Finally, Americans appear willing to bring the troops home. Will they stay there?
Biden’s clarity shone through in the reasons he gave for terminating the mission in Afghanistan. Criticizing the grandiose and ill-defined objectives pursued by his predecessors, Biden refused to order US soldiers to engage any longer in a mission they could not achieve. He acknowledged that war among Afghans would likely continue, but he resolved to remove Americans from combat.
The president’s determination will nonetheless be tested in the months ahead. Biden already declined to complete the withdrawal by the 1 May deadline he inherited from the previous administration. That deadline had the virtue of preceding Afghanistan’s violent summer season. Now the Taliban is poised to take the offensive and could target Americans on the way out. Whether that happens or not, one thing is certain: those who got the United States into its quintessential forever war will do their utmost to block the exit.
A predictable chorus previewed its lines of attack as soon as Biden made his announcement.
Republican leaders blasted the move for endangering US national security. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, maintained that US troops were needed to “keep radical Islamic terrorism in check”, though he did not explain why threats in Afghanistan were more pressing than threats elsewhere. His colleague, Lindsey Graham, raised the now 20-year-old specter of another 9/11 attack plotted from Afghanistan.
Others appealed to sentiment, casting Biden’s decision as a betrayal of America’s partners and values. In the Washington Post, pundit Max Boot appealed to supporters of the Vietnam war by imagining Kabul falling to the Taliban much as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. Lieutenant General HR McMaster, who served as national security adviser for Donald Trump, blasted the withdrawal on terms that might have come from a colonial office a century ago. “We are abandoning courageous Afghans,” he tweeted, “on a modern day frontier between barbarism and civilization”.
Such arguments have sufficed since the war began. Their bombast was abetted by wonky analysis that delved into the minutiae of the war without questioning whether the overall objectives could be rigorously defined or realistically achieved. But for the first time, an American president has pinpointed and rejected the liability that these arguments have in common: they envision perpetual war, since terrorists and the Taliban cannot be altogether extinguished from Afghanistan, nor can the US military remake the country according to McMasterian notions of “civilization”. After 2,448 service members killed, and $2tn spent, the choice was truly war forever, Biden decided, or get out now.
Even though Biden has convinced himself that the war should end, however, events on the ground – dramatized by the armchair forever warriors in Washington – could potentially cause him to slow or reverse course in the hopes of forestalling imminent calamity.
As the last 3,500 US troops begin to leave Afghanistan in May, the Taliban will likely declare victory and launch assaults to capture new territory. Its forces are poised to make gains in the countryside and may even target provincial capitals. In 2015, as President Barack Obama attempted to convert a massive counterinsurgency mission into a Nato-led “training mission”, the Taliban took Kunduz, a city of approximately 250,000 people, and held it for two weeks. The Afghan government required US firepower in order to regain control. This summer, similar scenarios may unfold, with major cities standing on the brink. When the Afghan government requests direct military support, and members of Congress call for granting it, Biden will have to say no.
Taliban rule will bring abuses of human rights, potentially broadcast on American televisions. Areas already held by the Taliban offer a preview. In the Sangin valley of Helmand province, the Taliban control almost every aspect of daily life. They have shuttered non-religious schools. They decide whether Afghans can own a cellphone. For Americans, it will be wrenching to watch swaths of the country return to Taliban rule. Some may favor US military action to prevent the decisive loss of hard-won progress.
Biden will have to stand fast to the rigorous logic he employed last week, putting long-term consequences ahead of immediate fears. Defending an Afghan city for one month all but implies defending it indefinitely. Because the United States should not do the latter, it must not do the former. As Biden told the public, the US military campaign “never proved effective – not when we had 98,000 troops in Afghanistan, and not when we were down to a few thousand”. If violence continues in Afghanistan, it is because much more robust American commitments proved incapable of imposing peace. They may even have obstructed Afghans from finding their own stability. Biden stated the principle well: “Only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country.” So US forces must leave.
This time, finally, Americans appear willing to bring the troops home. As Biden no doubt appreciates, he has broad public support for his withdrawal. According to a Eurasia Group Foundation survey, more than 60% of Americans supported the withdrawal agreement reached with the Taliban, whereas a mere 8% opposed it. If anything, support may be even more pronounced among post-9/11 veterans who fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor are new generations of voters interested in resuming the forever war. A survey conducted by the Center for American Progress finds Generation Z to be far more likely than its elders to reject the war in Afghanistan as a waste of resources with no benefit to national security.
American leaders have noticed. Although political opposition remains formidable, Biden’s announcement was well received. Most Democrats applauded, and not just progressives like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Barbara Lee who have long demanded an end to endless wars. The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, despite opposing President Trump’s drawdown, came out cheering Biden’s. “I don’t want endless wars,” Schumer declared, “and neither do the American people”. Republicans, for their part, are no longer uniformly hawkish. While party elders protested, Biden’s decision was welcomed by Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Mike Lee. The next Republican presidential contenders seem as likely to criticize Biden for withdrawing too late as too early.
This praise may grow fainter as violence in Afghanistan intensifies. Biden’s critics will certainly get louder. But if Afghans are to determine their political destiny, America’s largest, longest forever war must come to a definitive end. This year, the United States can commemorate 9/11 finally at peace with the country from which the attacks were planned.
This article was amended on 20 April 2021. An earlier version referred to Biden’s “successors” when predecessors was meant.
- Adam Weinstein is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and was deployed to Afghanistan as a US marine in 2012.
- Stephen Wertheim is the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of US Global Supremacy