Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

I’m a Democrat Who Opposed the Withdrawal. This Catastrophe Is Why.

At minimum, Biden owed our allies in Afghanistan a plan.

By , a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives and House Armed Services Committee.
Chaos at Kabul airport in Afghanistan
A man pulls a girl onto a barrier in an effort to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 16. Stringer/REUTERS

Leaving Afghanistan

During a hearing of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee about Afghanistan in May, I asked a senior Defense Department official if the U.S. military would return if the Afghan government asked the United States for help. The official replied: “I am reluctant to get into a hypothetical.” My committee colleagues asked several thoughtful questions about Afghanistan’s future during the proceedings. We all got the same answer.

Shortly thereafter, I joined 10 other members of Congress in writing a letter to President Joe Biden outlining recommendations for improving stability in Afghanistan in light of the decision to withdraw. We never received a reply from the White House.

I suppose we are now experiencing the consequences of not getting “into a hypothetical.” Public executions and forced marriages are reportedly back. People are fleeing. The Taliban are in Kabul, and the government has fallen. This is a catastrophe.

During a hearing of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee about Afghanistan in May, I asked a senior Defense Department official if the U.S. military would return if the Afghan government asked the United States for help. The official replied: “I am reluctant to get into a hypothetical.” My committee colleagues asked several thoughtful questions about Afghanistan’s future during the proceedings. We all got the same answer.

Shortly thereafter, I joined 10 other members of Congress in writing a letter to President Joe Biden outlining recommendations for improving stability in Afghanistan in light of the decision to withdraw. We never received a reply from the White House.

I suppose we are now experiencing the consequences of not getting “into a hypothetical.” Public executions and forced marriages are reportedly back. People are fleeing. The Taliban are in Kabul, and the government has fallen. This is a catastrophe.

This negligence was par for the course for the last U.S. administration. I am disappointed to see it now. At minimum, the Biden administration owed our Afghan allies of 20 years a real plan. They also owed it to our military service members and their families, particularly the men and women in uniform and their families who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Not to mention the women and girls of Afghanistan who are now experiencing a devastating new reality.

During my time in Congress, I have seen attention on Afghanistan wax and wane. Before the United States collectively moves on, I want to explore where we go from here.

The consequences of the U.S. decision to abandon Afghanistan are now on full display for the world to see, but it didn’t have to be this way.

To start, we need to remind ourselves why we were in Afghanistan in the first place: to dismantle al Qaeda and their enablers, deny them a safe haven, and stop them from plotting and planning against the United States. The Taliban offered a safe haven to extremist groups in the past. With the Taliban having taken Kabul, it is only a matter of time before Afghanistan turns into another extremist haven.

While U.S. troops were protecting the homeland from another attack, they fought for human rights, stymied the Taliban’s repressive ideology that the vast majority of Afghans do not want, and prevented a humanitarian catastrophe. Had they remained longer, they also would have ensured a safe exit for interpreters, journalists, and activists, many of whom may never get out.

The United States also risks ceding influence to Russia and China. China could forge a partnership with the Taliban to complete its genocide of Uyghur Muslims. Pakistani officials are celebrating the victory of their preferred strain of extremism, and some of Iran’s militias have marched back from Syria into Afghanistan.

Given the current situation, U.S. diplomats must refocus on what will bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and on providing options to Biden for conducting airstrikes, withholding foreign aid, or putting boots back on the ground. If extremist groups like al Qaeda are reconstituting or committing atrocities, we are returning to Afghanistan.

In the future, we must take extra care to establish and monitor development assistance programs so they are as effective as possible. Before last week, government watchdogs frequently reported rampant fraud and waste in Afghanistan. U.S. taxpayers financed schools that were not built and roads that were never repaired. We donated equipment that the Afghan military did not need. Now, the Taliban have stolen that equipment and munitions, and they are stronger for it. Economic and security assistance should never be an afterthought.

Finally, regional engagement. Central Asia is not exactly a hot-ticket destination for diplomats, but we need these dedicated public servants to lay the groundwork for the U.S. military to use existing bases from which to conduct potential airstrikes. We will also need partnerships for intelligence missions, a place to establish a consulate if the embassy in Kabul remains closed, and a plan for resettling the surge of refugees.

We should also reflect on what our service members have done in the past 20 years: There has not been another major attack on U.S. soil.

We must also persuade Afghanistan’s neighbors to not fund their preferred factions within the country. We must hold this line—or Afghanistan will collapse. We need a strategy that prioritizes our diplomatic, development, and defense objectives so that we can condition regional foreign aid in pursuit of degrading al Qaeda and ensuring Afghanistan’s stability.

The administration has addressed some of the challenges with the Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans, but we need to increase our efforts hundredfold. We should also reflect on what our service members have done in the past 20 years. There has not been another major attack on U.S. soil. Al Qaeda is not thriving in Afghanistan, as it once was. Until last week, 50 percent of the American University of Afghanistan’s students were women. That would not have been possible without us. Sadly, at another university in Herat, female students have reportedly been banned from campus already.

Critics may say the past few months were an indictment of our ability to train the Afghan military. I would say instead: Look at what 2,500 U.S. soldiers, intelligence, and air support working with the Afghan military were able to hold back for so many years. The consequences of our decision to abandon Afghanistan are now on full display for the world to see. It didn’t have to be this way.

I pray for all U.S. troops and personnel. We must spare no cost to ensure their safe return home.

Jim Langevin is a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he serves on the House Armed Services Committee. Twitter: @JimLangevin

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