Biden’s War at Home Over Afghanistan Is Just Beginning

After making the right call on withdrawal, the U.S. president better get ready for second-guessing.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks through Arlington National Cemetery.
U.S. President Joe Biden walks through Arlington National Cemetery to honor fallen veterans of the Afghan conflict in Arlington, Virginia, on April 14. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Each of U.S. President Joe Biden’s three predecessors—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—had to decide what to do about the United States’ unsuccessful nation-building effort in Afghanistan. Each chose to kick the can down the road and prolong an unwinnable war. They did so either because they believed a bit more effort would turn the tide or because they were unwilling to challenge a foreign-policy establishment that did not know how to win the war yet insisted it be allowed to keep trying.

Biden has rejected this outdated advice and announced that U.S. combat forces will leave by Sept. 11. He recognized that pleas for a “conditions-based” withdrawal made little sense because the specified conditions were beyond the country’s grasp and this policy would have kept U.S. forces there forever. Biden’s decision was both courageous and correct, but he will now face endless second-guessing from hawkish critics convinced the war could somehow be won and by Republicans looking to exploit the issue. He should give these naysayers the attention they deserve—that is to say, none—and so should you.

Why is Biden’s decision the right call? Because staying longer would not alter the outcome of the war. U.S officials and military commanders have repeatedly claimed to have “turned the corner” in Afghanistan and promised that new tactics, a temporary surge, better diplomacy, bigger bombs, anti-corruption programs, opium eradication, new elections, or some other ploy was finally going to swing momentum in their favor and put the Afghan government on solid footing. None of their upbeat assessments turned out to be correct; in fact, the U.S. Defense Department knew how badly the war was going but didn’t tell the public. Even the recent Afghanistan Study Group report could not offer a confident forecast of eventual success or explain why staying longer would lead to significantly different results.

But make no mistake: Disengagement is not a panacea and not a moment for celebration. Bad things are going to happen after the United States leaves, and some of them may even happen to a handful of Americans. The Afghan government may collapse, the Taliban may regain control in Kabul and perhaps the whole country, human rights conditions will almost certainly worsen, and al Qaeda or the Islamic State could become somewhat more active in the region. One of these extremist groups might even manage to kill a few Americans, possibly here in the United States itself. If and when any events like this occur, you can bet that critics will be quick to denounce Biden and try to pin the blame on him.

Here’s the rub: All these bad things were likely to happen no matter when the United States decided to leave. The good news—at least for Americans—is the consequences will not be severe and certainly not damaging enough to justify a semi-permanent U.S. effort to prop up a weak, corrupt, and unreliable ally. As I and others have argued ad nauseum, the danger of Afghanistan once again becoming a “safe haven” for anti-American terrorists of global reach has been grossly exaggerated. The United States is a harder target than it was in 2001; improvements in aviation security have made it nearly impossible to turn airliners into weapons, and this time, Washington won’t wait to strike terrorist camps if these groups are foolish enough to reconstitute them on Afghan soil. Americans today face far greater risks from COVID-19, right-wing domestic terrorism, and assorted acts of gun violence than they face from violent extremists hiding out in remote regions of South Asia. Spending an average of $100 billion a year to reduce that relatively minor danger makes no sense at all.

The other bad thing that is certain to occur, of course, is a lot of posturing by Republican politicians eager to find any club with which to bash a surprisingly popular Democratic president. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was quick to denounce what he called a precipitous U.S. withdrawal, and hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declared Biden’s decision to be “dumber than dirt.” All the well-worn hard line soundbites are being dusted off and redeployed: A supposedly hasty retreat will tarnish the United States’ honor, adversaries will question its resolve and be emboldened to attack, the terrorist threat will burst forth again, and so on. The past few months have also seen the usual ritual invocations of the dreaded Munich analogy, where then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made concessions to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Such responses are, in fact, evidence of a serious problem: the impoverished and cliché-ridden nature of contemporary U.S. discourse on vital strategic issues and the tendency to listen to pundits and political figures who have been repeatedly, disastrously, and unapologetically wrong. If disengaging after two decades of war is precipitous, I would hate to see what McConnell calls “prolonged.” One would think fighting for 20 years in a losing cause was ample evidence of U.S. toughness and resolve rather than a sign of weakness. (What it says about its strategic judgment is another matter.) Most important of all, none of the critics of withdrawal—including retired Gen. David Petraeus or Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster—ever came up with an effective strategy for building a stable Afghanistan other than to keep doing the same things that hadn’t worked before.

In particular, fears that ending the War in Afghanistan will have serious negative effects on the United States’ overall geopolitical position are almost certainly mistaken. Although Afghanistan’s neighbors and some of the United States’ NATO allies have valid concerns about refugee flows should conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate, most of the United States’ partners will be glad it no longer squanders blood, treasure, and attention on a country of marginal strategic value. Ending U.S. involvement in the Afghan war will allow team Biden to work more effectively with allies in more critical areas—such as Northeast and Southeast Asia—while rebuilding the true sources of U.S. power and influence—a dynamic economy and a more cohesive and just society.

Here, it is worth remembering all the alarmists who predicted that withdrawal from Vietnam would have calamitous effects on the United States’ global position, a belief that helped prolong the war for years. But when the United States finally left and North Vietnam reunified the country, communist China, communist Vietnam, and communist Kampuchea promptly fought one another. Then, China and the United States tacitly aligned against the Soviet Union and other states in Asia. Fourteen years after Saigon fell, it was the Soviet Union that ended up on the ash heap of history, with dominos falling not in Asia but in Eastern Europe.

This is not to say that some countries aren’t going to be upset by Biden’s decision. Chinese leaders have watched with a mixture of awe, bewilderment, and delight as the United States squandered trillions of dollars on its failed crusades in the Middle East while Beijing was busy building a world-class economy, staying out of foreign wars, and increasing its presence and influence in key international organizations. One suspects Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be all that happy about Biden’s decision either as it will allow Washington to focus more attention on Moscow’s current activities.

Strategy is all about setting priorities. No country—not even the still-mighty United States—can do everything it wants. It must therefore make choices about where and how to invest, with whom to ally, and, when necessary, where and for how long to fight. By ending a war the United States was never going to win—and whose outcome was not critical to either its prosperity or its security—Biden has taken an important step toward restoring a semblance of realism to U.S. grand strategy. McConnell may not be happy about it, but I’ll bet Chinese President Xi Jinping is really disappointed.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.