Biden Is Done with Afghanistan. Is Afghanistan Done With America?

Pulling out all U.S. troops is the administration’s risky plan to pressure Kabul and the Taliban to make peace.

By Elise Labott, an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Army soldiers arrive home from Afghanistan.
U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division arrive home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan in Fort Drum, New York, on Dec. 8, 2020. John Moore/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden’s expected announcement Wednesday afternoon that all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by September is a recognition, at long last, that there was no U.S. victory to be found in the country’s craggy landscape.

In his speech, Biden said four U.S. presidents have wrestled with Afghanistan—and he would not pass the problem onto a fifth. 

“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal [and] expecting a different result,” Biden said. 

Biden’s new timeline for U.S. withdrawal is only a few months later than the deal that former U.S. President Donald Trump signed up for early last year, when he reached a so-called peace agreement with the Taliban. Charitable observers would call Biden’s unconditional withdrawal an early example of what the president and his national security team have promised would be a foreign policy with “humility.” Critics would—and have—called it a humiliating defeat that leaves the United States less secure and abandons the Afghan people to a terrifying future.

In any event, the announcement stops the notion that the long-term presence of U.S. troops would help defeat the Taliban, build up Afghan forces to stand on their own, and enable the central government in Kabul to finally extend control over the whole country. After 20 years of war and thousands of deaths, none of that has come to pass. U.S. officials acknowledge the Taliban are at their strongest level militarily and have ramped up attacks dramatically over the past year. Provincial capitals, briefly held by Afghan troops, are routinely retaken by insurgents. The few remaining U.S. forces have been propping up a deeply unpopular Afghan government that has lost—or never earned—the trust of its people.

The few remaining U.S. forces have been propping up a deeply unpopular Afghan government that has lost—or never earned—the trust of its people.

The U.S. record in Afghanistan is not a total loss. The United States ultimately invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago to root out Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda terrorists who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. By and large, that job is finished. Bin Laden has been dead for 10 years; and while al Qaeda still has pockets in Afghanistan—and still cooperates with the Taliban—the U.S. intelligence community believes the group is no longer in a position to plan attacks on the U.S. homeland. 

And the terror threat has changed: The Biden administration is more worried about threats from al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and other parts of Africa. U.S. officials feel they can keep Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terrorists by increasing its intelligence operations and moving troops to the Persian Gulf region, where they can keep a distant watch on Afghanistan and a closer watch on other emerging threats. In the meantime, Biden officials believe diplomacy and greater humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan can compensate for the presence of U.S. troops.

But ever since Trump’s hasty withdrawal in exchange for unkept promises of less violence, the Taliban have been emboldened and see the United States, whoever is in charge, rushing for the exit. The Taliban are already threatening “compounded problems” for coalition forces if they stay beyond the original May 1 deadline. It’s also possible this is just posturing, and they will simply bide their time until September to avoid U.S. retaliation. In the meantime, their perceived victory over a superpower invader has given them greater confidence to stand firm in talks with other Afghan groups about the country’s future.

Just this week, the Taliban boycotted a scheduled peace conference in Turkey, throwing the whole future of the Afghan peace process into doubt. Taliban leaders refuse to recognize the government in Kabul and won’t even contemplate a cease-fire until a peace deal is in place—which they’ve just made harder to achieve. 

For Biden and much of his national security team, the logic of the September pullout flips 20 years of thinking on its head. Instead of leaving U.S. troops in the country as leverage for the Afghan government at the bargaining table, Washington is betting that a firm date for departure will push the parties to reach a final deal while increasing pressure on neighbors like Pakistan to use its sway over the Taliban to prevent a civil war. 

U.S. exasperation owes a lot to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Afghans blame his weak leadership for the Taliban’s resurgence. His disinclination to share power has scuppered early efforts to map out a post-war future. He also failed to build the kind of ties with Washington that might have allowed a long-term, stabilizing U.S. troop presence, which happened in Japan, Germany, and South Korea. Afghans are coming to realize that Ghani can neither wage war nor make peace.

As the United States prepares to depart, the first burning question is how many of the gains made in the last two decades—from a smattering of democracy to an advance in women’s rights—can be preserved to make sure U.S. sacrifice wasn’t entirely in vain. The trend lines aren’t positive: Under pressure from Trump, U.S. Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was unable to secure any guarantees from the Taliban on human rights, democracy, or women’s rights. 

The second big question is how much of the future is likely to resemble the 1990s. After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, civil war ensued. Eventually, the Taliban captured the capital in 1996, followed by failed peace talks with the Northern Alliance. Five years of brutal rule ensued until the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban.

Without any sort of peace deal—looking increasingly unlikely after the breakdown of talks in Turkey—and with the departure of U.S. (and, almost certainly, NATO) forces, the Taliban seem well-poised to reprise their past successes and force a return to power. 

The Taliban want an Islamic constitution for future Afghanistan.

The Taliban want an Islamic constitution for future Afghanistan. But that may not necessarily mean a return to the dark ages of the 1990s everywhere. Where the Taliban is in control, they continue to impose a brutal interpretation of Islamic law on Afghans, including summary justice. But Taliban leadership living in remote provinces will find much has changed in big cities like Kabul since they were last there. Today, the capital teems with internet-savvy young people in cafes listening to music, with a thriving civil society and women working alongside men. It is unlikely Afghans—an entire generation that grew up after the Taliban’s ouster—will give up this new country without a fight, if enough of them stick around after the Americans leave. If they fear the government isn’t doing enough, people may take matters into their own hands, which could see Afghanistan spiral into an even deeper civil war. 

Blowback from the U.S. decision could soon be felt, especially if the Taliban return to power. Afghanistan has consistently been among the largest source of refugees in Europe—and could be again. Afghanistan’s heroin could again flood world markets. Jihadi groups everywhere will see a simple message: They can prevail. And the Biden administration’s uncompromising plans for withdrawal may also put new strains on relations with European allies.

Ultimately, Biden may have ended U.S. involvement in Afghanistan if not the Afghan war itself. But faced with the prospect of sending more troops, certain to anger both the Taliban and U.S. voters, Biden concluded that delaying the U.S. withdrawal would just be a recipe for open-ended commitment. It may yet be a recipe for a lot worse.

Elise Labott is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott