How Not to Leave Afghanistan

Congress has issued a report on the longest war in U.S. history. Here’s hoping Biden ignores it.

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Afghan National Army Brig. Gen. Amlaqullah Patyani, the commander of the Kabul Military Training Center, introduces then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Afghan recruits during a break in training on military operations in urban terrain during a two-day surprise visit to Kabul on Jan. 11, 2011.
Afghan National Army Brig. Gen. Amlaqullah Patyani, the commander of the Kabul Military Training Center, introduces then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Afghan recruits during a break in training on military operations in urban terrain during a two-day surprise visit to Kabul on Jan. 11, 2011. Chief Petty Officer Brian Brannon/U.S. Navy/NATO Training Mission Afghanistan/Getty Images

Joe Biden is the fourth U.S. president to face the question of what to do about a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. After sending more troops there in 2017, the Trump administration eventually agreed to remove all U.S. forces by May 1, as part of a broader process intended to end the civil war there. Biden has to decide if he’s going to honor that commitment, back away from it entirely, or kick the can down the road a little further.

To guide his thinking, he could rely on a recent report from the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group, co-directed by former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, and Nancy Lindborg, the former president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. The bipartisan group’s 15 members are all familiar figures from the foreign-policy elite, including Michèle Flournoy, James Dobbins, Stephen Hadley, and former British Foreign Minister David Miliband. (Full disclosure: Dunford and Meghan O’Sullivan, another member of the study group, are colleagues of mine at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.) The study group also relied on insights from 26 senior advisors and the work of a staff of professional assistants.

Having now read the report, I hope Biden studies it carefully and then declines to follow its advice.

What do they recommend? They advise Biden to extend the May 1 deadline (ideally with the Taliban’s concurrence but even if that is not forthcoming) and maintain a U.S. military presence and economic support package until U.S. objectives are met. All told, this mission currently costs more than $50 billion per year. To achieve its goals, they say, the United States must clarify its commitment to Kabul, get the Afghan government to shape up, and develop a broad diplomatic strategy that encourages “stakeholders to play a neutral or constructive role” and lays the foundation for the “long-term integration of Afghanistan into the region.” The report briefly considers three alternative pathways—a “recommittal to the state,” a “calculated military withdrawal,” or a “washing of hands”—and concludes that none “would allow the United States to meet its interests as defined by the Group.”

These recommendations are unsurprising, insofar as the study group’s members did not include anyone who was likely to argue for a more rapid U.S. withdrawal. To its credit, the report itself is soberly worded, avoids hyperbole, and contains useful information about conditions inside the country. It describes the many challenges facing Afghanistan after decades of conflict with admirable candor. It acknowledges (some) past errors in the U.S. approach, recognizes that a lasting solution can only by achieved through negotiation, and correctly emphasizes the need for a diplomatic effort to get buy-in from India, Pakistan, Iran, and other regional players.

Despite these strengths, the report does not explain how its recommendations—and especially the decision to extend the current withdrawal date past May 1—will lead to a substantially better outcome in one, two, or even four years’ time. Nor does it provide an adequate justification for a continued U.S. effort or consider the always vital issue of opportunity costs. If Biden accepts its recommendations, what was once George W. Bush’s war, then Barack Obama’s, and then Donald Trump’s will become his. He will be dealing with Afghanistan for the rest of his presidency, and his successor will face the same awkward questions and unappealing choices when he or she takes office.

One problem is that the report defines America’s interests in Afghanistan much too broadly. It describes the desired end state as an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state” that can: 1) prevent al Qaeda or other terrorist groups from attacking the United States; 2) prevent illicit narcotics and mass migration from threatening the United States, its allies, or its neighbors; 3) support and protect minorities, women’s rights, and manage domestic conflicts peacefully through “accountable civilian institutions”; and 4) become less reliant on international assistance over time. Success is also defined as Afghanistan no longer being a source of regional instability or a locus of proxy regional competition.

These are worthy goals, but they are not remotely in sight given where Afghanistan is today. Only the first objective—preventing terrorist attacks on the United States—is a vital interest that might justify a substantial investment of blood or treasure. The rest of these objectives are essentially a log roll: #2 is what the Europeans care about; #3 appeals to liberal idealists and humanitarians; and #4 is designed to appease members of Congress who might worry about the bottom line. The result is a revealing paradox: In order to win support for a mission that is not working, one has to combine a set of interests and objectives that are even less achievable than the (relatively) limited goal of discouraging attacks on the United States itself. If achieving this full end state is the precondition for ending the current U.S. role in Afghanistan, the United States is going to be there for a very long time indeed.

The study group ties its recommendations to the continued threat from al Qaeda, just as Obama and Trump did when they sent additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2017, respectively. The report declares that “the foremost [U.S.] interest is containing the activities of terrorist groups that remain active in Afghanistan and could threaten the U.S. homeland,” warning further that “withdrawing U.S. troops irresponsibly would likely lead to a new civil war in Afghanistan, inviting the reconstitution of anti-U.S. terrorist groups that could threaten our homeland and providing them with a narrative of victory against the world’s most powerful country.”

What is missing, however, is a careful assessment of how large that threat is today or is likely to become in the future. The study group acknowledges that the Taliban are “distinct from al-Qaeda and its affiliates and do not support its global jihadi agenda,” noting further that “there is no evidence that they have any intention to attack the United States.” Even so, the report cautions that a U.S. withdrawal might allow al Qaeda to “reemerge” and that Afghanistan could once again become a “safe haven” for the group. This justification was never very compelling, however, because it is not clear that today’s Taliban would give al Qaeda a free hand to attack the United States and because Afghanistan is not the only place from which al Qaeda or its offshoots can operate. After all, there are plenty of other governments that cannot fully control the potential terrorists inside their borders, including, we know now, the United States itself. If we could somehow transform Afghanistan into a replica of Denmark overnight, it would not eliminate the dangers that might arise from other places. Fortunately, that danger is much smaller than is usually believed.

Even if the United States left Afghanistan, al Qaeda members were still present there, and the Afghan government couldn’t fully control them, how serious a danger would that pose? Given the billions of dollars the United States has devoted to improving homeland security since 9/11, a resurgent al Qaeda is unlikely to pose the level of threat that we once feared it might be. And in the unlikely event that a future Afghan government gave al Qaeda the carte blanche it enjoyed before 9/11, this time United States would not hesitate to attack its training camps with bombers or cruise missiles. Contemplating the more serious dangers that Americans face from white supremacists, out-of-control militias, and other homegrown extremists, not to mention the half a million deaths the country has had due to COVID-19, should help us keep the threat of a resurgent al Qaeda in perspective.

The report also suffers from an unavoidable internal contradiction. On the one hand, it recommends that the United States issue a “clear statement that it will provide sufficient levels of assistance to maintain Afghanistan’s core state institutions, support civil society, and ensure key services are provided to the Afghan people” and “continue to provide, alongside allies, essential support to sustain Afghanistan’s core state institutions.” But on the other hand, it also says U.S. support should be conditioned “in terms that hold both recipients and donors accountable.”

Here, in a nutshell, is a problem that has bedeviled the U.S. effort in Afghanistan from the very beginning. The more Washington declares Afghanistan to be a vital interest and affirms it will back the Afghan government no matter what, the less incentive Afghan officials have to get their act together and enact meaningful reforms. Unless the United States is genuinely willing to walk, its partners can always call its bluff and continue with business as usual. They have before, and they will again.

As a result, there is little reason to believe that the study group’s recommendations will produce the desired outcome. To be clear: Its prescriptions are sensible and would almost certainly improve matters if they worked. But the study group is vague on this point: It expresses a certain amount of hope but neither promises success nor says how likely the group thinks it is. And there is this telling admission: Even “when it deployed higher levels of aid and troops, the United States was generally unable to shape political developments as much as it would have liked. This is due partly to Washington’s competing global priorities, but also to the sheer complexity of this political ecosystem.”

Got that? The United States could not determine Afghanistan’s political future when it had more than 50,000 troops there, but the study group now hopes that a token force and continued economic assistance will allow Washington to decisively shape its evolution and orchestrate a complex program of regional diplomacy, one in which the other stakeholders have more skin in the game than the United States does. I’d love to believe it could be pulled off, but both logic and the experience of the past 20 years say otherwise.

In the meantime, the trends are against us. The report concedes that “the Taliban remain the most coherent and disciplined political-military group” in the country, and two decades of U.S. training and material assistance have yet to create Afghan security forces that can hold their own. The report also contains worrisome data showing that poverty levels were increasing even before the pandemic—in part due to diminished external assistance—and perceptions of personal security were declining. The study group’s desired end state cannot possibly be achieved until these trends are reversed, yet it offers no basis for believing that they will.

I have no desire to sound defeatist, but what incentive would the Taliban now have to accept an outcome that is compatible with the study group’s goals? They have the luxury of controlling the pace of the conflict and retain the option of simply waiting it out. They know the United States and its allies are going to leave eventually—just as the British did in the 19th century and the Soviets did in 1989—and that they will be in a position to claim a larger share of political power. As Barnett Rubin points out, the Taliban’s desire for international legitimacy may give Washington a modest amount of leverage in the near term, but it won’t allow the United States to determine Afghanistan’s political future over the long haul.

Given these realities, does it make sense for the United States to devote significant resources to this effort? The study group points out that from “the perspective of great power competition, China may consider the U.S. presence in Afghanistan beneficial, given the complicated, costly, and distracting effects on U.S. foreign policy of that presence.” Precisely. If the Biden administration is serious about balancing a rising China, cutting the United States’ losses in Afghanistan and focusing finite resources—which include the president’s time and the administration’s foreign-policy bandwidth—on that challenge would be a wiser course than continuing a commitment that is unlikely to lead to a significantly better outcome.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.