The Wisdom of Leaving Afghanistan
The United States hadn’t accomplished its goals in 20 years. The next few weren’t going to make much of a difference.
No sooner did news leak that U.S. President Joe Biden planned to withdraw the remaining 3,500 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan by Sept. 11 than the Washington Post’s editorial board swung into action, penning an April 13 opinion piece condemning the president’s decision. Biden, it huffed, was taking “the easy way out.”
The Washington Post’s reaction matters only insofar as it signals the tide of criticism Biden will face. Those objections amount to a cobbling together of familiar Washington bromides, nourished by the abiding conviction that the United States’ 20-year campaign in a country which it still seems to know little about can be ended on acceptable terms. Exhibit A in this regard: the Afghanistan Study Group Final Report, which devotes nearly 60 pages to regurgitating the standard brief for staying the course.
And what precisely are those acceptable terms, and how will they be realized? Much of the foreign-policy establishment believes continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which includes military deployments, can usher in a stable, democratic polity and society—one in which the rights of Afghan women and ethnic minorities (notably the Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks) are respected. Anyone who cherishes democracy should be delighted at the prospect of Afghans living in such a country.
What’s up for debate, however, isn’t whether Afghans have a right to democracy in principle. Of course they do. What those opposed to exiting Afghanistan have never explained convincingly is how the United States can possibly exert the degree of influence (or pressure) required to fashion the Afghanistan they envision when it hasn’t been able to do so after 20 years of trying.
In 2010 and 2011, the United States deployed as many as 100,000 troops to the country. Some 775,000 soldiers have served in Afghanistan—and about a fifth of those did three or more tours of duty. And if all costs related to Afghanistan are tallied up, not just narrowly defined war-related ones, they amount to as much as $2 trillion. The belief that anything resembling success can still be achieved in the next few years if only the United States perseveres in this fashion amounts to a pipe dream
The bitter reality is the Taliban, which have 50,000 to 85,000 fighters and have always been vastly outmatched in numbers, mobility, and firepower by U.S. and Afghan government forces, remain standing. Not just that, they have amassed more territory since being toppled after the 2001 invasion.
The Taliban have suffered tens of thousands of casualties. The second of their supreme leaders, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was killed by a U.S. drone in 2016. Many of their senior commanders have also been killed over the years. Just in recent months, so have several members of their shadow government. The Taliban have nevertheless replenished their ranks, raised money, and acquired weapons—for two decades. Their morale and willingness to fight have not diminished. The decision to participate in the Doha peace talks, which culminated in a February 2020 agreement with the United States, created divisions within the Taliban precisely because many senior commanders were adamant that a military victory was in view.
Meanwhile, the United States has still been unable to create a viable Afghan political order or an army that can stand on its own. Those who warn a U.S. military withdrawal will precipitate the collapse of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government in effect concede this point, although no one really knows how events will unfold in Afghanistan after September. The Taliban do not control the major cities. And they may discover that extending their rule over the Tajik and Uzbek regions in the north proves to be a difficult business—more so if states in the region support the Taliban’s foes in northern Afghanistan. Still, what those opposed to Biden’s decision don’t explain is when, approximately, we can expect to see an Afghan army that ceases to be almost totally reliant on U.S. funding and training. That hasn’t happened in two decades. A few more years wouldn’t help.
The president’s critics are more persuasive in pointing out Afghanistan could become an even bigger haven for terrorism. But the anti-terrorism mission in Afghanistan, which started in 2002, also continues with no end in sight. Countering terrorism through airstrikes and commando raids condemns the United States to playing an endless game of whack-a-mole in numerous impoverished and unstable countries worldwide while winning neither hearts nor minds. That’s because the governments it relies on are unstable and corrupt, and airstrikes against terrorist redoubts kill civilians. The argument that airstrikes have declined and drones are more precise is cold comfort to the families of the dead. There are better ways to protect the homeland, many of which have already been put in place since 9/11.
Many who condemn Biden’s plan, including the Washington Post, accept the commonplace view that Ghani has been a “feckless” leader. But so was his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who governed from 2001 to 2014. Beyond ineptitude, there has been industrial-scale corruption within the Afghan government. And U.S. money, which was supposed to promote “good governance,” has exacerbated it. There’s credible evidence that the CIA funneled millions of dollars to Karzai (and his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai) while he was president as well as to various warlords-turned-officials, such as the notorious Abdul Rashid Dostum, who served as Ghani’s vice president from 2014 to 2020. Or peruse reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction if you’d like to learn about the magnitude of persistent and systematic waste, fraud, and failure—all involving U.S. dollars and not a few U.S. contractors. Seeking to build institutions while simultaneously enabling corruption within them corrodes support for the Afghan state and is a decidedly odd way to increase public support for it.
Biden’s critics also seem convinced the Taliban will be forced to realize they must lay down their arms and make ideological compromises on democratic politics, such as equal rights for all individuals—regardless of gender, faith, or ethnicity—and an unfettered press and civil society. Yet no concrete evidence has ever been provided, apart from examples of tactical word parsing, to support the proposition that the Taliban’s vision for Afghanistan has changed. It would be nice if it had, but it hasn’t. Nor are there any earthly reasons to believe a minor U.S. military presence, combined with the lure of Western economic aid, will eventually produce a change of heart within the Taliban’s leadership. Had the Taliban’s leaders wanted to make far-reaching concessions to accommodate democratic principles, they could have done so long ago by cutting a deal with Kabul involving power-sharing as an interim arrangement. They didn’t, even though that would have saved many of their fighters’ lives.
Tragedy is an ineradicable part of politics and war, and Afghanistan’s circumstances are tragic in the extreme. An Afghanistan that might, in whole or in part, be ruled by the Taliban isn’t a desirable outcome, especially for the millions of Afghans living there. But it won’t do to merely complain those who favor ending the United States’ longest war don’t care about human rights and democracy or are naive and defeatist. Those who wish to persist must present their plan for success and specify how and why it will work—and by when.
They have not because they cannot. Instead, they refuse to accept that some problems have no good solutions—and that many more lack U.S. solutions.
Rajan Menon is an Anne and Bernard Spitzer professor of international relations at the City College of New York. He is also a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.