Pentagon officials recently questioned whether they would follow through on America’s commitment to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the May deadline set by the recent U.S.-Taliban agreement.
A week later, a bipartisan group of experts urged President Biden to postpone the exit. But failure to stay the course on withdrawal would be a dangerous mistake in terms of politics and policy. In negotiating an agreement to end this long and futile war, the Trump administration handed Biden a gift. It laid the groundwork for the Biden administration to do something both popular and wise.
You might think issues of war and peace ought to rise above cynical political calculations. But in a democracy, politics and policy are inseparable. In fact, this aimless war persists largely due to politics. No president wants to be the one castigated by critical cable news channels or historians for the Taliban’s resurgence (it’s already resurged) or for abandoning Afghanistan in the midst of a civil war (it had been in the middle of a civil war when the U.S. first invaded).
The Biden administration’s internal polling may well tell them what a survey by my organization shows — that six times as many Americans support the U.S.-Taliban agreement as oppose it, and support for staying in Afghanistan has plunged in the past year. But the top policymakers also know that, confronted by the economic and health consequences of a pandemic, most Americans simply aren’t paying too much attention. The human costs of the war are shouldered by the small sliver of the population in uniform and the financial costs are kicked to the next generation via the national debt. The war in Afghanistan has become as obscure as it is unpopular.
The decision to keep soldiers in Afghanistan would, in fact, be the cynical one. Without a path to victory, the U.S. continues to prop up an hapless regime and funnel billions of taxpayer dollars to Afghan security forces which deceive and coerce the poorest Afghans to fight the Taliban in dangerous, frontline militias. A Pentagon spokesman claimed the administration is “committed to ending this war, but … in a responsible way.” But when prosecuting a war ignores America’s interests and undermines its values, there is no responsible way to stay.
When President Obama withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, the public had soured on the war and no clear military mission remained. And just as the Trump-era Doha agreement gives Biden political cover to exit Afghanistan, a Bush-era Status of Forces agreement which dictated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq gave Obama political cover as well. In both cases, the public supported ending a war. But in a hyper partisan political climate, such a decision invariably carries political risk. One savvy way to neutralize that risk is to show how a predecessor from the opposing political party paved the path for withdrawal, taking credit for finally ending the war and deflecting blame for any messy consequences — all while embarking on the right policy. This is one political move Biden can learn from Obama.
Given Biden’s deeper experience in foreign affairs, there’s one trap which ensnared Obama that Biden might avoid. Obama’s top military and civilian advisers convinced him during the first year of his presidency to surge an additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. This proved to be a vain misadventure. According to a military official privy to the administration’s discussions, as vice president, Biden fought the surge “tooth and nail.” By one account, he “would go on long discourses about why it was foolish to think we could do anything more than kill terrorists in Afghanistan.” Now, as Biden weighs the option of maintaining a limited counterterrorism mission, he will feel pressure from the same stubborn mindset of military leaders and the detached idealism of the foreign policy establishment still in thrall to pipe dreams of transforming Afghanistan into a stable democracy. The recent Afghanistan Study Group report which recommends a continued U.S. military presence explicitly seeks to “honor the sacrifices that have been made” by American servicemembers. But when nearly three-quarters of veterans support a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan, staying the course hardly respects them, let alone honors their sacrifices.
The U.S. military is defending nothing worthy of its protection in Afghanistan — neither the corrupt Afghan government nor the sunk costs of U.S. involvement merit a continued troop presence. The war in Afghanistan is a dangerous distraction from more urgent international issues. Just as Obama’s continuation of the Afghan war (and unwise intervention in Libya) distracted him from the challenges posed by China’s rising influence, Biden risks losing focus on the effort to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and reimagine America’s alliances to address today’s global challenges.
More than anything, America’s adversaries and allies both need to know the U.S. stands by its word. Biden has rightly criticized Trump for tearing apart the Iran nuclear deal. But how will Iran trust the U.S. at the negotiating table if Biden proves just as willing to walk back U.S. commitments as Trump? With the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Trump administration handed Biden a legacy-defining opportunity to end the longest war in American history. The president should think long and hard before squandering it.
Mark Hannah, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and host of its None Of The Above podcast.