Sean D. Carberry
The Hollow Arguments from Opponents of Afghan Withdrawal
Criticisms of President Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal continue unabated. There are some things to keep in mind when digesting these critiques.
More often than not, opponents will use a mix of the following arguments: the United States has a moral obligation to its Afghan partners, particularly the women it liberated; U.S. troops need to stay to prevent the collapse of the Afghan security forces; without U.S. forces, the Afghan government will also collapse; the peace process will fail if U.S. forces aren’t in Afghanistan to keep pressure on the Taliban; and once U.S. forces leave, the Taliban will come surging back and terrorists will follow.
Each argument seems compelling. However, each has its flaws, and they all ignore a simple reality—the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban that obligates the United States to withdraw its forces if the Taliban honors its commitments.
This is no small matter. Yet critics of Biden’s decision blithely ignore this fact when pinning all future calamities in Afghanistan on his chest.
The agreement executed by the United States and the Taliban in February 2020 obligates the United States to withdraw all military personnel from Afghanistan within 14 months of the agreement in exchange for the Taliban ensuring that terrorists do not use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States. The agreement also stipulates that the Taliban enter into peace talks with the Afghan government. While feckless to this point, talks started, and technically that condition is satisfied.
That means that the only justification the United States has for not honoring the withdrawal condition is if the Taliban is not taking appropriate steps to keep terrorists in check. Given the long history between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and recent comments from military and intelligence officials, there is good reason to question the Taliban’s compliance.
However, President Biden has not stated publicly that the Taliban is violating the agreement. This is the one area where the president has opened himself up to valid criticism. Biden stated that his withdrawal timeline is not conditions-based. At a minimum, it should be conditioned on Taliban compliance with the agreement.
Regardless, those who continue to argue that Biden should not withdraw—using whatever mix of the above-listed reasons—have not explained how the United States would keep troops in Afghanistan and avoid a return to combat with the Taliban. Whatever good one might argue would come from keeping troops in Afghanistan will be offset by the fact that the Taliban will resume attacks against U.S. forces. There have been no U.S. combat casualties since the signing of the agreement. What level of casualties are advocates willing to accept to keep forces in Afghanistan in violation of the agreement?
So, when you read the next commentary from someone claiming Biden made a mistake and U.S. forces are needed in Afghanistan, look to see how they handle the question of breaking the agreement and facing casualties.
In addition, look to see how they rationalize how keeping U.S troops in Afghanistan will prevent any of the catastrophes from happening, and how long troops would need to stay in Afghanistan to prevent the worst-case scenarios.
Keep this in mind. U.S. forces have been in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and the United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars trying to build a functioning government and military. Afghanistan today has neither a government nor military that can effectively protect and serve the Afghan people. The so-called gains in Afghanistan continue to be vastly overstated and have not been institutionalized. As the international community has dialed back its investments in recent years, there has been backsliding in health, education, governance, and security.
In the meantime, Afghan power brokers have continued to squabble and siphon off the largesse of the international community rather than build up their country. They have not been a reliable partner. Therefore, any argument that keeping troops in the country just a little longer will buy time needed for the Afghans to “turn the corner” is the same bridge that people have been selling for the last decade.
There is a real likelihood that the Taliban could again become the dominant power in Afghanistan. It’s more a question of how much blood is shed in the process. That’s a horrible outcome to confront after 20 years, but a few thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan have a limited impact, as evidenced by Taliban gains over the last year.
Emotional arguments that Biden should reverse course are just that, emotional arguments, often from those who played a role in this 20-year mess. These arguments are nothing more than the same slippery slope to forever war, and at this point are moot.
President Trump brokered the deal that President Biden is now executing. It’s time to stop hand wringing and focus on how a combination of the Taliban, Afghan forces, and U.S. resources outside of Afghanistan can keep any terrorist threat in check.