It's Debatable

Is Leaving Afghanistan Misguided or Overdue?

Biden’s withdrawal announcement is meant to end a 20-year war, but Washington has been dragged back into conflicts before.

By Emma Ashford, a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
biden afghan withdrawal
U.S. Army soldiers return home from a 9-month deployment to Afghanistan on December 10, 2020 at Fort Drum, New York. John Moore/Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! A lot has happened since we last debated. Washington, D.C., has now opened up the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone age 16 and older; it looks like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Emma Ashford: I had my second dose last week, so maybe by the fall, we can have these debates in person for a change.

MK: It would be a change indeed to see the anger in each other’s eyes as we argue about the most important issues of the day. And there is much to argue about this week: a possible impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, a major explosion at a nuclear plant in Iran that may upend the Iran nuclear negotiations, and President Joe Biden’s announced plan to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan before Sept. 11 this year.

Where should we begin?

EA: Well, let’s start with America’s longest war, now hopefully well on its way to an end. As Biden said in his speech on Wednesday, this is a war that has lasted through four presidencies; his choice to finally withdraw means that it won’t last for a fifth.

And it’s a good thing. I might have preferred to stick to former President Donald Trump’s May deadline, but I think the symbolism of Sept. 11, 2021, will do a good job of ensuring that this is actually a withdrawal. What do you think?

MK: I disagree. It’s a mistake to set an arbitrary calendar deadline. The U.S. withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground. The U.S. and NATO effort is sustainable at this point, and it helps the Afghan government control Kabul and much of the country. Sept. 11, 2021, will now become the date that the United States and NATO lost the war in Afghanistan, and I fear that the Taliban’s reconquest of the country will not be far behind.

EA: Actually, the best thing about the Sept. 11 date is highlighting that this isn’t arbitrary. It’s been 20 years. And I thought the anonymous official quoted in the Washington Post earlier this week put it best when they pointed out that a conditions-based approach is simply an excuse for permanent presence.

Look, the bottom line is that the United States accomplished what it went to Afghanistan to do. Al Qaeda was evicted, the 2001 Taliban government was smashed, and Washington made the point that no one attacks the United States with impunity. That was all achieved by about 2003. Everything since then has been an expansion of the original goals, and it’s simply not necessary for U.S. security. There are places in the world where I’d concede you could make a good argument about permanent presence—U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf, for example—but Afghanistan is just not that strategically important.

MK: There is nothing wrong with a permanent presence. The costs of staying are low, and the potential costs of leaving are higher. The original goal was to remove the Taliban government, but if U.S. forces leave, there is a reasonable chance the Taliban will return to power in Kabul.

We’ve seen this movie before when then-President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq. The situation was stable, he pulled everything out, security deteriorated rapidly, the Islamic State ransacked the country, and U.S. forces had to return.

I’m afraid Biden might be repeating the same mistake. It is much easier to stay indefinitely than to withdraw now and fight our way back in later.

EA: First, let’s be accurate. When he withdrew the troops from Iraq, Obama was abiding by the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President George W. Bush. So if it was a mistake, it was also Bush’s mistake.

MK: If Obama really wanted to extend the agreement, he could have made it an earlier and more important priority, but he didn’t.

EA: Perhaps. The situation in Iraq could certainly have been handled better. There were a lot of confounding problems, not least the fact that neighboring Syria had collapsed into civil war.

But look at it this way: the Islamic State problem is actually a great example of the fact that you don’t need a permanent presence in another country to deal with terrorism. U.S. troops went back into Iraq to deal with the Islamic State, using mostly air power and partner forces on the ground, and left once they’d achieved that goal. Better than a permanent presence, for sure.

MK: There are still a couple of thousand U.S. forces in Iraq, and that is about the right number for Afghanistan. I see this move as more about domestic politics—to appease the anti-war left—and less about national security.

We’ve seen this movie before when then-President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq. Then the Islamic State ransacked the country, and U.S. forces had to return.

EA: In many ways, it’s just the opposite. Biden is using political capital to do this by alienating some Senate Democrats, such as Senate Foreign Relations Chair Robert Menendez, in ways that may make his domestic agenda harder to achieve. I applaud him for that.

One other point: The idea that a couple thousand troops in Afghanistan will do the job is pretty misleading. At that level of presence, U.S. forces on the ground are mostly defending themselves and doing some training work. And that might not even be enough to defend against a renewed Taliban offensive, which would likely happen after the collapse of the existing cease-fire. In short, a small rump force in Afghanistan is just a recipe for increasing deployments later on.

MK: That level, buttressed by roughly 6,500 from NATO allies, has worked well in recent months. But I doubt we will convince each other on this issue. Should we turn instead to the intensified Russian threats against Ukraine?

EA: Yes, from conflicts we should get out of to conflicts we should avoid getting into.

For those who don’t closely follow Russian military deployments, the last few weeks have seen a growing Russian military buildup in its Western Military District, in Kaliningrad, and in Crimea—that is to say, in the areas closest to Ukraine. It’s concerning. Russia hasn’t concentrated this level of forces near Ukraine in several years, and there’s the potential for the conflict in the Donbass region to reignite as a result. But I think the big question here is Russian intentions. Do you think President Vladimir Putin plans an invasion? Because I’m not sure.

In Ukraine, the only question in Putin’s mind is: Can I get away with it?

MK: I think Putin follows Lenin’s old adage: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, then advance. If you hit steel, retreat.” The Ukrainian government has cut off the canal that supplies water to Crimea. I think Putin would like to take control of the waterway and establish a land bridge between Russian territory and Russian-occupied Crimea.

The only question in Putin’s mind is: Can I get away with it?

EA: Like most good quotes, that one’s probably apocryphal, though with a grain of truth to it. In this case, however, I’m still fairly skeptical that this presages a major Russian advance into Ukraine. Mostly because it’s difficult to see what the goal would be. The water issue has come up every year since 2014; the Russians haven’t invaded before. And there aren’t many other territorial gains that would be appealing to the Russians.

MK: The water situation continues to deteriorate, however. Arable land in Crimea is drying up, and Russia is spending billions of rubles to resupply water in other ways. Reopening the canal restores Crimea as a self-sustainable territory and alleviates a major economic burden for Russia.

EA: Perhaps I’m being too academic here, but I just keep thinking about how political scientists code acts of aggression. There are many steps between peace and all-out war, including things like the use of military forces for signaling or coercion—basically a threat to invade if you don’t do what Russia wants. So I tend to agree with a number of Russia analysts that this is probably more about trying to pressure Ukraine than it is about an actual invasion.

MK: Russia has already created the pretext for war, with two separate justifications. Putin says he might need to invade, first, to protect endangered Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine or, second, in retaliation if Ukraine strikes first. These are the exact same justifications he used to invade Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008, respectively. Fool me once…

EA: Well, let’s assume the worst-case scenario and say that you’re right. It has happened before, after all. I’d argue that the U.S. response should be broadly similar in either case and should be nonmilitary. Washington doesn’t have a strong interest in defending Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, at the cost of American lives.

MK: I’d say use what works. Bush helped to prevent a deeper Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008 when he sent the U.S. military on a humanitarian mission. Biden was on the right track when it looked like he would send two warships to the Black Sea earlier this week. It was a mistake to cancel that deployment.

EA: It’s dangerous, though. If escalation does happen, U.S. troops could be caught in the middle.

I was interested to see the readout of Biden’s call with Putin early this week, which did emphasize U.S. support for Ukraine, but which also mentioned strategic stability and proposed a summit meeting with the Russian president. I took that to be a sign of an attempt to stabilize the U.S.-Russia relationship, even in the light of this current crisis. But the announcement of new sanctions on Russia on Thursday also suggests that the relationship could still get worse.

MK: Allowing dictators to invade their neighbors with impunity is dangerous, too, but I think you are right; the Biden administration hopes it can stabilize the situation with a combination of carrots and sticks.

First Trump, and now Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, seem determined to undermine talks with Iran and a peaceful route to nonproliferation.

The other big news this week was an explosion that damaged Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. Most speculated that the attack was conducted by Israel, but there is widespread disagreement about Israel’s intentions, whether Washington was notified in advance, and what all of this means for the resumption of the Iran nuclear negotiations.

EA: Yeah, talk about curveballs. There seems to be no real doubt that this attack was carried out by Israel, and the timing was particularly problematic: News of the attack hit just as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was meeting with his Israeli counterparts. That suggests to me that Washington didn’t know in advance.

But either way, it’s a really blatant attempt by a third party to try to block the negotiations over the U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which is finally starting to get traction. I’m pleased to see that the Iranians have continued to attend meetings in Vienna, and hope the Biden team will ignore this attempt to derail the process.

MK: Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, and Israel is trying to stop it. I don’t object to strong nuclear nonproliferation efforts against a rogue state in search of the bomb. Moreover, for those who favor returning to the nuclear deal this development could strengthen the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough. Tehran’s greatest source of leverage is threatening to ramp up its nuclear program, but that will be an empty threat while Iran is busy cleaning up the mess at Natanz.

EA: Biden was elected by the American people after a campaign in which he committed to rejoining the Iran deal. It’s not up to Israel to decide whether he does or not. And these attacks could also weaken our hand: They could shift the internal discussions in Tehran or send a message that America is working with Israel on this.

After Iraq in 2003, the Iran deal was a massive success for the notion that nonproliferation should be about diplomacy, not bombs. First Trump, and now Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, seem determined to undermine the peaceful route to nonproliferation.

MK: The distinction between diplomacy and bombs is a false one. This one may be apocryphal too, but as Frederick the Great reportedly said, “diplomacy without armaments is like music without instruments.” Diplomacy with Iran will be more effective if Tehran understands that international efforts are backed up by tougher measures if diplomacy fails.

But, ultimately, I don’t think this attack will be a major game-changer. I remember back in 2011 when experts speculated that the Stuxnet cyberattack would set back Iran’s program by years, and then subsequent International Atomic Energy Agency reports showed that, according to the objective measures like numbers of centrifuges and stockpiles of enriched uranium, Iran’s program continued to advance.

EA: I think that’s right. And I’m somewhat guilty of conflating cyberattacks with real bombs here. But I would also note that you’ve just made a good argument for why this kind of physical approach to ending a nuclear program doesn’t really work. You might slow the program down for a few years, maybe drive it deeper underground, but if a state is really determined, it will be back. Again, the diplomatic approach, with monitoring and safeguards, is better.

MK: I know conditions on the ground demand that I continue this debate, but I’ve set an arbitrary deadline for when I will abandon the column this week, so I will have to leave it there.

EA: Smart. Just like the Biden team on Afghanistan.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig