Letting Go of Afghanistan
Updated: May 4, 2021
April 2, 2021
It’s been nearly 20 years since the United States sent forces into Afghanistan—and since then the mission has crept, sprawled, and contorted—so it is understandable today if people have difficulty remembering the original objective of the operation. To be clear, the United States did not send forces into Afghanistan to promote freedom and democracy, to liberate women, to develop health and education systems, or to stand up a military.
The original mission was to dismantle al-Qaeda and prevent it from doing harm to the United States ever again. To this day, that is the only absolute interest the United States has in Afghanistan: to ensure terrorists do not use Afghan soil as a base of operations from which to threaten the security of the United States. That is rightly the central focus of the February 2020 agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
The only reason the United States waged war against the Taliban—which was a purely domestic entity with no desire to spread its ideology outside of Afghanistan or to harm to other nations—was because the Taliban made the choice to continue giving shelter to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.
Taliban intransigence led to its quick overthrow. In 2002 and 2003, a defeated Taliban expressed the desire to come to terms with the new Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, who was willing to make peace with the Taliban. However, the Bush administration, in particular Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, nixed any such notion and thus foreclosed an opportunity to wrap things up then and there.
To compound that error, the administration that had originally eschewed the concept of nation building ended up embarking on an ambitious campaign to transform one of the world’s most poor, undeveloped, illiterate, and tribal countries into an enlightened democracy replete with education and public health systems, empowered women, and modern military. This wasn’t simply a nation-building effort, it was effectively a campaign to culturally reengineer a centuries-old society with deep tribal and religious traditions that had a well documented history of resisting foreign intervention. It amounted to a promise to the people of Afghanistan that was unrealistic from the outset.
The international community poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the country. That money bought some improvements in public health, education, human rights, and infrastructure. It also enriched contractors and Afghan powerbrokers and fueled corruption on an epic scale.
As I witnessed first hand and have reported since 2009 as a journalist and then as managing editor of Lead Inspector General reports on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the gains are not nearly as extensive as they have been made out to be. More significantly, the gains that have been made have not been encoded into the DNA of Afghanistan. In other words, Afghanistan’s own capacity and will to run programs is still lacking, and as the international community has dialed back its investments in Afghanistan, improvements in health, education, and other indicators have regressed.
Similarly, as the international community has reduced its military presence and support in Afghanistan, the Taliban has gained ground. Essentially, Afghanistan is reverting to the mean—a weak state with fragile institutions rife with corruption that lacks the capacity to provide security and opportunity for its people.
This is at the center of a fundamental tension over Afghanistan policy today. There are many who advocate for continued engagement and investment. They routinely use the rationale that the United States needs to “preserve the gains” that have been made and must not abandon Afghan women and youth. This establishment foreign policy echo chamber claims that disengagement will result in chaos in Afghanistan and a field day for terrorists. Yet, for the last decade every strategy they have put forward is some variation of just keeping American troops in Afghanistan until things get better.
No one wants to see Afghanistan revert to the pre-9/11 era of oppressive Taliban rule. No one wants to see the investments of money and lives in Afghanistan go for naught. Many friends and acquaintances died in Afghanistan. To this day I have close Afghan and non-Afghan friends in that country putting their lives at risk to make the country a better place. Those are noble efforts worth continuing. But, at what cost and to what end?
If the United States decides that freedom, democracy, and women’s rights are “must haves” in Afghanistan over the long run, then it has to be willing to make investments far beyond what it has to date. It would require billions of dollars of additional spending, a troop presence well in excess of the 100,000 the United States deployed in 2010, and it would require Afghan leaders willing to put the national interest ahead of their parochial interests. Even then, there is no guarantee this would result in a free, democratic, and stable Afghanistan.
Is anyone in the United States willing at this point to send divisions back into battle in Afghanistan to knock the Taliban down to the level that the Afghan government holds all the cards at the negotiating table? Can Afghan leaders and powerbrokers be counted on going forward to unite and work for the common good?
I don’t see those things happening. What I do see is a Taliban, which has been playing the long game and still has a patron in Pakistan, ending up as the dominant force in Afghan politics and society. It’s really a matter of how soon and how much blood is shed in the process. America’s friends and partners in Afghanistan are going to lose because it was never realistic for the international community to radically transform a country with such limited human capital, and because the Afghan elite did not do its part to make the most of the international community’s largesse.
I can’t imagine how difficult it is for the officials, generals, and diplomats who have poured their lives into Afghanistan to confront having to say to their Afghan allies that they are on their own. I keep coming back, however, to the notion of having to own up to making promises that could never be delivered. Dragging things out any longer for the sake of delaying the inevitable does no one any good.
The Biden administration needs to have a cold, unsentimental focus on achieving America’s overriding interest in Afghanistan. If the Taliban ensures terrorists do not operate in Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies, then the “must have” is met and the United States does not have a rationale to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan. However, if the Taliban is not in compliance with its obligations under the February 2020 agreement with the United States, then President Biden is not obligated to remove the remaining forces by the end of this month.
Most unclassified information and reporting, such as the most recent Lead Inspector General report on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, indicates the Taliban probably is not in compliance. The Taliban is actively fighting the ISIS faction in Afghanistan and it is unlikely the Taliban will ever tolerate an ISIS presence in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban maintains relations with al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and there are legitimate concerns about the Taliban’s willingness and ability to prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base to threaten the security of the United States.
The Taliban has a strong desire for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan and there is a clear roadmap to achieving that objective. If it ensures that terrorists are not using Afghanistan as a base to threaten the security of the United States and its allies, then there is no reason for U.S. forces to remain. If the Taliban had taken this step on September 12, 2001, it would have remained in power all along and the United States could have avoided the investment of lives and dollars that built up the hopes of the Afghan people only to have to let them down. It’s time to apologize, move on, and not make the same mistake again.