Every Option in Afghanistan Was Bad
How it's ending, what happens next, and what the U.S. should do
The United States withdrew from Afghanistan and the government collapsed. It happened very fast — faster, apparently, than American leaders expected — with Afghan military units and provinces surrendering to Taliban insurgents, who then took control of the capital, Kabul, as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The Taliban will run Afghanistan again, presumably implementing a religious fundamentalism similar to before the U.S.-led invasion dislodged them in 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
There are two ways to interpret this:
The Afghan government couldn’t stand on its own, and the security forces couldn’t hold the country, despite 20 years of international support. They’d never be able to — so something like this collapse would’ve happened whenever the U.S. pulled out.
American and allied efforts clearly made a difference, keeping the Taliban at bay and a better government in power (which, despite many problems, let girls go to school, didn’t host al Qaeda terrorists, etc.)
Both interpretations are right. The Afghan government couldn’t stand on its own, but was standing with American support. The Afghan military couldn’t handle the Taliban without U.S. airpower, intelligence, and equipment maintenance, but they had it. For many Americans, including President Joe Biden, recognizing that the United States would not be able to hand over full responsibility to Afghans for the foreseeable future meant staying there was pointless.
It wasn’t. America was achieving its original goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S. and American allies. It was helping millions of Afghans, especially women, girls, and LGBT people, live free of fundamentalist repression. It’s reasonable to argue that those achievements weren’t worth the ongoing costs, but withdrawal was not without downsides.
“What were we going to do, stay there forever?,” critics ask rhetorically, as if the only answer is “no.”
But it isn’t.
This idea makes a lot of Americans uncomfortable. In the Hollywood-boosted American mythos, good wars are like World War II — they start it, we fight back, secure an unconditional surrender, and have a parade — which means wars need an endgame, an exit strategy, or they’re like the bad war, Vietnam. You can see this in derisive uses of the term “forever war,” as if a long-lasting American presence is, by itself, proof a military deployment is misguided.
Not necessarily. The U.S. is still in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Kuwait and elsewhere, aiding both local security and American interests. But that’s not a great analogy, because they’re not active combat theaters, and Afghanistan never stopped being one.
A better comparison, for the overarching War on Terror at least, is the War on Drugs: multifaceted, poorly handled in multiple ways, but ultimately an ongoing problem we have to manage one way or another, not something we can win. American military and intelligence are active in Yemen and Somalia, and have a counterterrorism presence in numerous African countries (e.g. Niger).
The U.S. wasn’t winning in Afghanistan, but the Taliban wasn’t winning either. Both sides saw gains and losses, but in recent years the Taliban held about 20 percent of Afghan territory, the government controlled about 30 percent, including Kabul, and the remaining half was contested. This wasn’t Vietnam, where the U.S. had over 150,000 troops in 1971 and about 24,000 until full military withdrawal in 1973. It wasn’t Iraq, where the U.S. had about 88,000 troops in 2010 before completing withdrawal in 2011. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has had fewer than 15,000 troops since 2014, and in the year before the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, Americans were killed by hostile fire at a rate of 1.5 per month. That certainly wasn’t costless, but it was sustainable indefinitely.
However, a democracy cannot sustain a war without public support, or at least acquiescence, and policymakers sold something more decisive to the American people: a permanent solution in which the Afghan government would maintain security without assistance. And they kept telling us it would happen soon. For example, in October 2012, then-President Barack Obama announced, “We are now able to transition out of Afghanistan in a responsible way,” with Afghans “responsible for their own security.” That was never true. And as a Washington Post investigation showed, many U.S. military and political leaders knew it, even as they said otherwise through Obama’s presidency (and Trump’s).
For the United States, leaving has upsides — not spending money or risking American lives, refocusing on larger strategic interests, such as great power competition with Russia and China — as well as downsides, some of which we’re seeing in the news now. But worries about America losing credibility are overblown, especially regarding dissimilar situations. Taiwan, Israel, and eastern Europe are nothing like Afghanistan, and this withdrawal probably won’t change their assessment of America’s commitments to them.
But one downside of withdrawing from Afghanistan Americans are underestimating is the possibility the U.S. goes back. In the 1980s, the United States helped the Afghan mujahideen expel the Soviet Union, then largely ignored the country in the 1990s. We got September 11th and ended up back in. Similarly, the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, only for ISIS to arise and much of the Iraqi military to fold, leading to American forces returning in 2014. Leaving Afghanistan doesn’t mean it’ll never be our problem again. America might end up back relatively soon, but in a weaker position.
Decision and Execution
Whether or not withdrawing was right, it could’ve been handled better. Chaos at Kabul’s airport as people try to get out, helicopter evacuations from the U.S. embassy that bring back memories of the fall of Saigon, Afghans who helped the United States against the Taliban left to fend for themselves — all was at least partially avoidable with better planning.
However, on July 8, only six weeks ago, Biden pushed back on claims that a Taliban takeover was imminent, arguing that “Afghan troops have 300,000 well-equipped, as good as any army in the world, and an air force, against something like 75,000 Taliban. It’s not inevitable.” Similarly, on July 21, Gen. Mark Milley, Chair of the Join Chiefs of Staff, said “the Afghan Security Forces have the capacity to sufficiently fight and defend their country … A Taliban automatic military takeover is not a foregone conclusion.”
The Afghan military might have had the capacity, but they evidently didn’t have the will. The government was ineffective and corrupt, which undermined military and police morale. Though in fairness, Afghan special operations forces fought hard for much of the war, and when the United States announced a 2021 withdrawal date last year, it changed Afghan soldiers’ calculations. They had a chance with U.S. backing, but predicted their government would collapse without it, and probably saw little value in risking their lives fighting a losing battle against the people about to take over.
Having made a decision to withdraw with no intention of reversing, it makes sense for Biden to put a positive spin on the results, but his administration’s insufficient preparation indicates they believed they’d have more time.
One thing the U.S. missed is how much the Taliban would advance non-violently. While the Taliban’s military capabilities gave it leverage, its rapid takeover of provincial capitals came about more through talks with tribal elders and other local elites than by overwhelming them with violent assaults. The capture of Kabul was relatively bloodless.
This, more than anything, explains why the Taliban’s advance was so rapid. And it creates another problem: many Afghan security forces surrendered to the Taliban, and some have handed over equipment they got from the United States, such as armored personnel carriers. Last Friday, the Taliban seized control of an Afghan airfield, gaining access to U.S. military aircraft. Rather than spending resources in a tough, final campaign to take the country, the Taliban ends the war with greater military capacity than it had at the start.
In a short speech on Monday, Biden defended his decision to withdraw, a process first set in motion by an agreement struck last year by then-President Donald Trump, which the Taliban never really followed. But Biden said little about the withdrawal’s execution (probably because there’s no way to make it look good).
American forces are improvising and Biden sent 6,000 troops to help secure the evacuation. A military cargo jet packed 640 Afghans in the back and took off without official clearance to carry so many. The Taliban, which wants the U.S. out and has little interest in missile strikes as a goodbye, has been mostly letting it happen (though we shouldn’t overestimate commanders’ ability to control everyone during upheavals). The final chapter of the war is still being written.
But it’s already clear this will be a case study in policy-making circles for years, with multiple lessons on what not to do.
Where We Go From Here
Much as 20 years seems like a long time to be fighting in a foreign country, it was a long time for Afghans to be free of Taliban rule. Some of Afghanistan’s 38 million people will leave, creating refugee flows that could strain other countries. It probably won’t be as large a migration as Syria — where a brutal, decade-long civil war has led 6.8 million to flee, impacting Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, and Europe — but it probably won’t be small either.
The United States should accept a lot of asylum-seekers, as should any of the 42 countries that participated in the International Security Assistance Force. Canada, for example, has promised to accept 20,000 Afghan refugees, prioritizing the most vulnerable. That’s a start, but there will be many more.
It’s a moral obligation, especially regarding Afghans who worked with the U.S., and strategically beneficial, both in the signal it sends to the world and in the skills many will bring. The U.S. military should get as many as possible out immediately, taking them to Guam or another safe location if they can’t be fully processed in Afghanistan, much as the U.S. did with Vietnamese refugees in 1975.
As for national security, America should prepare “over the horizon” strategies to target al Qaeda, ISIS, or other transnational terrorists operating on Afghan territory. But reintroducing boots on the ground will be difficult, and drone strikes will be harder as well.
Afghanistan is landlocked, so flying there requires going through airspace controlled by Pakistan or Iran, which the U.S. can get to from international waters, or over Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, which requires flying over the Caucuses, Russia or China. The U.S. might still try, especially if there’s evidence that terrorists based in Afghanistan are plotting direct attacks on America, but it will be more challenging than it was over the last two decades — not least because good intelligence will be harder to come by.
One important lesson: We already knew nation-building is hard, maybe impossible, but it should be evident that military-building is hard as well. As Kori Schake shows in The Atlantic, America’s record at training foreign security services is mixed (at best).
The United States spent billions of dollars and many years equipping and training the Afghan and Iraqi militaries, and both lost to smaller insurgent forces. The success of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces against Islamic State in Mosul, and the performance of the Afghan National Army Commando Corps indicates the United States can train a small, dedicated special operations force, but can’t build a military capable of securing the whole country without assistance. Regime change endgames based on a full handoff to local government forces are likely to fail.
Whether withdrawing from Afghanistan was the right decision depends, in part, on future events. Maybe the U.S. should’ve stayed. Maybe the U.S. should’ve left a while ago. Regardless, the results are tragic.