As American forces leave Afghanistan after 20 years, there is no point in lamenting, whining, blamestorming or proposing alternative endings. Every American president since George W. Bush has wanted to leave Afghanistan and the American people want the troops to come home. Critics lament that the United States lost its war in Afghanistan and that its defeat is a geopolitical calamity, but victory and defeat in such a war are in the eye of the beholder.
First of all, narratives matter: They are the first shot at setting the historical record. The dominant narrative determines how events are perceived, such as who won and who lost. The Chinese Communist Party, Russian intelligence services, and Madison Avenue understand this. Hopefully the Biden administration will understand how important the narrative is and articulate a persuasive narrative of victory. The narrative should be that America won this war. America lost? Lost how? By failing to convert Afghanistan into a well-governed, pro-Western state through elections and investment? That was a Bush administration fantasy borne of arrogance and ignorance, not America’s purpose. Not only did America win its war in Afghanistan, there are potential collateral benefits to withdrawing.
The war was punitive, retribution and retaliation against al Qaeda for its attack on our homeland 20 years ago, and against the Taliban for permitting its territory to be used as a staging ground to plan that attack. And indeed, both al Qaeda and its Taliban landlords have been punished severely, pummeled relentlessly for two decades. The Taliban became fugitives banished from the government, while the masterminds and soldiers of the plot against America are dead. The numbers of Taliban and al Qaeda leaders killed will never be known. Their families and villages have suffered. America should firmly remind the future rulers of Afghanistan that if Afghanistan were ever again used as a staging area for plots against America, it took only two months to send them into hiding as fugitives for 20 years.
Second, the departure from Afghanistan should be considered in a broader context. How will it impact America’s competition with peer or near-peer adversaries? Some claim that China is champing at the bit to incorporate Afghanistan in its Belt and Road Initiative and its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, creating a land route from China through Eurasia. The recent deaths of nine Chinese engineers in a bus explosion in Pakistan’s Kohistan region is an indicator of how that might go. China’s regard for Islam is well demonstrated in the treatment of its own Muslim population, the Uyghurs. A future Taliban regime in Afghanistan will struggle to reconcile its Islamic credentials with an exploitative and ultimately humiliating relationship with a communist China committing genocide and imposing conversion therapy on its Muslim population.
It might even be to America’s strategic benefit to entice China to extend the Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan. Bogging China down in Central Asia may divert its attention and resources from its eastern seas. Moreover, China’s growing involvement in Central Asia is an issue of concern for Russia. If the U.S. departure from Afghanistan creates contention between America’s two main adversaries, that is a good thing.
Will Russia find a way to capitalize on America’s departure from Afghanistan? Russia certainly is concerned about the instability that’s likely to metastasize in the region upon America’s departure. Instability in the region was one reason the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in 1979. Russian concern over instability in Central Asia might well divert its attention from the Caucasus and Ukraine.
For the United States there are better strategic opportunities in Central Asia. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan offer possibilities. Both are concerned about Islamic extremism and likely will be interested in expanding the modest security cooperation programs the United States conducts there. Both are functional countries, and improvement in U.S.-Uzbek and U.S.-Kazakh relations with a growing American presence will be unsettling to Russia. Russia will be nervous about “near abroad” countries consorting with the American military, yet thankful if the inevitable instability of Afghanistan is contained. This could possibly even be grounds for future U.S.–Russia collaboration.
The great loser in this war is the people of Afghanistan. For Afghans, America’s departure does not signify the end of the war. Observers are divided between those who believe the Western-supported regime will fall within six months, and those who believe it will fall within two years. Virtually no one believes the Taliban will settle for power-sharing, and their advance as American troops withdraw is under way. It is foreseeable that Afghanistan will descend into a feudal anarchy of warring Islamic tribes. Women will be back in burkas and girls excluded from school. Public executions might well resume, inevitably including some accused of cooperating with the Americans. Religious freedom — indeed, any of the freedoms embraced in the West — will be banished. There will be suffering.
Geostrategically, what is the impact of America’s departure? Virtually nil. Provided that the Biden administration successfully articulates a narrative of victory and departure, neither China nor Russia will find any benefit in this. Afghanistan’s likely descent into chaos will be a burden for both of them. America’s allies and partners understand that the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan was nothing like its relationship with, say, Taiwan, or Israel, or even Georgia or Ukraine. Unlike those, prior to the attacks of 9/11, the United States did not have and did not seek an alliance or partnership with Afghanistan.
Letting go is hard. Careers have been built upon America’s Afghanistan war. But America has accomplished what it set out to do there. As President Biden has said, the future of Afghanistan is up to Afghans. America must be ever vigilant, but much has been done over the past 20 years to deter would-be terrorist attackers; that threat is much diminished. Despite the substantial blood and treasure America has invested in Afghanistan, its government has not succeeded in governing the country. Further supporting its military — including its Air Force and Special Forces, through direct or contract life support — will merely postpone the inevitable.
Making a functional, Western-looking state out of Afghanistan was always a bridge too far. Turning Afghanistan into a liability for China and Russia, on the other hand, should be far more easily accomplished. This may seem cruel, but the world is a hard and heartless place, and those who would uphold or create world orders must be hard enough to make difficult decisions.
Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University. He also is the editor of PRISM. The views expressed here are his alone.