Many experts were shocked by President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. NATO and partner forces, which now outnumber U.S. forces, also will depart. Citing changes in the spread of terrorism and the need to redeploy forces elsewhere, the president declared “that it is time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home.” His statement reflected frustration with bringing the war to a conclusion, but the Washington Post called it “the easy way out.” Biden went from conditions-based policy to calendar-based policy. As in the Vietnam and Iraq wars, what started as an exit strategy once again has become an exit timetable.
A U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will not end the “forever war.” It will accelerate the fighting and impede peacemaking. In some months, major cities likely will fall to the Taliban and a humanitarian disaster may follow. Advances in health and education are at risk. Human rights, and especially the rights of women, likely will suffer.
A future humanitarian or military disaster will fall on Biden’s head. Such blame will be totally unfair because former Presidents Obama and Trump started out to do more, but lost patience. Obama increased forces to 100,000 but brought them down to 8,000 before he left office, even though the Taliban had grown more ambitious during his second term.
Trump first reinforced U.S. forces, but then he pursued an exit strategy with the Taliban that bypassed our allies in Kabul. His team signed a peace deal with the Taliban where we agreed to fully withdraw U.S. forces by May 2021 in exchange for a pocketful of unverifiable promises. Compounding his problems, Trump later tried to zero out U.S. forces before he left office. He was talked out of it because of logistical problems and risk to the force.
For their part, the Taliban are little interested in democracy, power sharing, negotiated settlements or human rights. They are supported by Pakistan and bent on governing Afghanistan through an Islamic Emirate. They are acting like winners because they are winning.
Since the peace talks began, the Taliban organization has widened its control of territory. They have not negotiated in good faith and show no sign of living up their promises. The Taliban have steadfastly refused to talk seriously with the Ghani administration or to even consider suggestions to participate in an interim government. They are widely feared by Afghans in nearly every part of Afghanistan.
The Kabul government, weak and ineffective, is the epitome of grace and public administration compared to the Taliban. Their key instrument is the Afghan Army and police, who have suffered 45,000 combat deaths since 2014. Biden’s announcement takes away President Ghani’s second most powerful instrument, his connection to American and NATO troops on the ground.
President Biden insisted that “our diplomacy does not hinge on … U.S. boots on the ground.” Perhaps, but counterterrorism and security assistance to an Afghan Army in combat are complicated tasks. The 9,600 U.S. (approx. 3,000) and coalition forces (over 6,000) have a hard time keeping up with these missions. It is not clear how much training, consultation and advisory work can be done remotely. The old U.S.-Afghan-Coalition motto was shona ba shona, shoulder to shoulder. It is not clear how that will work in a Zoom session. How counterterrorist operations will continue is also unclear.
Biden’s team must figure out how to maintain counterterrorism and security assistance without boots on the ground. American diplomats also will have to figure out a new strategy to create additional sources of leverage in negotiating with the Taliban. Biden will have to mobilize anti-Taliban, pro-Kabul sentiment among India, China, Russia and, if possible, Iran. The U.S. embassy will have to learn how to manage economic and humanitarian assistance without its security partner.
ed, a large United Nations peace enforcement operation could help to maintain peace after the cessation of fighting. Such a polite end to the conflict, however, is unlikely. In light of a potential Taliban victory, the United States should develop contingency plans for dealing with refugee flows that will include the millions of educated women and other Afghans who have linked their fate to the West. They will be persona non grata in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.
Sir Basil Liddell Hart famously wrote that “the object in war is to create a better peace.” It is unlikely that President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. and coalition forces will contribute to such a peace. Ending a war requires a real strategy, not just a timetable.
Joseph J. Collins is a retired Army colonel and Department of Defense civilian. From 2001-04, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations. For over 25 years, he taught strategy and international relations at West Point, the National War College, and Georgetown’s Security Studies Program.