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What Should Biden Have Done in Afghanistan?

Withdrawal was always bound to be chaotic, but wishful thinking, poor planning, and glacial bureaucracies have made a difficult situation worse.

By , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
A U.S. soldier shoots in the air with his pistol while standing guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 20.
A U.S. soldier shoots in the air with his pistol while standing guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 20. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Matthew Kroenig: Welcome back from vacation, Emma! Much of Washington shuts down in August, but world events never seem to take a holiday. I’ve spent much of my time off engaged with the news from Afghanistan. I usually like to start the column on a lighter note, but with the tragedies occurring in Kabul right now, it doesn’t quite seem appropriate. Where should we begin?

Emma Ashford: I know what you mean. The last few days have been particularly difficult, as a terrorist attack by the Islamic State-Khorasan killed 13 U.S. service members and many more Afghan civilians who were trying to flee.

But perhaps we should take a step back and talk about the bigger question: Was U.S. President Joe Biden right to pull out? I think a lot of people have been conflating this with the evacuation and its implementation, but they are two different issues.

Matthew Kroenig: Welcome back from vacation, Emma! Much of Washington shuts down in August, but world events never seem to take a holiday. I’ve spent much of my time off engaged with the news from Afghanistan. I usually like to start the column on a lighter note, but with the tragedies occurring in Kabul right now, it doesn’t quite seem appropriate. Where should we begin?

Emma Ashford: I know what you mean. The last few days have been particularly difficult, as a terrorist attack by the Islamic State-Khorasan killed 13 U.S. service members and many more Afghan civilians who were trying to flee.

But perhaps we should take a step back and talk about the bigger question: Was U.S. President Joe Biden right to pull out? I think a lot of people have been conflating this with the evacuation and its implementation, but they are two different issues.

MK: The short answer, in my view, is no. This was a self-created catastrophe. There is little reason for U.S. forces to be experiencing this tragedy right now. The U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan was sustainable. Those forces were helping the Afghan government control Kabul and much of the rest of the country. This military presence was good for the United States, the Afghan people, and much of the rest of the world.

Then Biden pulled all U.S. forces out, which surprised NATO allies and forced them to also withdraw troops. The Afghan government quickly collapsed (something I predicted would happen in our April 16 column). The Taliban will now run the country with devastating consequences for human rights in Afghanistan and U.S. national security interests, including the return of the terrorist threat that we have already tragically experienced this week.

The world is clearly in a worse place right now with regard to Afghanistan than since at least 2014.

I disagree with the idea that billions of dollars and dozens of lives a year is sustainable. And based on most of the recent polling, the U.S. public tends to concur.

EA: Let me push back on this a little. First, the notion that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was sustainable is misleading. It might have been sustainable but not at the low level of troops and casualties we’d seen in the last year. That was the result of the Taliban-U.S. cease-fire associated with former President Donald Trump’s Doha talks. If Biden had not left on schedule, the level of violence against U.S. forces would undoubtedly have increased.

And second, I think the idea that U.S. allies were surprised by the pullout is frankly laughable. If they were surprised—like British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who was shocked enough to criticize the United States but not shocked enough to take time out of his Greek island holiday to help coordinate the evacuation—it was because they weren’t paying attention or because they didn’t take U.S. policymakers’ words seriously. Perhaps the speed of the Afghan collapse, or that it happened without many shots fired, was surprising, but Trump first started negotiations with the Taliban a couple of years ago, and Biden has consistently promised that U.S. troops would be out by Sept. 11. How is that part a surprise?

MK: Your first point has also been made by Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but it doesn’t really square with the facts. Even before Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban, U.S. casualty levels were low (about 20 per year since 2014). U.S. forces have not been in a major combat role since 2014. They’ve been training and equipping the Afghan army and providing intelligence and air power. So, perhaps casualties would have increased from zero to 20 or so per year, but that was still sustainable.

Others argue that the surrender revealed a spectacularly bad return on investment—that it is a strategic liability to train and equip a local ally if that ally has no will to fight once the superpower leaves. But this assumes the U.S. goal was to depart sometime soon and let the Afghan government stand on its own. While U.S. officials have stated this objective in the past, I don’t believe that this truly was, or should have been, the goal.

The true goal was for the Afghan government to survive with continued U.S. military backing. Similar arrangements have worked for U.S. allies in Europe and Asia for decades, and Washington could have similarly provided indefinite support to the Afghan government. Of course the Afghan government is going to be in a weaker position when you remove the United States, the world’s greatest superpower, from the equation. That is to be expected.

To be fair, the Trump-era peace deal certainly limited Biden’s options, but it is disingenuous for Biden to argue that he was stuck with Trump’s deal. He has been perfectly happy to pull a U-turn on Trump’s policies for Iran, climate change, and much else, so he could have easily reversed course on Afghanistan.

On the second point, the Europeans did not know what to make of Trump’s negotiations, and Biden only announced his intent to withdraw by Sept. 11 in April, just four months ago. There should have been a more robust, U.S.-led effort to develop a coordinated NATO-wide plan for what comes next. This is certainly what one would have expected from Biden’s repeated promises to restore America’s alliances. Instead, Washington took its ball and went home, leaving Brussels no choice but to hastily forfeit the game.

EA: Well, I disagree with the idea that billions of dollars and dozens of lives a year is sustainable. And based on most of the recent polling, the U.S. public tends to concur.

But there actually was some discussion within NATO—certainly within the United Kingdom—of whether other states should continue the mission in Afghanistan. The notion faltered for two reasons: There was almost no support in any other NATO country to do so, and British policymakers eventually accepted that they didn’t have the air power or intelligence capabilities to do so without U.S. logistical support.

If this episode pushes America’s European partners to improve their own military capabilities for this kind of thing, I’ll be thrilled.

And that’s a massive problem with the alliance more generally; we also saw it in Libya, where Britain and France initially attempted to take the lead and then were forced to rely on U.S. refueling capabilities. As one former Conservative cabinet minister in the U.K. put it this week, “One lesson we should draw is that if Britain and the EU countries in NATO want to play a significant role militarily, we will need to work together closely to develop a capability which means we don’t have to depend on an American presence.” If this episode pushes America’s European partners to improve their own military capabilities for this kind of thing, I’ll be thrilled.

MK: You mention the billions spent, but it is not clear that Washington will save much if any money from this decision. U.S. soldiers will still have to be paid, fed, and housed whether they are in Afghanistan or Texas, and future U.S. counterterrorism operations that Biden has promised will require flying aircraft from the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan and back. That won’t be cheap.

The United States lost this war. But not on the battlefield. It was lost due to inadequate attention and leadership from Washington.

I agree that opinion polls show a majority of Americans wanting out of the country, but that is more of a statement about presidential leadership. If Biden (or Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush) had made a clear case to the American people about why a small and indefinite U.S. presence in Afghanistan makes them safer, he could have swung the polls. But none of them made the case effectively, and opinion turned as a result.

The United States lost this war. But not on the battlefield. It was lost due to inadequate attention and leadership from Washington.

EA: At least Washington will save the estimated 40 percent of Defense Department spending on contracts in Afghanistan that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates it lost to graft and corruption.

And that’s the big point. You’re absolutely right that the United States didn’t lose this war on the battlefield. It lost it because the state that Washington built in Afghanistan was a hollow kleptocracy, incapable of existing and fighting without permanent U.S. support. In my opinion, the Biden administration’s biggest mistake in all of this appears to have been that it didn’t predict or accept just how quickly things would fall apart after U.S. troops left.

MK: While there is vigorous disagreement about the decision to withdraw, there is more consensus that the Biden administration has handled the withdrawal badly. It didn’t anticipate such a rapid collapse of the Afghan government. This is mostly the result of wishful thinking. Many analysts, including yours truly, forecasted that the Afghan government wouldn’t hold for long on its own.

One cannot predict the future with confidence, so a good strategy is robust across several of the most likely plausible future scenarios. But the Biden withdrawal strategy depended on the best-case scenario coming true.

As a consequence, the United States was forced into a hasty retreat and disorganized evacuation that led to the vivid tragedies unfolding over the past two weeks: helicopters evacuating diplomats from the U.S. Embassy; desperate Afghans falling to their deaths after clinging to the wheels of departing U.S. cargo aircraft; and anguished Afghan parents passing their children over the fence at the Kabul airport in the hope that perhaps their children can make it to safety even if it means never seeing them again.

It has all been so terribly chaotic. There were better options for the foreseeable quick-collapse scenario. Why not maintain a U.S. military stronghold in Kabul until it was clear that the Afghan government would hold or, if not, until the United States and its allies could safely evacuate? Why was Bagram Air Base abandoned, instead of used for evacuations? Why was U.S. military equipment allowed to fall so easily into the hands of the enemy? Why not have a safe and orderly plan for evacuation that did not depend on the goodwill of the Taliban or expose vulnerable crowds to Islamic State attacks? I understand this is a difficult problem, but one cannot help but suspect that this was not carefully thought through.

It seems the Biden administration thought it had months to manage this process; it dropped the ball in planning for a sudden Taliban takeover.

EA: It’s awful. You and I are both parents of young children, and like you, I found those pictures of children outside the airport to be almost unbearable to watch. The evacuation has been chaotic and poorly planned. Again, it seems the Biden administration thought it had months to manage this process; it dropped the ball in planning for a sudden Taliban takeover.

Certainly, even as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, I believe the United States should be doing what it can to evacuate any Afghan who wants to leave. Washington owes them that much. But the last few days have made clear that this cannot be an indefinite mission: The security situation around the airport gets more problematic every day, and the risks to U.S troops are growing, as the attack on Thursday so tragically demonstrated.

I do wonder if the Biden administration had fewer choices here than some suggest. Consider a counterfactual: Had the United States not waited at the Afghan government’s request, and instead had started widespread evacuations earlier, it might have been able to evacuate more people. But equally, such actions might have caused panic and encouraged more Afghans to flee earlier, undermining confidence in the government and causing it to collapse earlier than it did.

Continuing to operate Bagram might have allowed a higher tempo for evacuations but would have required perhaps double the troops, and its location many miles from Kabul was hardly ideal for civilians trying to reach the airfield. In short, I think there was likely room for marginal improvements on the evacuation but no likely scenario where this ended well.

One cannot predict the future with confidence, but the Biden withdrawal strategy depended on the best-case scenario coming true.

MK: I agree there was a Catch-22. The United States wanted to show long-term diplomatic and economic support to the Afghan government. Still, national security planning is often about planning for the worst, and that is not what happened here. In July, Biden predicted that the Taliban wouldn’t take over the country and that the United States would not need to conduct a fall-of-Saigon-style helicopter evacuation. Then those things happened. Biden had to reverse course and send thousands of more troops to Afghanistan to help after he brought them out. Thirteen of them were killed this week, the worst daily death toll for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in a decade.

Biden has also struggled with empathy both for the Americans who feel that they’ve squandered blood (including of family members) and treasure and to the Afghans left behind—including callously dismissing a question from George Stephanopoulos about Afghans falling to their deaths from U.S. cargo planes by snapping “that was four days ago, five days ago.”

The list goes on and on.

EA: No argument there. This could have been handled better. I do think we also need to lay a lot of blame at the feet of the Trump administration, whose restrictions on immigration processing made it more difficult to get Afghans to safety over the last year. As some have pointed out, the internal government capacity to process Special Immigrant Visas for interpreters was hollowed out by Trump’s anti-immigration staff.

But even with that, the government response has been glacial. Like many in Washington, I’ve been watching as private entities and even individual citizens have assumed traditional state roles in processing requests, procuring airplanes, and securing landing rights to help their own contacts flee. Major news organizations like the New York Times ended up turning to Mexico to accept their local employees after getting nowhere with the U.S. government. That doesn’t speak well to Washington’s competence in this moment of crisis.

Luckily, the United States, its partners, and those private charitable concerns together are now lifting almost 20,000 people a day from Kabul. It’s more tenuous than I would like—the troops and civilians there are in many ways at the mercy of the Taliban—but it is perhaps the best one could hope for under these circumstances.

Team Biden seems to be betting that this won’t affect his reelection chances in 2024.

Perhaps we should wrap up by talking about the bigger picture? The question of accountability in Afghanistan, and of what the Afghan withdrawal means for U.S. foreign policy more broadly, is still largely unanswered.

MK: Why don’t you begin with accountability? I know that is of interest to you.

EA: Well, I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately in the Afghanistan Papers. That’s the big dump of internal government papers that the Washington Post managed to obtain through Freedom of Information Act requests detailing the internal government deliberations around the war in Afghanistan. And many of them are damning: top generals who misled Congress about the course of the war, bureaucracies that kept trying the same failed strategies over and over again, and senior policymakers who misled the American people about how successful the campaign actually was.

It’s easy to focus on the chaotic evacuation, but after 20 years, I would far rather see some congressional hearings on the war itself. I’m skeptical that there can be any real accountability—as responsibility for the war was so widespread in Washington—but at least it would throw some light on the biggest mistakes and on why this war went so badly and why it took so long to end.

MK: I agree the war effort was managed poorly over the years. Due to ever-shifting strategies, Afghanistan was not one 20-year war (as the quip has it) but 20 one-year wars. Washington went in with a light footprint, then surged, and then seemed to be pulling everything out, then staying, and then suddenly negotiating with the Taliban.

Despite the inconsistency, I do believe the United States fell into a sustainable and effective approach after 2014, so much of the blame for the final outcome, in my view, goes partially to Trump and mostly to Biden for upsetting this equilibrium.

Team Biden does seem to be betting, however, that this won’t affect his reelection chances in 2024. Do you agree?

EA: There was a Politico poll this week that asked respondents whether the United States should withdraw from Afghanistan even if it increases the chances of terrorism. That leading question still got more respondents agreeing the United States should leave than those who wanted to stay. That is so telling. The public overwhelmingly backs withdrawal from Afghanistan, and I suspect the messy evacuation will be long forgotten by the time the next presidential election comes around. What about you?

MK: That is probably right. But I do think many Americans—even those who wanted to leave Afghanistan—didn’t like seeing their country lose the war in such a humiliating fashion. And the Republican attack ads virtually write themselves, contrasting Biden’s dismissive words on Afghanistan in July with images of the ugly reality in August. The message would not be about Afghanistan per se but about Biden’s competence as commander in chief.

The bigger issues in my mind are about what this means for the future of Afghanistan and America’s role in the world. I do think this has big and mostly negative implications for some of Biden’s own foreign-policy priorities, including restoring U.S. credibility, promoting democracy against autocracy, and great-power competition with China.

Many Americans—even those who wanted to leave Afghanistan—didn’t like seeing their country lose the war in such a humiliating fashion.

EA: Well, Biden has three more years in which to show that he can conduct foreign policy competently and—now that he has made the tough choice in Afghanistan—an opportunity to show the American people that he can do foreign policy better than his predecessors.

And as some international relations scholars have pointed out, the United States may well have better credibility on key issues like great-power competition now that it has finally shed the dead albatross of Afghanistan from around its neck. After all, what better way to show China that it is taking the Indo-Pacific seriously than finally pivoting away from the war on terrorism?

And China itself may come to regret the U.S. withdrawal; it has energy security interests in the region, and a less stable Afghanistan and Pakistan are hardly good for Beijing.

MK: Well, let me try to end with a note of optimism. This week has seen some terrible tragedies, and there are only a few days until the deadline to remove Americans and supportive Afghans from the country. Even though it seems unlikely at this point, let us pray that they make it to safety.

EA: Amen to that.

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 Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security 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

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