Afghan men stand next to a torn poster of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, August 16, 2021.

Afghan men stand next to a torn poster of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, August 16, 2021. AFP via Getty Images / Wakil Kohsar

Biden Recognized Reality

The president made a difficult but necessary choice.

In 2017, I arrived at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport as part of a congressional staff delegation. Even though the U.S. embassy stood a mere four miles away, safety concerns necessitated our helicoptering from a recently constructed multimillion-dollar transit facility instead of traveling by road. As we flew over Kabul, I realized that the Afghan security forces, backed by thousands of U.S. personnel, could not even secure the heart of Afghanistan’s capital.

Kabul was not lost yesterday; the United States and our Afghan partners never truly had control of the country, nor of its capital. Once the Taliban had secured an agreement that the United States would be pulling out and that forces would be reduced to minimal numbers before Joe Biden’s presidency began, they merely had to wait.

The dozens of congressional briefings I attended over 14 years of working on Capitol Hill underscored this dynamic. The intelligence community would commence each briefing with a stark assessment regarding the fragility of conditions in Afghanistan. Senior defense leaders would then provide a far more optimistic view, one that often gave a sense of progress, despite the Herculean challenge with which they had been tasked.

Various critics of President Biden are engaging in fantasies amid Kabul’s collapse: if only we’d used more force, demonstrated more will, stayed a few months longer, then the Taliban would have adopted a different strategy. John Allen, a retired Marine general and former commander of forces in Afghanistan, argued last week that Biden “should issue a public redline” and that “just this announcement will help the Afghan government and give the Taliban pause.” Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, was sharply critical of the withdrawal of the last 3,500 troops. Fred Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, argued that “keeping American military forces in Afghanistan indefinitely” would be “worth it.”

George Packer: Biden’s betrayal of Afghans will live in infamy

These criticisms ignore the developments of the past decade and downplay the impact of last May’s announcement. Even the Biden administration’s harshest detractors mostly concede that the United States would eventually have had to withdraw from Afghanistan. According to the U.S. military, the Taliban was stronger this year than it had been since 2001, while the Afghan defense forces were suffering from high rates of attrition. At some point, the attack on the Afghan government would have come, and U.S. troops would have been caught in the middle—leaving the U.S. to decide between surging thousands of troops or withdrawal.

Some critics also argue that the United States should have preserved a residual force in Afghanistan, much as we have in South Korea. There are any number of ungoverned spaces today, however, which pose as great a threat, if not greater, to U.S. security as Afghanistan, and few are calling for U.S. deployments to those areas. There is a cost—financial and military—to tying forces down in a project that was ultimately doomed to fail.

Finally, critics are lobbing the usual refrain that the withdrawal has damaged U.S. credibility. “Afghanistan’s Unraveling May Strike Another Blow to U.S. Credibility,” read a headline in The New York Times; “Afghanistan’s Collapse Leaves Allies Questioning U.S. Resolve on Other Fronts,” echoed The Washington Post. The United States has spent billions of taxpayer dollars, fought for more than 20 years, and suffered thousands of casualties in this war. If that sort of commitment lacks credibility, our allies will never believe we are doing enough. Critics likewise argued that withdrawal from Vietnam would hurt our credibility. In reality, Japan and other allies questioned our ability to protect them not because we withdrew from Vietnam, but because the United States was militarily overstretched. Withdrawal did not undermine our credibility; by consolidating our efforts, it might enhance it.

The United States had multiple opportunities over the past 20 years to pursue an end to its involvement in Afghanistan. Shortly after the initial invasion, the U.S. rejected a reported offer of surrender. In 2011, peace negotiations were suffocated in their infancy by political opponents and a wary Pentagon. President Biden has demonstrated courage in finding a path forward where others merely fought to preserve the status quo.

Now policy makers should focus on mitigating the fallout of this disaster. First, Congress—led by advocates such as Representatives Jason Crow and Seth Moulton—should redouble its efforts to allow for the immigration of vulnerable Afghans.

Second, Congress and the administration should revitalize engagement with Pakistan and our regional partners in order to contain the fallout from Afghanistan. Pakistani leaders rebuffed both the Bush and Obama administrations’ efforts to cooperate on counterterrorism and instead played a dangerous double game, providing succor to terror groups like the Haqqani Network while accepting billions as part of our counterterror effort. U.S. officials should approach Pakistan in a bluntly transactional manner by asking its leaders to assess the cost of preventing terror groups from using its borderlands as a refuge.

Tom Nichols: Afghanistan is your fault

Finally, the United States should repurpose the international-coalition framework used during combat operations in Afghanistan, turning it into the basis of a sustained diplomatic mission. The coalition should keep eyes on the ground in Afghanistan, engaging with Taliban officials where appropriate. This will be challenging without military forces in the country, but it is not impossible, and even a minimal level of observation would be better than the neglect we chose after 1995. The coalition should also collaborate on measures to encourage the Taliban to prevent its territory from being used as a launching point for terrorist attacks. Last, the coalition should maintain UN-based sanctions on the Taliban to pressure the new government to preserve the rights of women and minorities, including the Shiite Hazara population.

Biden faced a set of bad options. He ultimately made the difficult but necessary choice to preserve American lives. That decision will have devastating consequences for Afghanistan, and we will learn more in the coming days regarding how the administration might have executed its plans better. But as I saw for myself in 2017, and as many others had also observed, the government we supported never truly controlled the country it governed. Biden did not decide to withdraw so much as he chose to acknowledge a long-festering reality, one accelerated by the previous administration’s withdrawal announcement.

This story was originally published by The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.

NEXT STORY: A Moment for Soul-Searching

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.