National Security & Defense

A Fiasco in Full

A U.S. Marine assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command assists evacuees during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 20, 2021. (Sergeant Isaiah Campbell/U.S. Marine Corps/Handout via Reuters)
The U.S. military’s manner of leaving Afghanistan, and leaving itself, were both mistakes. We are paying for them already.

What has happened in Afghanistan is a disaster for the security of the United States. Leaving Afghanistan was the wrong thing to do, and it was done in the worst way possible. Like all bad decisions, it will have evil consequences, increasing the danger of another attack on the American homeland and making aggression and conflict more likely elsewhere in the world.

The United States invaded Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for its participation in the 9/11 attacks, degrade the ability of al-Qaeda to carry out further attacks, and empower American and allied forces to combat Islamic terrorism in the region. By the end of President Obama’s first term, and largely because of the surge he ordered in 2009, those goals had been accomplished. Afghanistan has never been exactly stable, but the government was in control of the large cities and, with American help, could establish at least transitory control and strike virtually anywhere in the country.

In addition, as the competition between the United States and China heated up, the American presence in Afghanistan became a key node of intelligence collection and a counterweight to Chinese influence in Pakistan and South Asia.

Afghanistan looks north toward Russia’s underbelly and east toward China’s restive western provinces. For that reason it could have played a key role in the great-power competition that, all agree, is now the priority of American foreign policy. For example, a single long-range-missile battery in Afghanistan could have forced Russia and China to divert defensive forces from the Baltics and East Asia.

Perhaps these benefits were not worth the two decades of sacrifice necessary to achieve them, but there is no time machine through which we can redo the last 20 years. The relevant question was whether the upside to American security of continuing the operations in Afghanistan, and the downside consequences that would occur if the operations were ended, justified the effort that would have been necessary to sustain them.

When President Biden took office, there were 2,500 American service personnel and 5,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. The number of U.S. personnel in country was far less than the American footprint in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar and is approximately the size of our base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

Last year the United States suffered one combat casualty in Afghanistan. It is certainly possible that there would have been a handful each year going forward, and even one casualty is one too many, but the vast majority of American personnel were engaged in activities that did not expose them to high risk: logistics, targeting, intelligence collection, training, and strikes through the air. It was essentially the same kind of capacity-building and combat support, albeit on a larger scale and for bigger stakes, that American forces routinely conduct in numerous global venues to empower local forces to attack and suppress Islamic terrorists.

It’s also possible that the small footprint in Afghanistan would at some point not have been sufficient and that sustaining the mission there would have required reinsertion of a large number of American troops in a direct combat role. But there was no sign of that happening, and if it had happened, the decision to terminate the mission could have been made at that time.

The reverse is most definitely not true. We cannot re-create in Afghanistan the conditions that the United States was exploiting to its advantage, nor can we achieve the same goals through the president’s proposed “over the horizon” operations.

Yet the problem with this withdrawal is not just that the United States has now and probably forever lost the influence and advantages that had been gained by the force of American arms. It is also the downside consequences to American security writ large of abandoning both our commitment and our interest in Afghanistan.

First, the pullout, and especially the way it was bungled, will obviously tend to dissuade other countries from supporting the United States, especially when it exposes them to risk from an adversary. President Biden magnified this effect by his bizarre behavior over the past week: hiding in Camp David, emerging to give an incoherent speech, and failing all the while to contact even a single foreign leader, though many of them are taking heat back home for the decisions he made.

You can bet that this whole episode will figure prominently in the Russian and Chinese narrative that America is a feckless and declining power.

Second, there is now a vacuum in Afghanistan, which China will try to fill. Beijing’s leaders are already negotiating with the Taliban, and they have advantages the United States did not have. They are close to Pakistan, which has influence over the Taliban, they don’t care what the Taliban does to the human rights of its own people, and they will not be overly concerned about preventing al-Qaeda from committing terrorism, as long as China is not the target.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the outlines of the possible deal. The Taliban would agree not to disturb in any way the genocide Beijing is inflicting on its Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang Province and will protect Chinese nationals as they extract the mineral wealth of Afghanistan. In return, Beijing would cover internationally for the Taliban, enrich its leaders personally, and assist the regime, possibly with weapons but at least with technology, in more effectively suppressing its own people.

Whether the Taliban will make this deal remains to be seen, but no potential American partner in South Asia, and especially India, can be sanguine about the prospect of exchanging American for Chinese influence in Afghanistan.

Finally, the Taliban and its ally al-Qaeda once again have control of a country. As they are safe from attack by American and allied forces, there is zero reason to believe they will not once again use Afghanistan as a base from which to organize attacks against the United States — and the COVID-19 pandemic has shown them where to concentrate their efforts so as to achieve the maximum effect.

Twelve years ago, former senator Bob Graham and I co-chaired a congressionally mandated commission on the possibility of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Senator Graham and I focused on the danger of a bio-attack, because we believed that al-Qaeda could more easily isolate and weaponize a bio-agent than they could get their hands on a nuclear device. It was no secret that they had that intention; in fact, they were operating laboratories in Afghanistan at the time of the American invasion.

Maybe they won’t rebuild those laboratories. Maybe if they do they won’t be able to isolate or distribute an agent. But the initiative is now in their hands, and the United States has lost much of its capability to stop them or even keep track of their activities.

It is not necessary to discuss at length the humanitarian aspects of this disaster. Those will be public enough; once the Taliban consolidates its power, it will not hide the revenge it inflicts on its enemies. Even if the regime allows the Americans who are still in Afghanistan to leave, no decent person can fail to be sickened by what will surely happen to the Afghans who made the final and consummate error of trusting the competence if not the honor of the government of the United States.

PHOTOS: Afghanistan Evacuation

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.

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