War Stories

What America Will Leave Behind in Afghanistan

Biden has good reasons for his decision to withdraw troops. But it still involves serious risks and painful sacrifices.

U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division arrive home from a 9-month deployment in Afghanistan on December 08, 2020 in Fort Drum, New York.
U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division arrive home from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan on Dec. 8 in Fort Drum, New York. John Moore/Getty Images

On the one hand, President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 of this year makes perfect sense. Troops were sent there 20 years ago to root out al-Qaida, which had killed 3,000 Americans in the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That objective was met 10 years ago. Since then, U.S. troops have tried to help the Afghan government build a civil society and help the Afghan military stave off the Taliban. Neither venture has succeeded. It’s gone on long enough. It’s time to come home.

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On the other hand, the timing of the policy, announced in a televised address Wednesday, seems odd. U.S. troops long ago stepped away from playing a direct combat role. At the peak, their numbers totaled 98,000, and, over the 20-year span, 2,488 of them died. However, there are now just 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan—1,000 of them special forces—and none of them have been killed in over a year.

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Some might ask, what’s the rush to get out?

The rush is this: Toward the end of the Trump administration, U.S. negotiators signed an accord with the Taliban, pledging to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021—in exchange for which the Taliban renounced future cooperation with al-Qaida. (ISIS has recently emerged as a force in Afghanistan, but both the Taliban and al-Qaida fiercely oppose it.) If the U.S. troops aren’t out by then, the Taliban will attack them with arms—the U.S. will be forced back into combat, which is the last thing Biden or just about anybody wants.

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Last month, at his first press conference as president, Biden said it would be logistically difficult, probably impossible, to withdraw all the troops by such an early date. In Wednesday’s announcement, he said that the withdrawal will begin by May 1. Clearly Biden hopes—maybe he has somehow arranged—that the Taliban will take that as a token of goodwill and refrain from attacking the Americans on their way out. As with many other hopes about the Taliban, there is no guarantee.

Meanwhile, there is a larger issue, at least from the Afghan point of view. The U.S. troops, light-footed as they’ve been in recent years, have performed counterterrorism missions on the Afghan-Pakistan border; they’ve kept the Taliban from taking over the country completely; and they’ve safeguarded the rights of girls and women, who would be horribly subjugated—as they were during the Taliban’s brief reign before the U.S. invasion—if the Western troops departed. (NATO’s troops, which slightly outnumber ours, will follow the U.S. troops out of the country.)

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Biden said on Wednesday that he had consulted with military and intelligence officials before making his decision, but he did not say they agreed with it—and many of them clearly did not.

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A few hours before his address, the directors of the major U.S. intelligence agencies testified before a Senate committee on the leading threats facing the nation. No Afghan-based terrorist group topped the list, but when asked about the consequences of a U.S. troop withdrawal, CIA Director William Burns replied that, without troops on the ground, America’s ability to collect intelligence, or to act on reemerging threats, “will diminish—that’s just a fact.” Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, agreed and said this was the assessment of the entire intelligence community.

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In his address, Biden said, “We’ll continue to support rights of Afghan women and girls by maintaining significant humanitarian assistance. We’ll ask other countries in the region to do more to help. … We’ll not take our eye off the terrorist threat. We’ll reorganize counterterrorist capabilities—substantial assets in the region—to prevent the reemergence of terrorists. We’ll hold the Taliban accountable not to allow any terrorist to threaten the U.S. from Afghan soil.”

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He went on, “Some will say we can’t do this without the military,” but replied, “That’s nothing but a recipe for keeping troops in Afghanistan indefinitely.”

Biden is right about that, but the critics also have a point. Biden added, “Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots on the ground,” but boots do help diplomacy quite a bit if the ground is a war zone.

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Retired Adm. William McRaven, the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, who organized the attack on Osama bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan, said in an interview with Defense One that the intelligence and counterterrorism missions could continue, even with the troop withdrawal.

“If you gave me the resources, I could figure out how to do this,” McRaven said, adding that he’d spoken about the subject with officials close to Biden. “Now are we going to need some people on the ground?” McRaven went on. “Yeah, we are. We’re going to need at least some small footprint at Bagram [the Air Force base in Afghanistan]. We’re going to need a small footprint, obviously, in the capital. We’re going to need intelligence resources. I think the administration will figure out how to manage that.”

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Maybe, but under the treaty negotiated with the Taliban, and given Biden’s announcement of a total withdrawal by September, it’s not clear how.

Biden made some other compelling points in his speech. Since the killing of bin Laden, Islamist militias have spread across various countries, especially in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Therefore, it no longer makes sense to keep thousands of troops in one country, at a cost of billions of dollars. Some of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan weren’t born when bin Laden launched the 9/11 terrorist attack; some of them have parents who were stationed in Afghanistan. This war, Biden said, “was never meant to be a multigenerational undertaking.”

Past U.S. commanders have said that there has never been a military solution to the war in Afghanistan, that there had to be a political settlement, but they warned against pursuing diplomacy until after the troops—U.S., NATO, and Afghan—had achieved “favorable conditions” by winning enough battles to give Western diplomats more leverage at the bargaining table. These victories never came; the conditions were never favorable. So, Biden asked, “when will be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years?”

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Biden has always been skeptical of the case for escalation and mission creep in Afghanistan. When President Barack Obama was chairing debates on whether to pour more troops into the fight and to adopt a strategy of counterinsurgency (aka “nation building”), Vice President Biden was consistently opposed—he was often the only official in the room to call for a smaller footprint and a less ambitious strategy. Obama later admitted that Biden was right and scaled back to the troop levels to the strategy that Biden had preferred.

But Obama left 5,500 troops in Afghanistan to assist the Afghan army and to perform counterterrorism missions near the Pakistan border. Trump, who wanted to get out entirely until his advisers convinced him otherwise, cut that presence to a few thousand. Now Biden, seeing no point in carrying this on indefinitely, is eliminating it entirely.

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The ultimate consideration, Biden said, though not in so few words, is that Afghanistan just isn’t that important to us. “We have to focus on the challenges in front of us,” he said. These include defeating terrorist operations that have metastasized far beyond Afghanistan, combating the pandemic, shoring up alliances in cybersecurity, and improving American competitiveness in the face of China’s ambitions.

One thing Biden should contemplate very seriously: Afghanistan may not be important to us, or much of the rest of the world, but it is important to Afghans, many of whom put their lives on the line to help U.S. officers, troops, and diplomats fight what became, at its peak, as much an American war as an Afghan struggle. If the Americans leave and the Taliban take over, many of those Afghans and their families will very likely be arrested or killed.

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George Packer recalls in the Atlantic that, as the Vietnam War ground to a halt, then-Sen. Biden opposed spending money to bring thousands of South Vietnamese citizens—who had helped U.S. soldiers during that war—out of the country and onto American shores. In retrospect, and to many at the time, it was a dishonorable position to take. (President Gerald Ford and many others took a different stance, and 135,000 Vietnamese were evacuated.) At the very least, President Biden should not repeat his mistake. One way to inject some morality into this extremely uncomfortable end of a much-too-long war, which hasn’t had a convincing purpose for more than a decade, is to help those who have helped us.

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