When President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that he was pulling all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by September 11, he obviously did not cast that decision as admitting defeat. It might even be a rhetorical stretch to say that the U.S. has lost the Afghanistan war. After all, its original objective was met ten years ago.
But “not losing” is not the same as “winning.” For at least the latter half of the two decades we have spent there, none of the advocates of staying the course in Afghanistan until the war is won have been able to define, much less achieve, the conditions under which we could declare the war won. Twenty years, more than 2,000 American lives and nearly $1 trillion (at least) after George W. Bush launched this misadventure, Biden is asserting that there is no winning, only picking a time to cut our losses and get out. As a senior administration official told the Washington Post: “The president has judged that a conditions-based approach … is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.“
Depending on who you read, Biden’s decision is either a major error and a betrayal of the Afghan people that will lead to civil war and eventually force us back to Afghanistan to fight an insurgent Al Qaeda or Islamic State; or a realistic calculation that this indefinite military commitment no longer serves U.S. strategic interests, and a signal of determination to end America’s forever wars. Both are probably correct, at least to some extent. It’s reasonable to see it as the right choice, the wrong choice, or no choice at all.
The process that led to Biden’s announcement Tuesday began during the previous administration, which made its own attempt to resolve the Afghan conflict and fulfill Donald Trump’s desire to withdraw U.S. troops as quickly as possible. In peace talks held in Doha, Qatar, the Trump administration cut a deal with the Taliban in 2020, under which the U.S. would commit to a timetable for withdrawal by this May, while the Taliban would refrain from attacking U.S. troops in the meantime and cut ties with Al Qaeda. The Taliban kept their promise not to kill more Americans, but have continued to do business with Al Qaeda and escalate attacks on provincial capitals and security installations.
Biden’s withdrawal plan stems from this agreement. Last month, he announced that the U.S. would miss the May 1 deadline for withdrawal for logistical reasons but remained committed to getting out this year. The administration pulled together a Hail Mary peace conference in Turkey to try and force through a deal, but the Taliban backed out at the last minute. With a firm date for the U.S. troop withdrawal on the table, the administration hopes to put some pressure on the Taliban and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to come to some kind of quick agreement, but since the situation leaves the Taliban with all the leverage and no incentive to compromise, chances of that happening look slim.
Yet even if Trump had not already agreed to a hasty withdrawal, Biden would likely be looking for an exit from Afghanistan anyway. As vice-president, Biden was a lone voice in the Obama administration opposing a plan to force the Taliban to the negotiating table with a troop surge. He correctly predicted that any leverage we gained from the surge would not be sustainable. Since then, the terms of the Afghanistan debate haven’t changed much: Advocates of staying there argue that our presence on the ground is the only thing holding the country together, while advocates of withdrawal say that is not a sufficient justification for a costly, open-ended military commitment.
Afghanistan has become the ne plus ultra of “mission creep.” When George W. Bush first sent soldiers to Afghanistan in late 2001, the mission was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda’s base of operations there. To ensure the country did not remain a safe haven for terrorism, the Taliban had to be removed from power, and thus, what began as a punitive and preventive counterterrorism operation expanded into a nation-building project in a fractious, impoverished country that had already been in a constant state of war since the late 1970s.
The initial goal of taking out Al Qaeda’s leadership and infrastructure was eventually met, culminating in the killing of bin Laden nearly a decade later in Pakistan. But the Taliban reformed and mounted a guerrilla war that has kept the U.S. tied down in Afghanistan ever since. If eradicating the Taliban wasn’t an option, we were committed to stay until the Afghan government was able to stand on its own feet, control its sovereign territory, and defend itself against the Taliban insurgency without the help of U.S. boots on the ground. We had to ensure that the country didn’t collapse into anarchy or revert to Taliban rule and become a safe haven for transnational terrorism yet again.
The Taliban has always understood this, and they have designed their own strategy around it: All they had to do was outlast us, let us keep pouring blood and treasure into a futile occupation, and wait for American will to break. We found ourselves in a Catch-22: The only way to prevent chaos in Afghanistan was to stay, but the Taliban promised to foment chaos as long as we stayed. Eventually, they knew we would have no choice but to leave, and they would still be there. To leave would be admitting defeat, but staying seems to guarantee only continuous losing.
For Afghans, the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal will probably be disastrous. Other members of the NATO coalition will also pull their forces out in short order, leaving the Afghan government and military to fend for themselves. Civil war will likely follow as the Kabul government, which fully controls less than half the country, loses more ground to the Taliban. U.S. military and intelligence leaders see the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan within the next few years. They are already speaking of victory, and they have little interest in participating in peaceful power sharing with a Western-backed government. While they might not reconstruct their rogue emirate of the 1990s and risk losing the foreign aid on which Afghanistan depends, the Taliban becoming the dominant power again will likely wipe out many of the gains Afghan women and ethnic minorities have made in the past 20 years.
The most persuasive strategic argument against withdrawal is that Afghanistan will ultimately become a terrorist breeding ground again once the Taliban have taken over. If we leave now, the thinking goes, we’ll just be back in a few years, and may risk another 9/11 in the meantime. But U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan aren’t going to disappear along with our military presence. Biden believes the U.S. can continue these activities effectively from afar, although many experts disagree. In any case, the plan is not to abandon or ignore Afghanistan entirely.
We are also not the only country with a stake in combating terrorism and preventing civil war in Afghanistan. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in remarks at NATO headquarters in Brussels, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and Turkey share these interests, as they are more proximate and more likely targets for Afghanistan-based terror operations. (Of course, these countries are not necessarily happy about the U.S. leaving, either.)
Again, the weakness in the case for staying in Afghanistan is that there is still no clear vision of what conditions would enable us to leave. A durable peace deal is clearly not in the offing, nor is a decisive defeat of the Taliban. If we stay, but those conditions never arise, how many more years should we devote to this hopeless endeavor? Or do we just stay forever? For Biden, withdrawing in the next five months may just be the best of all bad options.
That’s not to say it’s a good option, or that it won’t have horrifying costs. If Biden wanted to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of this decision, he could open the U.S. up to greater numbers of refugees and prioritize Afghans who have worked with U.S. forces and might face retribution for that under Taliban rule. Unfortunately, the president has stalled on his promise to reverse Trump’s drastic cuts to the refugee ceiling, apparently concerned about the optics of raising that cap while he is already facing pressure over the border crisis. But if the president wants to soften the blow for Afghans and deliver some small measure of justice, the least he can do is offer refuge to some of the people he is putting at risk.