President Biden is facing a dilemma that he would rather not face. Sometime in the next few months, he will have to pour more troops into Afghanistan or pull out altogether. There is almost no other real option.
The United States currently has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, the lowest number since the war began 20 years ago. An agreement that President Trump signed with the Taliban calls for all U.S. troops to leave the country by May 1. In turn, the Taliban pledged to dissociate themselves from terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and to refrain from attacking civilians. They have not complied with either condition.
So should Biden stay after May 1 or leave anyway? The issue goes beyond numbers. The president and his aides are conducting a policy review, and the review should ask a basic question: What do we want to accomplish in Afghanistan after all this time, and is that goal feasible? If not, should we cut our losses and go home?
Currently, U.S. troops are mainly involved in counterterrorism against al-Qaida and, to some degree, ISIS. In all of last year, just 10 Americans died in Afghanistan—only four of them while fighting. But if U.S. troops are still in the country after May 1, the Taliban will force them into a fight—and, for that, the U.S. will need more than 2,500 troops. And if they come under attack from the Taliban, they couldn’t do much against al-Qaida either. Reinforcements would be necessary, and more Americans would die, or else the mission would be doomed.
Complicating matters further is that the U.S. is not the only country whose commitment is at stake. Other NATO countries have about 8,000 troops in Afghanistan. They are unlikely to stick around if the Americans pull out. And if Biden does stay in, they’ll still want to know the plan.
In his long career, Biden has witnessed calamitous troop-withdrawals and fruitless escalations. He was a freshman senator during the haunting spectacle of U.S. helicopters abandoning the embassy in Saigon, leaving many loyal Vietnamese behind. And he was vice president when Barack Obama, in his first year as president, decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, raising the total to almost 100,000, and to adopt a new strategy of counterinsurgency, a.k.a. “nation-building.”
Biden was the only official in the National Security Council to oppose that troop-surge, arguing instead to deploy a mere 10,000 extra troops and to use them strictly to fight al-Qaida terrorists and to train the Afghan army. He made the case that nation-building wouldn’t work, given the corruption of the Afghan government—and he was right. Obama reached the same conclusion after 18 months of giving it a try, withdrew most of the troops, and adopted Biden’s more limited goals. As he left office, Obama kept 8,000 troops in Afghanistan—not so much to help reform the country as to use the country as a base for pressuring al-Qaida on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Trump was inclined to pull all the troops out, but his advisers, especially Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, convinced him otherwise, selling him on a “new strategy” that would inspire “victory.” Actually, it was just a slightly enhanced version of the old strategy, and it brought us no closer to defining “victory,” much less achieving it. So, after bringing on a more pliant set of advisers, Trump reverted to his original plan. He hired a skilled former ambassador and native Afghan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to head up peace talks with the Taliban (against the resistance of the Afghan government). They struck a deal. May 1 was the pullout date for U.S. troops. But, as noted earlier, the Taliban didn’t keep their side of the bargain, and now Biden is on the verge of not keeping our side of it either.
Biden’s middle-ground approach from a decade ago won’t work now if the Afghan government is tumbling and the Taliban are fighting U.S. forces. So, again, should Biden dip further in or get out? His prior positions, as senator and vice president, make him less than keen to do either.
There are some questions that no interagency group has ever seriously asked but that are worth asking now. First, does it matter if U.S. troops are in Afghanistan? The standard answer is that, if we leave, al-Qaida will come roaring back in and, once again, use it as a staging ground for attacking the United States, as they did on 9/11. But one thing we’ve learned from the various terrorist plots of the last decade is that, if bad guys want to plot attacks on America and its allies, they don’t need a training base in Afghanistan to do it.
Another answer—the one that Obama invoked to justify keeping 8,000 troops in the country—is that it’s worth having a military base in the area, if just to keep an eye on Pakistan, a turbulent country that has nuclear weapons, and to assure India, which has some presence in Afghanistan as a way of enveloping Pakistan, of our support. This is the most persuasive argument for staying in, even just a little bit, (the humanitarian argument for preventing the Taliban’s oppressive rule, especially against women, is another) and if it’s impossible to stay in a little bit, we might have to enlarge our presence a bit. A few years ago, there might have been a way to form an alliance with other powers with converging interests in the region—China, Russia, possibly Iran—but tensions with all three make this a fantasy now.
One other way out—the only way to avoid the otherwise inescapable dilemma—is to strike a deal with the Taliban and the Afghan government to extend the May 1 deadline and to keep talking. The Taliban might not agree to this; they think they’ve got us on the run, and, in a way, they do, so why give us a break? Khalilzad, who’s still the U.S. emissary, might have to come up with a clever solution to extend this impasse. I don’t know what this would be; I hope he has some ideas. Biden may have no choice but to urge him on and give him enormous leeway, whatever he comes up with.
Is it kicking the can down the road, as the old saw has it? Yes, but that’s better than the alternatives.
The central problem is the one that Vice President saw back in 2009—the Afghan government’s corruption. Top U.S. military officers saw that back then, too. In Senate hearings in September of that year, a few months before Obama decided to send more troops, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had an interesting exchange with Sen. Lindsey Graham. The Taliban were gaining ground, and Graham wanted to know why. The problem, Mullen said, “is clearly the lack of legitimacy of the [Afghan] government.”
Graham pushed the point. “We could send a million troops, and that wouldn’t restore legitimacy in the government?” he asked.
Mullen replied, “That is correct.” A few minutes later, under questioning from Sen. Susan Collins, Mullen reemphasized the point. In order to defeat the Taliban, he said, the “Afghan government needs to have some legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The core issue is the corruption… That threat is every bit as significant as the Taliban.”
Nonetheless, Mullen, Graham, Collins all urged Obama—and Obama decided—to send more troops. Mullen, Gen. David Petraeus, and other U.S. officers also said around this time that there was no way to win the war militarily; it would end only through a political settlement. And yet they all urged waiting until the U.S. and NATO won a few big battles, so we could go to the negotiating table with leverage—to get the best deal possible. But we never won a few big battles, and the Afghan government remained corrupt, without legitimacy.
And so, President Biden, who saw the situation most clearly in 2009 and endorsed a policy consistent with that vision, is probably stuck in the same dilemma as his predecessors—though my guess is, he won’t fall into the trap of escalation, he won’t send any more troops. He will just order his team to find the best way, or the least bad way, to muddle through.
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