Joe Biden’s decision to follow through on the outgoing Trump administration’s commitment to withdraw US combat forces from Afghanistan has been a controversial one. US allies have expressed concern that the withdrawal could make a chaotic situation even more unstable and embolden the Taliban to continue its conflict with the Afghan government. The language in his statement announcing the withdrawal, which pinned more responsibility on neighboring governments such as Pakistan to establish peace and stability, was also critiqued as being either disingenuous or naïve, given the role of those same neighbors in stoking Afghanistan’s internal conflicts over the years. At the same time, it is striking that even those who critiqued Biden’s decisions did not generally defend the War in Afghanistan on its own merits, rather invoking often vague consequent effects which might flow from the decision. While it is important to acknowledge the reality of those risks and state that this is, to put it mildly, not an ideal end to the United States’ military engagement in Afghanistan, Biden’s decision is nevertheless the only one that makes sense.
A War Without End, or Clear Goals
There seems to be broad consensus that, whatever hope that the notion of “nation building” in Afghanistan initially had has long since evaporated and the entire war has become a self-justifying proposition, continuing only because it has already started and without a clear end goal. Though one could certainly have doubted Trump’s consistency in previously choosing to end US involvement, given that he also substantially ramped up in-country bombing earlier in his presidency, what the rationale for staying was from those who advocated that was never particularly clear. With Biden, who was also skeptical of continuing involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan as Vice-President, the decision to continue with withdrawal is more of a piece with his previous thinking on military policy. Biden is far from a peacenik, having advocated for a more robust role for the US military in various conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s and voted for authorization of the Iraq War. At the same time, having seen the failure of Iraq and the chaos in Libya from the perspective of his previous time in government seems to have given Biden a realist streak in his approach to foreign conflicts, recognizing that intervention often causes more harm than good and that even well-planned missions have the potential to go wrong once they hit the hard reality of on-the-ground conflict.
The reasons for the failure of the Afghanistan War to produce much in the way of measurable results, either for Afghans themselves or in terms of global security objectives, are numerous and multifaceted. Certainly, a large factor was the constant pivoting of the question of the end goal of the mission, which denied an overall coherence or metric by which the public could evaluate success. At first, the war was undertaken with the justification of the 9/11 attacks and was mainly aimed at denying Al-Qaeda a safe operational haven, then it pivoted to removing the Taliban from power for the sake of regional stability, then to nation building and the protection of women’s rights, then eventually a vague sense that a turning point was just around the corner and that to “cut-and-run” now would be premature.
Another factor was that the United States, as the key military force in the country, often crafted programs, policies and even physical infrastructure to meet its own needs and expectations rather than creating an operational space which could be more easily handed over to the Afghan security forces and civil society. To choose just one example of this mismatch, Afghan police infrastructure was often set up by Western contractors without much regard for who would maintain it and provide proper electricity and fuel supplies. Unclear goals also contributed to the sometimes contradictory roles of US and other NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Members of the armed services were expected to serve as diplomatic ambassadors, development aid workers, a proxy security force in the absence of a reliable Afghan military and were tasked with the execution of a mission to defeat the Taliban. Confusion was piled on top of confusion at all stages of the War, leading to an overall cost to the US military of approximately US$815 billion, leaving aside for a moment the loss of lives, Afghan, American and otherwise that the conflict has wrought, with precious little in the way of results to show for it.
Withdrawal Is Not Cost-Free
As much as the costs to having continued the US presence in Afghanistan are very high, it is important to not downplay the very real risks involved in US withdrawal, even if they are not exactly the same as those most often cited by Biden’s critics. Vague notions that these actions will undermine US “credibility” or “commitment” in other contexts are likely overblown. Most US allies are simply happy for a return to relative stability and predictability after the chaos of the Trump years. Further, as the United States begins to try to shift its geostrategic priorities to Asia in order to counter the influence of China, it is natural and understandable that it would want to shed or minimize some of its commitments elsewhere. Allies understand this and are not likely to view Afghanistan withdrawal as a signal that, for example, US security commitments to Japan or South Korea are any less strong. Continued presence in Afghanistan has consistently polled underwater amongst the American public for a number of years; the Biden administration would be politically foolish if nothing else to not take heed of this.
There are serious concerns that, given the weakness of the Afghan government and the lack of reliability in any negotiated settlement with the Taliban, that US withdrawal could lead to the creation of a safe haven for terrorist networks in the country. These could, in turn, threaten US allies or the United States itself. Though Al-Qaeda is not the network it once was, leaving open space for such a group is obviously a situation best avoided. Further, the expectation expressed by the Biden admin that regional actors take on more responsibility for securing stability in Afghanistan moving forward may lead to the furthering of proxy conflicts in the country. It is well-known that Pakistan, at the very least, turns a blind eye to Taliban elements operating out of its own territory and would likely see a more powerful Taliban element in any emergent Afghan government as a positive.
Finally, there are human costs to leaving, even as an eventual settlement of violent conflict in the country would be for the best. Fitful though they have been, strides in women’s education and representation in government could be rolled back with an emboldened Taliban. The Biden administration should also, as some have demanded, make a plan to ensure that Afghans who worked with US forces can readily be accorded asylum in the United States, lest they become easy targets in the future.
Military Expertise is Not a Free Pass
Over the past twenty years of this conflict an extensive number of governments (including those of all the involved NATO member countries, in addition to regional actors such as Pakistan and India and the Afghan government itself), NGOs, humanitarian groups and various other actors have intervened in Afghanistan. In some cases, their intentions were good, or at least mixed or benign, in some cases, they were self-dealing, in some cases outright hostile to positive outcomes. Regardless of the intentions of any of those involved however, the Afghanistan War has become a colossal mess that has cost the lives of 3,500 NATO coalition troops and possibly as many as 47,000 Afghan civilians. All of this for a conclusion to the war where the Taliban looks stronger than ever, and unlikely to concede much to the shaky Afghan central government in striking a peace deal and the country remains one of the poorest on earth. It is immensely frustrating to walk away from this situation, especially for those veterans of the war who have felt misled into believing they were fighting in a winnable conflict when military brass knew this was not true for many years.
The Biden administration had to buck the pressure of the Pentagon in order to pull off its withdrawal from Afghanistan (as, it should be noted, the Trump administration needed to before). This was likely no easy internal task, given the high degree of prestige that the American military is held in, but it sends an important signal. Civilian authorities should resist being log-rolled by their military counterparts on grounds that the military inherently understands conflicts better. As much operational expertise as militaries may have, they also have powerful incentives towards sunk cost fallacies and a belief in their own ability to deal with policy areas far beyond their expertise. If Biden and his administration can continue to bring this skeptical streak to their work beyond Afghanistan, it could prevent a similar quagmire from developing on his watch and would set a positive precedent for future Presidents faced with similar pressures.
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