By Adam Smith
President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump both reached the same conclusion about U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan — it no longer made sense.
Twenty years into our effort, it had become clear that no amount of money or U.S. and coalition troops could get the Afghan government to the point where it could provide for its own security and stability. We could no longer justify placing more American lives at risk and spending billions of additional taxpayer dollars on the effort. One year ago, Biden took the final step in the process started by the previous administration of ending our involvement in Afghanistan by ordering the withdrawal of the last few thousand American troops from Afghanistan.
Many lessons can be learned from this 20-year campaign. Last year, in the annual defense bill, Congress created a bipartisan commission to examine this very important issue. But the biggest lesson seems obvious. We could not remake Afghanistan, a country on the other side of the world with a vastly different history and culture than ours, through the sheer might of U.S. military power.
Some disagree with this point and insist that if the United States had simply kept trying and put more resources into the effort, then we could have built a stable government in Afghanistan that would have been a strong partner of the United States. Twenty years of effort by four different presidents and more generals and diplomats than most of us can now remember make it clear that this is not the case. If we had stayed, we would have simply lost more American lives and spent more money — only to wind up in the same place five, 10, or 20 years from now.
Others argue that we should have kept a smaller military force in the country, not in an effort to remake the government or build up Afghan security forces, but to fight and contain terrorist groups in the country. But this approach does not make sense, either. Who would have secured this small force from the Taliban insurgency rising in Afghanistan? This small force would have been under constant threat, spending the majority of their time on force protection and not adequately conducting their counterterrorism mission. It would have become apparent that this force would either have to be withdrawn or tens of thousands of more troops would need to be deployed to provide force protection for this counterterrorism mission, placing more Americans at risk and costing billions of more dollars.
Lastly, a large number of people focus their criticism on the details of the peace agreement agreed to by Trump, and on the way Biden and his team executed the final withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
Ending the war in Afghanistan was never going to be easy or without risk. We stayed as long as we did precisely because U.S. government leaders understood this. Analysts knew that without the support of the United States and our coalition partners, the Afghan government would not be able to stand against the Taliban. And the takeover by the Taliban would mean a return to their violent, brutally repressive rule.
Trump bought some time for U.S. and allied forces with the peace agreement he reached with the Taliban in February 2019. This agreement did nothing to stop the Taliban’s war against the Afghan government, but it did stop the Taliban from attacking U.S. and coalition forces. This agreement, however, ended in May 2021. Only Biden’s decision right before that deadline to begin withdrawing remaining U.S. troops stopped the Taliban from again targeting our service members and the coalition forces.
The end was tragic. We lost 13 more brave U.S. service members during the last efforts to evacuate as many Americans and Afghan allies as possible, and the Afghan people have suffered horribly under the return of the Taliban-led government. But the United States and our coalition partners made the decision to leave precisely because we realized that, after 20 years, a large military force was not going to be able to prevent this outcome. More lost American lives and spent U.S. dollars were not going to change that.
The evacuation was chaotic, but it was the inevitable outcome of the Afghan government proving unable to provide for its own security and stability. While we clearly need to examine the details of the evacuation to learn what could have been done better, we also need to look at the 20 years of decisions that came before it.
Removing our military forces from Afghanistan, however, was the right decision.
Congressman Adam Smith, D-Wash., represents Washington’s 9th congressional district, serving parts of King and Pierce counties including Seattle, Bellevue, and Tacoma. As a senior member of Democratic leadership in the House, Congressman Smith also serves as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.