As the last American troops leave Afghanistan, ending our 20-year war—the longest in U.S. history—more suddenly and swiftly than anyone had anticipated, a few grave evasions should trouble us all, regardless of our opinions on the decision to pull out.
The first concern is the fate of the many Afghans who served as translators to U.S. troops for all these years and who will almost certainly be arrested or killed if they’re left behind and the Taliban come to power. Pentagon officials say evacuation plans are in the works. But it seems doubtful that the plans are as extensive as they would need to be to rescue all of the deserving and their families, especially since the Taliban have blocked many roads from the provinces to Kabul—and since the country’s largest runway, at Bagram air base, has been shut down and abandoned. But we shall see.
The second ambiguity is that, in April, when President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces, he also reaffirmed a continued U.S. commitment to keep Afghanistan free of terrorist rule—and yet it’s not at all clear how to do both: how to fight the Taliban or any other terrorists without any troops on the ground.
Biden said he would “prevent reemergence of terrorists” in Afghanistan “from over the horizon”—a military term that means just what it sounds like: from far away and from up in the sky. In this case, it means that Taliban and other forces would be monitored by distant sensors and satellites—and, if necessary, fired upon by fighter jets, missiles, or drones launched from U.S. military bases. The closest of these bases, in or around Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are more than 1,000 miles away.
Two things are known about “over-the-horizon” defense: It’s not very effective (good intelligence and combat are best performed close in, on the ground), and it’s very expensive. It requires tying up more fighter planes, refueling tankers, jet fuel, missiles, and drones at those distant bases; filling them with more personnel (pilots, maintenance crews, intelligence specialists); and possibly keeping an extra aircraft carrier in the region.
The high cost is the most puzzling piece of Biden’s formula. The real, underlying rationale for getting out of Afghanistan is that the place has simply fallen off the list of our top security priorities. Biden said as much in his speech announcing the withdrawal:
We have to shore up American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing an increasingly assertive China. We have to strengthen our alliances … defeat this pandemic. … We’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20.
He was right. He was also right in noting that terrorism has many havens these days and that excessive focus on Afghanistan detracts attention from other hot spots. Finally, he was right that everyone has long admitted that military victory in Afghanistan is impossible; that a firm commitment from the Taliban to play nice if they take over would be welcome but isn’t likely; that we’re going to have to get out at some point, so why not now.
But in that same speech, Biden also talked as though the pillars of our commitment—staving off the Taliban and protecting the Kabul regime—remained solid. He said:
We’ll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists that threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil. … We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces …
When Biden met in late June with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, he “emphasized enduring United States support for the Afghan people, including Afghan women, girls, and minorities” (whose rights would be seriously endangered by a resurgent Taliban government) and “firmly agreed that although U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan, the strong bilateral partnership will continue.” (This is according to the official White House readout from the meeting.)
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has also spoken of bombing and strafing Taliban forces if they try to take over Kabul or other major Afghan cities. (If the president refuses to authorize such actions, if and when those threats arise, there is likely to be internecine conflict within the Biden administration.)
There was an obligatory tone to these reassurances, especially as they were proclaimed while looters were stripping all the hardware from what had been the country’s largest American air base (and, decades before then, the largest Soviet base).
If (some would say when) the Taliban move to overthrow the Kabul government, one of two things will happen: Biden will make good on his commitments, in which case the U.S. will be stuck there for years to come, though with less firepower and at greater cost; or he won’t, in which case one of the drawbacks of the U.S. troop withdrawal—the devaluation of American commitments generally—will be compounded.
Biden had good reasons to pull the plug, but if the place unravels, many—and not just his critics—will recall two facts. First, American troops hadn’t been fighting in Afghanistan for quite some time; they’d mainly been providing the Afghan military with training, intelligence, and air support. No U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since February 2020. (Four were killed in January and February of that year combined.)
Second, in his final months in office, President Barack Obama decided to keep a few thousand troops in Afghanistan—not to conduct “nation-building” (he’d ended that futile mission already) but to fight terrorists along the Pakistani border. His logic was that it would be good to have a counterterrorism base in the region; he’d recently signed a security agreement with the Afghan government (something the U.S. does not have with any other country nearby); so, since counterterrorism was still a military mission, why not hang on to a base or two in Afghanistan, especially since the presence of U.S. troops could also keep the country from imploding.
Biden knows all these arguments; he participated in them as Obama’s vice president and, before then, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He no doubt knows that Obama had a point, but he also knows that, as long as U.S. troops remain, there’s a chance they risk getting drawn into serious combat again. He came down against that side of the risk. But if Afghanistan falls apart, many will blame him for picking the wrong side.