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Biden’s Afghan Withdrawal Achieved Nothing But Disaster

Biden’s Afghan Withdrawal Achieved Nothing But Disaster

Saturday, 14 August, 2021 - 05:00
Hal Brands
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

What difference could a few thousand US troops possibly make to the outcome of a decades-long war in a broken country? That question constituted President Joe Biden’s central argument for withdrawing from the conflict in Afghanistan.

Now, unfortunately, we have our answer. Those troops were the crucial difference between an ugly but acceptable stalemate and a stunning collapse of the Afghan government, with all the humanitarian and strategic traumas that will follow.

When Biden made his withdrawal decision in April, the administration believed a US-bankrolled government and military might survive for years. Even as the Taliban exploited the announcement and launched major offensives, US officials argued that the Afghan army had the ability to hold critical terrain.

Now, city after city has been rolled up by the Taliban, as many — not all — of the Afghan forces defending them are melting away. US intelligence analysts reportedly believe the country could fall within months if not weeks.

That forecast hasn’t led Biden to reverse his decision to withdraw. But it has led to a modest number of airstrikes against Taliban forces, along with an emergency deployment of thousands more troops meant to ensure that US personnel make it to the exits before Kabul, the capital, falls.

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 nears, the Taliban are on their way to accomplishing the strategic defeat of a superpower. Afghans and the rest of the world will be bracing for aftereffects: another politically destabilizing wave of refugees headed for Europe; revenge killings, sexual enslavement and human rights violations on a vast scale; slaughter of Afghans who worked with the US and are now trapped in areas that have been overrun; empowerment of terrorist groups that are still allied with the Taliban; a strengthened hand for China in Central Asia; and others.

Predictably, events in Afghanistan have set off recriminations in Washington. Advocates of withdrawal are claiming vindication: If a government and military that the US had invested in for 20 years fell apart this quickly, then surely the long US mission in Afghanistan was a failure.

They have half a point. If the goal of US policy was to build an Afghan state that could stand on its own after an eventual US departure, then the rapidity of the collapse shows how far Washington was from achieving that objective.

But this argument is also disingenuous. A poorly planned, deadline-driven withdrawal — which was rapidly leaving Afghan forces without the close air support that could rescue them in extremis, the contractors that kept their air force flying, the logistical support that kept their units supplied, and the psychological backstop of having America behind them — denied the government a reasonable chance to adjust.

There’s also a larger point that advocates of withdrawal are missing: What has happened in the last few weeks shows just how valuable the US deployment in Afghanistan was. At a regrettable but, from a strategic perspective, manageable cost in money and US lives — fewer than 25 deaths per year since 2015, and steadily declining over time — that deployment was the critical factor preventing a long, grinding conflict from turning into the nightmare that is unfolding today. Given the price of removing US troops from Afghanistan, perhaps keeping them there would have been a relative bargain.

The irony of the withdrawal is that Afghanistan’s impact on American foreign policy is about to get bigger, not smaller. Biden’s hope was that leaving Afghanistan would allow the US to focus on more pressing matters, at home and abroad. The US would reap a strategic dividend, the thinking went, in the form of money, military power and attention freed up by retrenchment.

If events continue on their current trajectory, that dividend will not materialize. If the Taliban seize power or consolidate control over most of the country, there will be geopolitical aftershocks from Europe to South Asia and beyond. The difficulty of preventing a resurgent terrorist threat will increase as America’s access to Afghan bases and territory decreases.

There will be psychological ramifications, too: Even allies who understood why the US was leaving Afghanistan are likely to be affected by the haste, irresponsibility and callousness with which Washington has made its departure.

Biden’s goal in withdrawing from Afghanistan was to help Americans put an inconclusive “forever war” behind them. But the collapse of that country, if it comes, will not only be a tragedy for many Afghans consigned to Taliban rule. It will also leave a dark legacy, moral and strategic, that the US will not soon escape.


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