Leaving Afghanistan, and the Lessons of America’s Longest War

It is the Afghan people, of course, who have paid the highest price for America’s failed ambitions.
U.S. soldiers gather near a destroyed vehicle and protect their faces from rotor wash.
American soldiers gather near a destroyed vehicle in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, Joe Biden announced that all U.S. and nato troops there will withdraw by September 11th.Photograph by Johannes Eisele / AFP / Getty

Early in 2010, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, offered advice to President Barack Obama about the Afghan war. After the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, in 1979, and found themselves mired in an unwinnable conflict against Islamist mujahideen rebels aided by the United States and others, Gorbachev overruled hawks in his Politburo and ordered a military retreat, which was completed in 1989. He warned Obama that America risked a similar “major strategic failure,” and he recommended “a political solution and troop withdrawal.” This “two track” approach—a managed troop pullout and talks with the Taliban and other Afghan factions in the war—should seek to foster “national reconciliation” in the country, Gorbachev advised.

Obama authorized secret peace talks with the Taliban later that year, and, ever since, the United States has essentially followed Gorbachev’s approach, albeit slowly, through policies laced with contradictions, and at a very high cost in expenditure and lives—more than twenty-two hundred American troops. The American presence in Afghanistan peaked at about a hundred thousand troops, in August, 2010, and fell to a little less than ten thousand by the end of Obama’s Presidency. The Obama Administration’s talks with the Taliban failed, but when Donald Trump became President he revived the negotiations. In early 2020, Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s envoy, struck a deal with the Taliban that included a pledge to remove all U.S. troops by May 1st, 2021. Trump also ordered a reduction in U.S. forces to twenty-five hundred by the time he left office. (About seven thousand nato troops also remained.)

This was President Joe Biden’s inheritance: a decade of unsuccessful negotiations, a flawed Trump deal that increasingly advantaged the Taliban, a U.S. troop deployment too small to change the war’s stalemate, and a looming deadline to depart the country entirely or else invite renewed Taliban assaults. Biden faced no good choices, only a menu of risky options. At the White House, on Wednesday, following a policy review, consultations with nato allies, and a last push to accelerate stalled peace talks between the nato-backed government in Kabul, led by President Ashraf Ghani, and the Taliban, Biden announced his decision: America would end the longest war in its history, and all U.S. and nato troops would withdraw by September 11th.

“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened twenty years ago,” Biden said. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.” He noted that he was the fourth President to oversee American involvement in the war, and added, “I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”

By now, it can come as no surprise that the U.S. has openly accepted defeat in its longest-running war. It has been evident for at least a decade that the war was unwinnable militarily. Stalemates between foreign troops and local insurgents, such as the one that the U.S. has endured with the Taliban since about 2006—and the one that the Soviets turned away from thirty years earlier—are often losing propositions, when the insurgents have an external sanctuary where they can recruit, train, treat their wounded, and rearm, as the Taliban has had in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Army and its principal intelligence service, the I.S.I., have successfully run the same playbook against nato troops in Afghanistan that the I.S.I. and the C.I.A. ran against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the nineteen-eighties, with the same final result.

More surprising, given the Taliban’s obscurantist outlook and scant prior experience of international diplomacy, has been its success at besting the United States in negotiations. From its first talks with Obama’s envoys through its intense negotiations with Khalilzad, the Taliban has relentlessly pursued two demands: the withdrawal of foreign forces and the release of Taliban prisoners. The group has now achieved these goals—the Afghan government released five thousand prisoners last year—while conceding little.

Trump helped the Taliban by continually threatening to order a total U.S. withdrawal, regardless of whether the Taliban made concessions on reducing attacks against Afghan forces or supporting negotiations. And as U.S. threats to punish the insurgents on the battlefield increasingly proved empty, the Taliban’s biggest incentive to compromise was to win credibility as a responsible party on the world stage—which, its leaders evidently judged, they either had already achieved or did not require.

The Pentagon and many Republicans in Congress argue that Biden should have postponed a final troop withdrawal until a political deal between the Taliban and Kabul had been cemented, or until the Taliban had agreed to a ceasefire or, at least, a major reduction in violence against Afghan forces and civilians. But it is hard to argue with Biden’s conclusion that it would be madness to “continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result.” After two decades of official optimism and outright dishonesty about the war’s progress, there is surely value in a President’s accepting military defeat for what it is.

Yet the spin machine that the Biden White House has set in motion to make the best of a humbling decision is dispiriting. The President has framed the war’s end with the upcoming September 11th anniversary, for obvious reasons, but it strikes a hollow ring of political marketing at a moment that ought to evoke sombre reflection about the tragic cost of hubris—the more than twenty-two hundred American lives lost, but also, crucially, more than a hundred thousand Afghans killed. It is the Afghan people, of course, who have paid the highest price for America’s failed ambitions in their country, and who now face the bleak threat of a second Taliban revolution, or a deepening and grinding civil war, and this after more than forty years of almost continuous conflict, started and prolonged by the invasions and covert actions of outside nations.

The Biden Administration insists that it will continue to lead international efforts to provide diplomatic, humanitarian, and political aid to the constitutional government in Kabul, and to a generation of urban Afghans, and particularly women, who grew up empowered under the protection of nato security forces. Yet it has been a recurrent habit of American Administrations, amid the manifold failures of their own policies, to deflect blame onto Afghan allies—as if chronic Afghan corruption were completely separate from the huge injections of U.S. dollars into the country’s rock-bottom economy, or as if Afghan heroin-running were separate from Western users’ addictions. A letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to President Ghani that was recently leaked, rife with frustration and veiled threats because of Ghani’s reluctance to accept American priorities in peace talks, is the latest entry in this dismal archive. On Thursday, Blinken flew to Kabul to demonstrate “the ongoing commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan.”

When Gorbachev presided over the Soviet withdrawal, starting in 1988, the C.I.A. and many other analysts predicted confidently that the mujahideen rebels the U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia had armed and bankrolled against the Soviets, and whose ranks included future leaders of the Taliban, would swiftly take power. In fact, the secular-leaning government in Kabul at the time—still backed financially by Moscow, and by Soviet military advisers left behind—held on for several years, as Gorbachev sought “sincere and responsible cooperation from all sides,” as he recalled in 2010, to reach a political settlement that would prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and stabilize the region. Gorbachev did not find such coöperation; Pakistan and the U.S. sought total victory, and soon after the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, so did the Kabul regime.

Still, if any lesson remains to be drawn from the Soviet experience, it may be that outside forecasts about Afghanistan are usually wrong. “The opportunity is there,” Gorbachev wrote eleven years ago, “but much is needed to seize it: realism, persistence and, last but not least, honesty in learning from the mistakes made in the past and the ability to act on that knowledge.” The honesty has been too long coming, but the opportunity remains.

Leaving Afghanistan, and the Lessons of America’s Longest War