Letting Go of Afghanistan: Presidents Biden and Trump Were Right

Letting Go of Afghanistan: Presidents Biden and Trump Were Right

The carnival of recrimination that erupted since the collapse of the Afghan government serves mainly to cover the tracks of years of U.S. mistakes and set the stage for future misguided interventions.

This background condition of stalemate at best, and deterioration at worst, is in good part why the American public wanted out. Even now, nearly 80 percent of Americans support withdrawal from Afghanistan—though they may remain unhappy about how it was carried out. Had the United States stayed on in Afghanistan, the human costs would have continued to rise, as would the odds of an ugly departure. Furthermore, the U.S. presence seems to have produced an odd perception on the part of Westernized Afghans that they themselves were safe and not directly responsible for the defense of their own new freedoms. Few joined the security services, which further undermined the government’s powers of resistance. Literacy levels among Afghan military recruits were very low, which drastically limited the combat potential of the Afghan National Army and Air Force. So far as one can tell, there was no ROTC-like program at Kabul University.

IF DISENGAGEMENT was strategically wise and persistent presence costly and risky, were there “better” ways to leave Afghanistan? If better meant the assured survival of the Afghan government, then the answer, at least for President Biden, was no. A new public candor by U.S. and Afghan generals about the true nature of the Afghan security services has recently emerged: they were hardwired for dependence on American military might. But the U.S. military should have started working to alleviate this problem the morning after Trump’s election. As they failed to do so, there was little time on Biden’s watch to fix it, even if he knew about it, which his public utterances suggest he did not.

Some argue the United States could have started the mass evacuation of civilians much earlier—indeed, conducted it along with the U.S. military withdrawals in July. They could have, but the administration was led to believe by Afghan president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani that doing so would cause the rapid collapse of resistance that we, in fact, saw in August. Even the State Department resisted thinning the embassy staff out of concern that it would signal a complete loss of U.S. confidence in the regime and accelerate its collapse. That said, when did sufficient facts accumulate to suggest that imminent, rather than ultimate, governmental defeat was probable? Even the now well-known dissent cable from the Kabul embassy staff, warning of the possibility of imminent defeat, was not sent until July 13, and it was a mere dissent cable, tilting with a U.S. government-wide view that the Afghan regime could hold out longer. A full investigation into the U.S. government’s evaluation of the Afghan government’s power of resistance, and how that assessment changed over the course of the summer will shed light on this question. But given what we know, the Biden administration’s decision not to evacuate embassy employees, U.S. civilians, and current and past Afghan helpers until August seems reasonable.

Had the U.S. government believed the rapid collapse of the government was quite likely, then the withdrawal of U.S. troops should indeed have followed the withdrawal of U.S. civilians and allies rather than preceded it. The evacuation would surely have gone more smoothly, even if it had accelerated the government’s collapse. But the possible improvement should not be exaggerated. Kabul airport might have been surrounded with a few more barriers; more material to look after evacuees could have been prepositioned; a better database on eligible evacuees could have been prepared; location data and coded communications tools to communicate with citizens could have been organized.

Still, a central problem of the evacuation was access to the airport in Kabul, because that access was blocked by tens of thousands of Afghan civilians who did not work directly for the Western effort in the country but decided, for any number of reasons, ranging from fear of persecution to the immigrant dream of a better life in the West, that they wanted to leave. No plausible evacuation plan could have managed this problem in an orderly way. Some even argue that a well-planned evacuation could also have used the U.S. military base at Bagram, but it would have made a poor point of debarkation for tens of thousands of civilians located thirty-five road miles away in Kabul.

BIDEN DESERVES credit for the political risks that he knew he was running by ending the U.S. misadventure in Afghanistan. Trump could not quite bring himself to do this, though he had four years to do the job. Biden knew that sooner or later the regime would fall after a U.S. exit, and that he would be blamed, but he accepted the responsibility for terminating the intervention. Though the evacuation was a ghastly experience for those trying to exit Afghanistan, and heart-wrenching to watch, the logistical achievement of the U.S. and allied militaries, under dangerous and confused conditions, was extraordinary. Finally, though commentators in the press reported on U.S. military and government contacts with the Taliban during the evacuation with visible distaste, this is an example of putting diplomacy first and doing so for a worthy cause. Everything about the Afghan end game, including the evacuation, deserves careful review with an eye to both an honest history, and lessons learned. But the carnival of recrimination that erupted since the collapse of the Afghan government serves mainly to cover the tracks of years of U.S. mistakes and set the stage for future misguided interventions.

Barry R. Posen is Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT and Director Emeritus of the MIT Security Studies Program.

Image: Flickr.