As we approach the one-year anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is appropriate to reflect on America’s “longest war” and whether President Joe Biden made the right decision with the benefit of (some) hindsight. While I agree with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley’s sober assessment that the two-decade-long effort ended in “strategic failure,” I also believe Biden was correct to end the United States’ military operations on his watch and not pass the decision to his successor.
Instead of an orderly withdrawal, the Biden administration made a number of catastrophic blunders during the U.S. military retrograde as a consequence of faulty assumptions about the Afghan National Security Forces’ ability to fend off the Taliban’s rapid and persistent territorial gains across the country. The subsequent collapse of the government culminated with President Ashraf Ghani boarding an aircraft and fleeing the country as the Taliban entered Kabul. Meanwhile, the world witnessed haunting images of Afghan civilians massed at the Hamid Karzai International Airport desperately trying to escape the country in packed military aircraft, including some clinging to the side of a C-17 Globemaster III and tragically falling to their deaths. In the midst of the chaos at the airport, thirteen U.S. service members were killed by an ISIS-K suicide bomber. All told, more than 120,000 people were evacuated to safety in one of the largest U.S. airlifts in history. Major General Chris Donahue was photographed boarding an aircraft on the evening of August 30, 2021, that symbolized the end of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
David Petraeus recently argued that “Our foundational mistake [in Afghanistan] was our lack of commitment. In essence, we never adopted a sufficient, consistent, overarching approach that we stuck with from administration to administration, or even within individual administrations.” Unfortunately, this lack of commitment also generated short-term thinking and frustration characterized by one U.S. military officer’s statement that “This hasn’t been a 20-year war. It’s been one-year wars fought 20 times.”
Such indictments help explain why the Biden administration was roundly criticized as an unreliable security partner that lacks the political will and strategic patience to fulfill its security obligations. Worse, some NATO allies expressed concerns about the unity and effectiveness of the alliance going forward. For example, former Secretary-General Lord George Robertson worried that Biden’s unilateral withdrawal decision weakens NATO because the principle of “‘in together, out together’ seems to have been abandoned.” The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board published an article titled, “How Biden Broke NATO” that included a number of complaints from European leaders decrying the lack of consultation and damage caused by the unilateral withdrawal.
While one cannot understate the strategic impact of these criticisms on partners and adversaries alike, the Biden administration deserves credit for appropriately weighing continued U.S. efforts in Afghanistan against other security challenges that affect U.S. national interests. These include strategic competition with state actors, cyber threats, and effectively responding to a global pandemic that significantly disrupted global supply chains and economic activities. One of the hallmarks of strategy is prioritization which forces senior leaders to make tough choices, as opposed to maintaining the status quo. President Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance made such a choice by emphatically stating that the United States should not engage in “forever wars” and declaring the administration’s intention to end America’s war in Afghanistan. His subsequent withdrawal decision formalized the strategic guidance.
That said, the notion that Biden made the correct decision to withdraw U.S. military troops from Afghanistan is rebutted by those that view the erosion of women’s rights and education, rising infant mortality, widespread hunger across the country, harsh rule by the Taliban, and extrajudicial killings as prima facia evidence of Afghanistan’s descent into chaos and a failing state that could have been avoided. Moreover, any hopes for a “new” or “enlightened” Taliban 2.0 that learned lessons from its previous rule have been negated over the last twelve months.
In a February 2020 New York Times opinion, the Taliban’s deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani called for a “new, inclusive political system” in which “all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.” Skeptics point to the March 2022 promise to reopen all schools in Afghanistan only to reverse the decision two days later as an example of the Taliban’s true intentions.
While one is sympathetic to these heartbreaking stories, the United States did not initially deploy combat troops to fight the “good war” in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks for these reasons. In fact, they led to “mission creep” that expanded U.S. objectives and aspirations beyond the commensurate resources (and political will) required for their attainment. In justifying his withdrawal decision, Biden said that “we did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build” and the United States “did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.”
Despite such proclamations, the emir of Al Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri’s presence in downtown Kabul suggests the terror group is likely not defeated and a clear sign that the Taliban abrogated its responsibilities under the so-called Doha Agreement that prohibits international terrorist groups from “using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States, its allies and other countries.”
While Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan is disturbing, his death from a U.S. drone strike is an example of U.S. “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism operations. In a recent press conference, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said that “without American forces on the ground in Afghanistan and in harm’s way, we still remain able to identify and locate even the world’s most wanted terrorist and then take the action to remove him from the battlefield” and the killing of al Zawahiri “is a perfect, clean example of what that capability looks like.”
Critics argue that this approach is not as effective as a more robust “boots on the ground” posture and cite degraded intelligence and limited kinetic response against terror organizations beyond killing individual leaders. This is a valid concern, but a more holistic analysis would consider former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad’s statement that negotiating with the Taliban was “based on the judgment that we weren’t winning the war and therefore time was not on our side and better to make a deal sooner than later.” This conclusion, despite years of maintaining a large military footprint in Afghanistan, led the Trump administration to enter bilateral talks with the Taliban that resulted in the aforementioned Doha Agreement.
There is little doubt the Taliban would view a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond August 2021 as a violation of the pact and place the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops at immediate risk of reprisals. In anticipation of attacks from the Taliban and its affiliates, the Department of Defense would likely increase its military and intelligence footprint to meet force protection requirements. In other words, the United States would continue to do what it’s been doing for the last two decades in a war that was not considered “winnable” while simultaneously constraining its ability to respond to other crises. Such strategic risk-reward calculations led Biden to “break the cycle” and order the military withdrawal from Afghanistan over the objections of senior advisors in the Pentagon, the intelligence community, and members of Congress.
Today, the Department of Defense is no longer required to commit substantial (and limited) military and intelligence resources to Afghanistan, enabling the strategic flexibility to focus on the priorities outlined in its 2022 National Defense Strategy; specifically, the dual challenges of Russia in Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific. The document describes Russia as an “acute threat” while the People’s Republic of China represents the “most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge for the department.” Moreover, a conflict occurring in either region could quickly expand as a threat to global stability that directly affects U.S. national interests and the liberal international order.
One wonders if the United States would be able to rapidly reposition and deploy U.S. troops and equipment to Europe in response to President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine if it were still “stuck” in Afghanistan. As of this writing, the Biden administration has committed some $9.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since assuming office and ordered the deployment of over 20,000 U.S. troops to Europe since February 2022. While this represents a significant commitment of resources and force structure, the cost is partially offset by the elimination of requirements to fund the Afghan National Security Forces and station U.S. troops in the country.
Additionally, I’ve previously written that Biden learned from his (largely self-inflicted) mistakes in Afghanistan and pursued a more inclusive approach during the Ukraine crisis. For example, the Biden administration extensively consulted with its NATO allies and proactively shared intelligence about Putin’s plans and preparations for war. As a result, NATO and the European Union are more cohesive and committed to stop Putin’s aggression that threatens Europe’s stability and security. The fact that Finland and Sweden appear destined to join the NATO alliance is quite a reversal from the numerous “doom and gloom” predictions of only a year ago.