P. Michael McKinley
April 19, 2021
The decision to withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan could have been made years ago or years hence: there was never going to be a perfect time, but the time has come, and President Joe Biden has made a difficult but right choice at a moment of historic shifts in global geopolitical realities.
Since 2001, successive U.S. administrations have carried out foreign policy through the prism and primacy of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the global “war on terror” in the broader Middle East. While Washington’s attention was fixed on these concerns, China emerged as a global “strategic competitor” and Russia vied for influence in eastern Europe and the Middle East. The United States focused more energy on developing “out of area” NATO engagement in Afghanistan and the Middle East than on addressing the concerns that preoccupied its partners in Europe. And as the world underwent profound economic and social transformations, the United States spent more than $3 trillion and sent more than two million young Americans to fight and die in these conflicts, while failing to invest in modernizing the U.S. economy, infrastructure, and health and education systems.
And yet if the flood of articles over the past couple of months and the reactions to the president’s announcement are any indication, much of Washington still sees Afghanistan as central to U.S. national security interests. It is not. There is also the implication that the United States has a moral responsibility to remain in Afghanistan—a notion that slights the enormous sacrifices Americans have already made over the past 20 years. Too much of the body politic resists accepting that the United States has reached the limits of what it can achieve militarily.
THE ARGUMENTS DON’T HOLD
If, as many argue, the United States should stay in Afghanistan indefinitely to prevent another 9/11 from happening, then it is reasonable to ask why we do not increase our presence in other “ungoverned” spaces: the Sahel, Somalia, and Iraq are all considerably closer to the United States, and the al Qaeda offshoots and the Islamic State (or ISIS) in these places are significantly more powerful than the terrorist remnants in Afghanistan. In fact, the United States has succeeded in greatly reducing the direct terrorist threat from Afghanistan that was the original rationale for engagement.
If the argument is that the Afghan security forces are still not capable of holding back the Taliban after 20 years and an almost $100 billion investment in their development, shouldn’t the question be why not? The United States can sustain its significant commitment to financing Afghanistan’s armed forces. What does not follow is that American soldiers should continue to be the guarantors of the country’s security, at the cost to the United States of additional billions every year and American lives.
Perhaps the argument is instead that an American military presence is necessary to support a reconciliation process in Afghanistan. But then the question becomes why, after 20 years, Afghanistan’s political leaders still cannot find common ground to unite against the Taliban, a force most Afghans abhor. An indefinite U.S. military presence will not bring that unity about if, in this existential moment, and a year after the United States signaled it would leave in 2021, Kabul is still riven with political differences. Afghans will decide what to do, with or without an American troop presence.
Finally, some argue that the United States has an obligation to protect Afghanistan’s social and democratic gains. But the United States has already invested more than $40 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan in addition to the more than $800 billion spent supporting the U.S. military effort in the conflict. The United States could make nation-building and humanitarian commitments on this scale in other parts of the world, some much closer to the United States—but it does not, because such investment is unsustainable over the long term. Development assistance to Afghanistan can continue, but with better management to prevent the fraud, waste, and mismanagement that have cost the United States more than $19 billion since 2009.
SUPPORT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE MILITARY
I am not writing as a neutral observer: I was the U.S. ambassador in Kabul from 2014 to 2016 and senior adviser to the secretary of state when the decisions were made in 2018–19 to negotiate with the Taliban. I know that the return of the Taliban outside the constraints of a successful peace process would spell disaster for Afghan women, education, and the country as a whole. I know the future is uncertain.
I also know that 20 years of our combat engagement have not brought about a military resolution in Afghanistan, and ten more are unlikely to. Washington should be under no illusions: should American troops stay, they will be targeted, and so will the broader U.S. diplomatic presence. Those who now criticize the president’s decision to leave would instead be asking why he chose to remain—as they have done when U.S. casualties increased in the past. The United States also cannot impose a political agreement on Afghanistan, no matter how many analysts suggest that it can. Washington has failed to prevent regional countries from acting as spoilers, something they will continue to do.
President Biden’s decision, however, is not an either/or proposition. The United States does not have to walk away from Afghanistan because it withdraws its forces. Washington can still play a central role in supporting a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan by working with the countries that are engaged in backing the talks. There is even an argument to be made that the announced withdrawal could lead to greater unity of effort among Afghan political leaders in Kabul.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Afghanistan on April 15 and reaffirmed the U.S. “security partnership” with Kabul. Military withdrawal should not stop the United States and its partners from assisting Afghanistan’s security forces and supporting its development, with a special emphasis on protecting the gains that women and girls have made over the past 20 years. Moreover, it should be possible for the United States to increase the level of its developmental aid, which the previous administration actually reduced at the Afghanistan donor conference in November 2020. The United States can continue to work regionally on countering terrorism and other potential threats. Not a single regional government, including Iran, is interested in seeing Afghanistan collapse or leaving the door open to al Qaeda. Afghanistan’s neighbors and even our adversaries have a strong stake in the country’s stability.
Sacrificing more American lives, however—which is what a continued military presence would mean—seems the wrong thing to do. As a coalition of veterans’ organizations recently wrote to the president, we should not be “asking our women and men in uniform to remain entangled in a conflict with no clear military mission or path to victory.” As I attended ceremonies for fallen American and coalition troops during my years in Kabul, and the Taliban continued to make gains on the battlefield, it was difficult not to share that sentiment.
There will be debate on the time frame the president has proposed, but the clock has run out on extended military engagement. The prior Republican administration acknowledged this reality when it set a May 1 deadline for complete withdrawal. The United States must now take on the other, more pressing national and international concerns that are on a scale not seen since 1945. Yesterday’s conflicts—and yesterday’s optics on what constitutes a security threat—do not help the country move forward. America’s future, wherever it leads, is not in continuing the “forever wars.”