President Biden can now claim credit for drawing the curtain on America’s longest war. He will also own whatever comes next.
Withdrawing from Afghanistan unconditionally only makes sense as a political decision. Biden’s September 11 deadline for full withdrawal of the 3,500 American service members who remain in the country is not based on an assessment of the threat from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In fact, such a pullback is sure to deepen the threat. As William Burns, Biden’s CIA director, testified before the Senate on Wednesday: “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact.”
Indeed, Biden’s decision was strongly opposed by the top leadership of the U.S. military.
Nevertheless, the political case for leaving is compelling. “I’m now the fourth United States president to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan,” Biden said pointedly at the White House, pledging not to “pass this responsibility on to a fifth.” If quitting Afghanistan isn’t exactly a top priority for voters, the public is also weary after 20 years of conflict, 2,500 Americans killed, and $2 trillion spent.
Yet, simply writing off Afghanistan as a “forever war” slights the rationale for staying, and the risks of leaving now.
It’s just not true that, as Biden put it, “our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly unclear.” The mission — preventing the creation of a Taliban-sponsored haven for jihadists — remains as clear as it was 20 years ago, and requires a continued, though modest, U.S. presence. Our involvement in Afghanistan was never about building a utopia at the war-torn geopolitical crossroads of Central Asia, despite U.S. efforts to support the development of democracy in the country and over-optimism at times about its prospects. Our involvement was always principally about preventing the reemergence of a terrorist threat capable of killing Americans on U.S. soil.
This isn’t merely a theoretical concern. Al-Qaeda reconstituted itself in Pakistan in the late 2000s, and we were able to hit the terror group from Afghanistan (including in the bin Laden raid). And ISIS attempted to establish a base in eastern Afghanistan several years ago.
Crucially, what Biden didn’t mention in his speech is how much the U.S. operation has changed over time. The war fought today is entirely different from the conflict in which Americans engaged in regular battles with Taliban forces.
Even under the Trump administration the U.S. role was largely counterterrorism, training, and supporting the Afghan government forces with air strikes. The most recent U.S. fatality resulted from an auto accident at an air force base in the UAE last November; the most recent combat death was earlier that year, in February prior to the beginning of a ceasefire with the Taliban.
Since the start of the scaled-back U.S. operation in 2015, we have lost 64 personnel in combat.
Biden inherited this much more limited phase of the war. He also, unfortunately, inherited President Trump’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban in Doha. “It is perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself,” said Biden on Wednesday, “but it was an agreement made by the United States government, and that means something.”
It apparently means more to the Biden administration than it does to the Taliban. In exchange for the aforementioned ceasefire, and the Taliban’s guarantees that it would not support entities with an interest in attacking the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. agreed to withdraw its forces by May 2021. The president’s timeline will not satisfy that provision (although the withdrawal may start by then), while it will certainly vindicate the Taliban’s goal of clearing the country of the U.S. and NATO presence so that it may step up its assault.
Predictably, the Taliban bargained in bad faith. According to a June 2020 U.N. report, it consulted with al-Qaeda throughout the Doha negotiations and promised the terrorist group that it would “honor its historical ties.” The Taliban viewed its talks with the U.S. as a gift and a means of gaining international legitimacy as it plotted its next steps.
The Trump administration, as we said at the time, twisted itself in pretzels to get any deal. It would have required determination for Biden to call out the Taliban, still in bed with al-Qaeda, for its non-compliance with the agreement, but he’s as eager to pull the plug on Afghanistan as Trump was.
Although Afghan president Ashraf Ghani put on a magnanimous face when Secretary of State Blinken arrived in the country this week to show continued U.S. support, he likely has no illusions about what will follow. The Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces is already on the defensive against an ongoing Taliban offensive, and surely its position will worsen. The fall of Kabul is likely, if not inevitable.
Without a continued presence on the ground, Washington will have limited ability to sustain Trump-era air strikes, even as it is sure to face an uptick in terrorist activity. To strike al-Qaeda and perhaps even a resurgent ISIS post-withdrawal, American pilots — or drones — will soon have to fly very long distances, and it will be much more difficult to develop actionable intelligence without a presence on the ground. It will also become all but impossible to deal directly with terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan, and it forfeits a key U.S. position in Iran’s neighborhood.
The war in Afghanistan has gone on very long, and there has been no shortage of mistakes in how we’ve conducted it. But this withdrawal will likely only swap the unsatisfactory status quo for what we have been trying to avoid coming to pass in Afghanistan the last two decades.