President Joe Biden is still debating with his senior advisors whether to stick to a 1 May withdrawal date for Afghanistan, seek an extension for up to six months, or – according to some reports – expand the number of troops and continue fighting. Key to Biden’s decision will likely be his assessment of what happens when U.S. troops leave – and that is the right thing to focus on.
Just as Obama gave in to considerable pressure and changed his mind about ending the Afghan war in 2015 – as Trump did in late 2020 – in just the first few weeks of his Administration, Biden has likewise seen considerable numbers of Washington figures pressure him not to allow the Afghan withdrawal to occur as scheduled on May 1st.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, writing as a co-chair of the Afghan Study Group, argued that Biden should not withdraw by May 1st, “in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.” Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright warned Biden to avoid a, “reckless withdrawal that leads to state collapse, a civil war, and the revival of a global terrorist haven.”
But are these former high-ranking officials right? Will giving the war effort “a little more time” produce an acceptable peace and will withdrawal by May result in a civil war, state collapse, and revived terrorist haven? The answer to all is “maybe.” The more fundamental question that needs to be addressed, however, is this: do the answers to those questions matter? The answer to that question may surprise you.
First, let us look at the oft-repeated claim that U.S. withdrawal would cause state collapse and a civil war. The claim itself masks what should be painfully evident: Afghanistan is, presently, in the midst of a civil war, and has been in one – virtually unbroken – since 1978.
The Soviet invasion in 1979 was to bolster the side of the communist government in Afghanistan, which had seized power via a coup against the nationalist government in April 1978. The anti-communist side was supported by rebel Mujahadeen.
Throughout the entirety of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the two sides battled viciously. After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the civil war continued between the communist regime of Najibullah and the Mujahadeen. In April 1992, the Mujahadeen captured Kabul, defeating the communists.
The unity of the rebel side, however, quickly dissolved and they turned their guns on each other, eventually coalescing into a fight between the newly formed Taliban on one side and the Northern Alliance on the other. That iteration of the civil war was only interrupted by the U.S. invasion on 7 October 2001 following the horrific events of 9/11.
The American involvement, later expanded to include NATO, established the current Afghan government from the leadership of the Northern Alliance. It did nothing to quell the civil war with the Taliban, however. That fight has continued to this day. So, to the claim that a U.S. withdrawal would cause a civil war in Afghanistan masks the fact that there is a civil war underway and has been, in one form or another, since 1978 – and thus one won’t “break out” if we leave.
The Afghan military is currently doing virtually all the fighting against the Taliban throughout the country. The U.S. does provide critical enabling support in some areas, but the vast majority of the fighting is already being handled by the Afghan security forces. Our withdrawal will make their task harder and it is likely they will incur initial setbacks. It is also certain that our absence will be a blow to their morale, as they realize the American “cavalry” won’t be there to ride to the rescue if they get in a tough situation.
We must be honest and acknowledge that it is possible that in a worst-case scenario the Afghan military could disintegrate like the Iraqi forces did in 2014 and the Taliban may be able to seize large cities like Kandahar and possibly even Kabul. The question for American policymakers is this: what would be the impact on America’s security if that happened? The answer, very little.
Many in the United States believe the myth that the 9/11 attacks happened because the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and thus fear that a return of the Taliban will usher in new 9/11-style attacks. As I have explained in detail elsewhere, that was never an accurate rendering of what actually did cause the 9/11 attacks.
Short answer: we weren’t attacked because the territory of Afghanistan was run by Islamic radicals, but because we chose not to take out Bin Laden the three times we had the chance in the 1990s and the “terrain” of the twisted mind of 9/11-plotter Khalid Shaikh Muhammad.
I cannot stress enough that American security is not assured by having a few thousand troops in a handful of countries, but on our nation’s powerful intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capacity coupled with an unrivaled ability to launch targeted strikes against any direct threats to America – regardless of where in the world those threats arise.
Some will recoil at the thought of a U.S. withdrawal resulting in the fall of an Afghan city and possibly their government and seize on the easy answer: just let the status quo of perpetual war continue. Yet doing so continues the bleed of American blood and treasure for a war that can never be won.
Our presence will continue giving the Taliban and other violent groups motivation to keep fighting. It will continue to dampen Kabul’s willingness to make hard compromises necessary to end the war because they know we’ll always have their back. Perpetuation of the war also continues to degrade our ability to prepare for potential great power fights in the future by diverting our training, operations, and resources on permanent support for a non-winning war.
Continuing our open-ended war will not bring peace to Afghanistan. It will not keep us safer from terrorist attacks. It will continue to degrade our overall combat capability, and it will continue to throw tens of billions annually down an empty hole. We’ve given hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, tens of thousands of American troops killed and wounded, and 20 years of uninterrupted support. It is time to acknowledge reality and end the war.