The mainstream consensus emerging in response to the disaster in Kabul is that withdrawing from Afghanistan was the right decision to make, but President Biden botched its implementation.
Some serious and thoughtful people hold this position, but it strikes me as fitting a little too comfortably with certain powerful partisan impulses. If you’re on the left, it allows you to establish that of course you’re a good peacenik and you want America to end its interventions overseas—while disowning the actual consequences of doing so. If you’re on the right, it allows you to indulge the fantasy that Trump would have executed this withdrawal so much better—it would have been the best, the strongest retreat, everybody says so—even though Biden was following the basic roadmap Trump drew.
So everyone will compare the actual retreat from Afghanistan to the idealized fantasy model in their heads and assure us that real Afghanistan withdrawal has never been tried.
But we should take a few minutes, while this disaster is fresh and before it goes down the memory hole, to consider whether the actual, real-world results show that withdrawal was a bad idea in the first place.
The current (and still ongoing) withdrawal certainly could have been done more competently and less dishonorably. But it’s hard to see how the worst of its negative consequences could have been avoided. The chaos and blindness of our retreat are direct and unavoidable results of our decision to withdraw under these circumstances.
Take the rapidity of the Afghan government’s collapse. This was a consequence of the Trump administration’s announcement, back in February 2020, of a fixed date for total withdrawal. This signaled to everyone on the ground that the United States had given up and that we would be leaving the Afghan government without support. This led local leaders to start cutting deals with the Taliban in the hope that this would give them a way to survive under the new regime.
“Some just wanted the money,” an Afghan special forces officer said of those who first agreed to meet with the Taliban. But others saw the U.S. commitment to a full withdrawal as an “assurance” that the militants would return to power in Afghanistan and wanted to secure their place on the winning side. . . .
The negotiated surrenders to the Taliban slowly gained pace in the months following the Doha deal, according to a U.S. official and an Afghan officer. Then, after President Biden announced in April that U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan this summer without conditions, the capitulations began to snowball.
The result was a deceptive hollowing out beneath the surface. The Afghan government was still nominally in control in many areas where it had already preemptively surrendered to the Taliban—which is why the Afghan government collapsed in days rather than in months or years.
This certainly makes it unlikely that we somehow could have stretched out the collapse or managed it, as if we were still in control—because this whole thing was happening precisely because we announced that we were no longer going to be in control.
Now consider why we failed to realize that this collapse would happen, or to understand that it was happening even as it unfolded. Politicians will say they were not warned, and intelligence services will say that they were. But one of the consequences of announcing plans to abandon our local allies is that it leaves us blind. We withdrew any motivation for many of the people who might have informed us, because they knew that we weren’t going to be there to protect them if they stuck their necks out—and because we wouldn’t have listened, since we were already determined to leave no matter what.
This blindness will persist and only get worse, because one of the unavoidable consequences of withdrawal is that it makes recruiting new allies and local intelligence sources that much more difficult. President Biden seems to think we can abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban and then rely on intelligence gathering to determine whether al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations are planning attacks on us. But with no footprint on the ground and no local allies, how are we going to be gathering this intelligence? Who is going to be gathering it, after we have either evacuated them all or left them to be murdered for helping us? The whole thing seems more like a wish or aspiration than a realistic plan.
Like I said, we could almost certainly have done a better job of evacuating and resettling the interpreters, pilots, Afghan special forces soldiers, and everyone else who aided us over two decades. But is there any realistic scenario in which we could have gotten them all out? How are we supposed to carry out a perfectly effective operation while removing the very people who would be required to conduct it?
The only realistic scenario for an orderly withdrawal that comprehensively protected U.S. citizens in the country and our local allies would have been a massive new surge of U.S. troops into the country—which is what we are belatedly doing, sending in thousands of additional troops just to secure a single airstrip. But if we were going to launch an Afghan surge, why not use it to make our position stronger and make it easier to remain in the long term?
That leads us to the compelling case for staying.
Advocates of staying in Afghanistan are usually accused of acting on the “sunk cost fallacy,” of throwing good money after bad on a failing venture. But in fact maintaining the status quo, with pre-withdrawal troop levels or even elevated troop levels, would have required a commitment of a few thousand troops, mostly acting in support of our Afghan allies, and a few tens of billions of dollars a year—a rounding error in our recent multi-trillion-dollar appropriations bills. In exchange, we would have gotten what we came to Afghanistan for in the first place: assurance that it never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists.
By contrast, what happens when we leave? Afghanistan is certain to become a base for terror again, and it will now be a hundred times harder to go back in again when we need to. After all, we can no longer make any credible assurances about our ability to protect people or our willingness to follow up on our commitments. They are entitled to conclude that if they help us again, we will sell them out again and then add insult to injury by implying, as President Biden did in his Monday speech, that they are cowards who aren’t willing to fight—even after they’ve been doing the bulk of the fighting and dying for years.
This, in turn, destroys any real deterrent we might have held over the Taliban. We went into Afghanistan after 9/11 because the Taliban had provided a safe haven and base of operations for the terrorists who attacked us that day. What if they were to do it again? What are we going to do, invade them a second time, after having given up the first time? And what local allies would believe our assurances and help us? The Taliban have every reason to believe that they are now immune from retaliation.
As one Afghan negotiator put it, “The slogan now of every single terrorist group with the jihadist mind is ‘now that we have defeated the United States and its 42 allies in Afghanistan, we can go after them anywhere.’”
We have recent evidence of what happens when we allow a radical Islamist group to carve out a safe haven: the global wave of terrorist attacks in the United States, Europe, and Australia during the reign of the Islamic State in Syria.
A terrorist state like the Taliban regime does not merely provide a safe haven for the planning and training of terrorists. It also provides a successful model that serves as encouragement. No jihadist success story can compare with the triumph of the Taliban, which faced the full might of the U.S. military only to have us slink away ignominiously. Remember that the Taliban now control more of Afghanistan than they did on September 10, 2001. How many fanatics worldwide will be inspired by this proof of the success of their cause?
Moreover, the repercussions of our abandonment of Afghanistan will be felt far beyond the Middle East. Already, Chinese propagandists are crowing that they expect an equally swift victory, with an equally ineffectual American response, when they invade Taiwan. Notice that they say “when,” not “if.” And what must the Russians be thinking right now about NATO security guarantees for the Baltic states?
This is an emboldening of our adversaries on a scale we haven’t seen since the 1970s. It is comparable to the period from 1975 to 1980—from the fall of Saigon through the Iran Hostage Crisis. It is a period of weakness that is provocative to all of our enemies.
Suffering these consequences because we couldn’t be bother to keep a small deployment in Afghanistan is going to end up looking pennywise and pound foolish.
We have maintained 30,000 troops in South Korea for nearly sixty years, as the price we pay to deter a disastrous North Korean attack on a close ally in a vital region. We should have adopted the same policy for an even smaller commitment in Afghanistan.
Could we have expected the Afghans to be able to defend themselves? Maybe, but again the South Korean parallel is instructive. Part of the reason we need to keep the South Koreans under the protection of a superpower is because they face a nuclear-armed foe, which enjoys the backing of its own superpower. China’s sponsorship is why we could not defeat North Korea the first time around, and it’s one of the reasons we can’t take them head-on now. So the best we can do is to establish a permanent deterrent.
The parallel here with Afghanistan is that it is buried deep in a very nasty region, with Russian influence coming down from the north, Chinese from the east, Iranian from the west, and most malignant of all, the apparent hand of Pakistan’s security services from the south. We have to accept that we are operating in a hostile environment, that full success is not yet possible—and still keep doing what we can to protect our interests.
Remember what our fundamental interest is in Afghanistan: that it never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists. That is our standard for success. Could Afghanistan have someday been able to stand on its own? Could it have become a relatively enlightened, developed, liberal society? Those things would be nice, but they are well beyond our main goal: to keep out al Qaeda, or its successors, and their terror camps.
In the days ahead, we are likely to hear gut-wrenching stories about the horrors of the Taliban takeover and the many atrocities they will commit. But we should remember that this isn’t just about the people of Afghanistan. We went there for our own purposes, to secure our own vital interests, and that is what we are losing.
If there is another attack launched from Afghan territory, I suppose we could just accept terror as a way of life, the same way people in Alabama regard COVID. But I think we would feel compelled to go back in, only to face a much more difficult and expensive task with fewer allies.
We left Afghanistan in the most ignominious way possible. I strongly doubt that we will actually be able to leave it for good. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, we had a choice between war and dishonor. We chose dishonor, and I fear we will get more war.