By Ishaan Tharoor
with Claire Parker
The Washington Post
June 28, 2021 at 4:00 a.m. UTC
President Biden hosted his Afghan counterpart, President Ashraf Ghani, at the White House at the end of last week. The visit came on the heels of Biden’s April announcement of the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after a two-decade-long war. Biden’s assurances of continuing support, and the atmosphere of comity surrounding Ghani’s meetings in Washington, could do little to hide the fears of many leading officials about what may follow.
Just before the arrival of Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, his governing partner in Kabul, news broke of a U.S. intelligence assessment that suggested the Afghan government could fall within six months of a U.S. military withdrawal. The assessment “highlights an increasingly stark picture as the U.S. military sends home troops and equipment: The Taliban continues to take control of districts across the country, and Afghan military units are either laying down their arms or are being routed in bloody clashes,” my colleagues reported.
Citing these concerns, Republican lawmakers have urged Biden to delay the departure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the administration has “chosen to abandon the fight” against the Taliban “and invite even greater terrorist threats” — no matter that Biden is carrying out exactly what President Donald Trump also promised.
For his part, Ghani played the stoic statesman, insisting he and his government “respect” Biden’s decision, did not feel abandoned and will “manage the consequences.” But he invoked a troubling metaphor, suggesting that Afghanistan was experiencing its own “1861 moment” — a nod to the start of the U.S. Civil War. “The then-young republic of the United States was under attack, and unity, determination, and ensuring that an exclusionary agenda was not allowed — [this] is the type of moment for us,” Ghani told reporters Friday. In remarks before his meeting with Biden, he said: “We’re determined to have unity, coherence, [a] national sense of sacrifice and will not spare anything.”
Such a proclamation should already be ringing alarms. The United States has spent two decades waging war and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. It has lost more than 2,000 servicemen and women in the process and sunk trillions of dollars into its war effort and attempted nation-building projects. But now, just as it’s poised to exit, Afghanistan’s president believes an existential conflict in his country is about to begin.
To be sure, Ghani attempted to sound a note of confidence, declaring that his country was “rallying to the defense of the republic.” Biden offered reassurance, repeating his pledge to maintain significant support to the weak central government in Kabul, albeit mostly in the form of rhetoric and cash rather than American hard power. “The senseless violence . . . has to stop, but it’s going to be very difficult,” Biden said. “But we’re going to stick with you, and we’re going to do our best to see to it you have the tools you need.”
The Taliban, though, appears to be licking its chops already. The group is now believed to control roughly a third of the country’s districts and is battling for many more. Its advances span a vast stretch of territory, from the rugged northern borderlands near Tajikistan to areas close to Kabul.
“In the past week, fighters have reportedly seized more than 20 districts and attacked more than 80,” wrote my colleagues, who reported on the emergence of irregular militia units to help buttress the flagging Afghan army. “In Kunduz province, a critical gateway to the northern border, militia fighters have swarmed the capital city to help besieged government troops, but the fighting has continued unabated and the surrounding districts are in Taliban hands.”
Still, the U.S. imperative to leave remains strong. According to various polls, a majority of Americans at least somewhat approve of withdrawal. While a generation of lawmakers in Washington have presided over the conflicts that sprawled across Afghanistan and the Middle East in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, they know there’s little public appetite for further interventions of the sort seen in Afghanistan — where the United States toppled a Taliban government that had given safe haven to terrorist group al-Qaeda, only to find itself marooned in a costly struggle against a Taliban insurgency it found impossible to defeat, not least because of the difficulties posed by a weak Afghan government riddled with corruption.
Skeptics of the White House’s present strategy contend that leaving in current circumstances — and thereby boosting a resurgent Taliban — is wrongheaded and may haunt Biden and future administrations. “In many ways, the costs of staying seem shorter-term and borne by the United States, while the costs of leaving will be predominantly borne by Afghans over a longer time horizon,” wrote Madiha Afzal of the Brookings Institution in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month. “Yet, even if those costs seem remote now, history tells us that they will be blamed on the United States.”
But Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects a widespread strategic impatience with the U.S. mission. “We have provided the Afghan people the blood of thousands [of] our finest men and women, hundreds of billions of our citizens’ dollars, and nearly 20 years for the Afghan government to have gotten its house in order and forged a negotiated settlement with the insurgents,” wrote Daniel Davis, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who deployed twice to Afghanistan. “They have squandered that opportunity.”
Afghans may counter that the price they have paid in blood is far steeper — and that heavy-handed U.S. military action has, on numerous occasions, added to the civilian toll. What is clear is that the United States is a party to cycles of conflict in the war-ravaged country that long predated 9/11 and will continue after the United States withdraws its main troop presence. The Biden administration will push for a negotiated peace between Ghani’s government and the Taliban, but diplomatic efforts remain stalled as the Taliban press their battlefield advantage. A diverse set of regional powers — including China, Pakistan, India and Russia — may all variously attempt to help broker some sort of reconciliation between the ultraconservative Taliban and the Afghan government.
Absent that, chaos looms. Even American advocates of withdrawal recognize the commitment that ought to remain. Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates foreign policy restraint, argued that the Biden administration must make good on promises to resettle tens of thousands of Afghans whose collaboration with U.S. forces in the country now leave them vulnerable to militant reprisals. He added that the United States and U.N. agencies should be prepared for a new Afghan refugee exodus should the Taliban manage to take over Kabul.
“Nothing was to be gained by prolonging an undertaking that has definitively failed,” Bacevich wrote. “Yet ending America’s longest war does not absolve the United States of responsibility for what may happen next.”