Despite the smiles in the Oval Office, the handshakes, and the promises of U.S. financial support to the Afghan government, President Ashraf Ghani flew back to Afghanistan from Washington, D.C., last week with a cataclysmic security crisis on his hands. Yes, Ghani received assurances from President Biden that the U.S. would continue funding the Afghan national-security forces to the tune of $3.3 billion each year. But he also encountered a U.S. president who desperately — and rightly — wants to bring the 20-year-long U.S. involvement in Afghanistan’s civil war to a close. “Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” Biden told Ghani and his governing partner (and nemesis) Abdullah Abdullah last Friday.
There is no doubt that the Afghan government is in dire straits at the moment. General Austin Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, acknowledged as much in an interview with the New York Times this week. Taliban forces have reportedly captured 108 districts over the last two months and have surrounded multiple provincial capitals, marooning Afghan forces inside their bases with dwindling supplies and ammunition. Afghanistan’s elite counterterrorism and special forces, trained and groomed by America’s own, are overstretched and relegated to cleaning up after conventional units that have chosen negotiated surrender. The U.S. intelligence community predicts that the Afghan government itself could fall as soon as six months after the U.S. completes its troop withdrawal.
The question, though, has never been whether Afghan security forces would struggle to hold ground once U.S. forces packed up — even those who have advocated for a full U.S. withdrawal acknowledge the costs associated with the decision. The question is whether the U.S. has a better alternative.
Many Beltway foreign-policy professionals continue to believe that sustaining the Afghan government indefinitely with a few thousand troops and tens of billions of dollars a year is a “low-cost formula” for keeping Kabul afloat. Yet for the U.S. military personnel who would be asked to risk their lives on behalf of a corrupt, internally divided, and feckless government, it’s difficult to see how such a mission would actually enhance U.S. security in any meaningful way. What would be the purpose of such a deployment, other than maintaining a stalemate? How resource-intensive would it be? How long would it last? And above all, would it be worth it?
Proponents of reversing the U.S. troop withdrawal never get around to answering (let alone asking) these critical questions — perhaps because they recognize that the answers would hardly be acceptable to the American public.
There is nobody in America who likes to watch as Taliban fighters capture and pose with U.S.-supplied mortars and artillery pieces left behind by retreating Afghan troops. The fact that the Afghan government is openly calling on informal militias to backstop its security forces is all you need to know about the security situation there.
But the truth of the matter is about as ugly as the war itself: Afghanistan was in a state of civil war before the U.S. military entered the country, and it will be in a state of civil war long after the U.S. military leaves. U.S. national-security officials should have long ago realized that as professional, dedicated, and technologically superior as the U.S. military is, the men and women who swear an oath to protect the United States don’t have the power to drag Afghanistan into peace. If 140,000 U.S. and coalition troops couldn’t resolve Afghanistan’s decades-long civil war, it is ludicrous to believe that the presence of 3,500 American troops will do the trick. If this conflict is going to be solved, it’s going to be solved by the Afghans who are presently fighting one another in all four corners of their country. To ask a young American from New York, Arkansas, or Illinois to do it for them is blatantly unfair and is a fatal misreading of how little power the United States really has to push events there in a more constructive direction.
In the world of national security, there is no such thing as a cost-free option. Pluses and minuses are attached to every policy. Some of those downsides can be prevented or mitigated in this case — to take one example, special-immigrant visas can be expedited for Afghans who have worked with the U.S. military — and U.S. policy-makers should make sure that they are. But the president of the United States doesn’t have the luxury of living in a dream world. Oftentimes, he must determine which policy option is the least costly and risky for U.S. national security and which one holds the greatest promise of future dividends.
Strangely enough, advocates for continuing the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan appear to be convinced that they are the exception to this rule. Those who counsel withdrawal are expected to explain themselves while those who insist on extending America’s longest war for another few years are given the benefit of the doubt.
Fortunately, the American people aren’t buying it, and neither is the Biden administration. Despite howls of protest and negative headlines about doomsday scenarios in Afghanistan, we remain on track to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces from the country by next month. The withdrawal is painful from a public-relations perspective. But it remains far preferable to the status quo the foreign-policy elite reflexively supports, which in this context would likely mean more unnecessary U.S. casualties, more taxpayer money on top of the $2 trillion already spent, and the enabling of a government in Kabul that is at best fractious and at worse predatory.
Calls for the Biden administration to reverse course will grow even louder as the September withdrawal deadline inches closer. The case for extricating the U.S. from Afghanistan, however, remains as strong today as it did when former president Donald Trump was pining to get out of the country in his first year in office. Back then, Trump chose to defer to our generals, who predictably requested more troops and more time to turn the situation around.
Trump would go on to regret his decision and outline a U.S. withdrawal schedule during his last year in office. Biden shouldn’t hesitate to execute it.