th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading.
2 thoughts on “Biden’s Burden”
30 years ago, I spent a year on an Afghan research project, including four months in the country. Working closely with Afghans of several ethnicities impressed me with their humanity and their desire for peace and stability, as well as the staggering complexity of their nation. In 2001, I supported the U.S. war there to topple the Taliban and eradicate Al-Qaeda, and after the cessation of major fighting I supported continued U.S. military presence and comprehensive nation-building efforts. I was satisfied that the benefit to U.S. security justified the cost. I was also optimistic that, given sufficient long term support, some form of coalition government would gain domestic credibility and functionality, the economy would diversify from poppy and gemstones, and that civil society would take hold.
Now, I support our withdrawal. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when my attitude changed, but it certainly has. My support for military engagement there decreased over the past 4-5 years in conjunction with two factors; the gradual resurgence of the Afghan Taliban from 2013 onward, and declining U.S. military commitment. As those two arcs continued, the odds of the Afghan government’s long term success lessened, and so too, my enthusiasm for our ongoing military presence there.
For critics of the U.S. withdrawal, it’s been tempting to imagine that a nominal U.S. military presence would have been sufficient to maintain the stability of the Afghan government and to maintain the territory under control of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANSDF). That argument has been made for several years. I think it had some merit, at least in principle, several years ago, but less and less as time went on. That reasoning missed some critical dynamics, namely that the Afghan government’s domestic credibility and authority had been declining for several years. In the same timeframe, ANSDF’s fighting capacity and control over the country dwindled. For all of the ANSDF’s hard fought success, most notably of the Afghan Special Forces, their ability to hold ground against the Taliban was declining. U.S. military planners’ and policymakers’ knowledge of ANSDF’s low fighting capacity and overall unsustainability predate the Biden administration.
The Taliban have been playing a long game, and assessments of their demise have been wrong for 20 years. U.S. efforts to coerce Pakistan to cut off support for the Afghan Taliban and deny them safe harbor within Pakistan amounted to nothing. This isn’t a new revelation. We’ve long understood our own inability to squelch Pakistani material support for the Taliban. That understanding, as much as recognition of the unsustainability of the Afghan government and military, convinced me that the fight was inevitably going to be lost.
P. Michael McKinley, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in 2014–16, wrote yesterday in Foreign Affairs,
“It is time to face the facts: a decision to delay the withdrawal of U.S. forces for another year or two would ultimately have made no difference to the unbearably sad consequences on the ground in Afghanistan. The United States would have had to commit to Afghanistan indefinitely, at a cost of tens of billions a year, with little hope of building on fragile gains inside a country with weak governance, with battlefield conditions eroding, and with the certainty that many more American lives would be lost as the Taliban again targeted U.S. forces and diplomats.”
His summary of the changing capabilities of the Afghan military and the Afghan Taliban is worth reading in full.
The criticism voiced often today, that the cost of maintaining ongoing U.S. military presence would have been relatively low, also misses. It doesn’t take into account that the cost would certainly have risen quite a bit over time. Afghan Taliban forces had been steadily gaining territory for years with relatively little effort on their part. They didn’t press their military advantage to the extent that they could have during the past few years, because it was clear that the U.S. was angling to leave. Why expend more troops if you’re already getting what you want, incrementally more territorial control and international recognition?
It’s academic second guessing at this point, but I think that at any time in the past 3-4 years, if the U.S. had made the strategic decision to stay indefinitely, and postured that way, the Taliban likely would have increased pressure even more than they did. As the Afghan military lost yet more ground and the Afghan government lost more credibility, the U.S. would have had to increase its support of both. Yet propping up those institutions would not have reduced the threat of the Afghan Taliban, because the U.S. had no qualitative way to diminish support provided to them by the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistani military. That spigot would have remained open. The cost of maintaining a U.S. military outpost indefinitely would not have been nominal.
My own attitude towards withdrawal aside, I’m not sure that the general U.S. population could have been convinced of the value of staying indefinitely. Our ongoing presence was justified on two premises; that Afghan civilian and military stability was improving, and that U.S. involvement was terminal. The rationale for ongoing engagement made sense to U.S. citizens as long as we understood that Afghanistan would become self-sufficient soon, and that thereafter our troops would come home. In the past 20 years, has a U.S. policymaker ever rationalized publicly that the U.S. military engagement should be indefinite? That’s a political nonstarter. Have U.S. citizens ever been conditioned to understand our military goal as a permanent outpost in hostile territory? That’s generally not how we conceive of our military. It would have been a tough sell 20 years ago, and it became an increasingly unsavory proposition the longer the war dragged on with less and less to show for our efforts.