Biden's Afghanistan Critics are Wrong | Opinion

Standing behind a lectern in the White House Treaty Room on April 14, President Joe Biden made one of the most fateful U.S. foreign policy decisions of the last two decades: after 2,488 U.S. fatalities, over 20,000 wounded and $2.6 trillion, the U.S. military is pulling out of Afghanistan by September 11 (at the latest). For Biden, a man who never bought into counterinsurgency, withdrawing the last 2,500 U.S. troops (or is it 3,500?) was a simple act of common-sense.

"We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result," Biden told the nation that day.

Since then, Biden faced heat from pundits and analysts who continue to believe saving Afghanistan is integral to protecting the United States. Various explanations were floated as to why leaving a futile, endless loop of a war is a major mistake. For The Washington Post columnist Max Boot, the U.S. troop withdrawal will lead to a complete Taliban victory that will jeopardize whatever gains in democracy and human rights Afghanistan has made. Bret Stephens of The New York Times wrote that losing in Afghanistan will hurt U.S. credibility in the face of allies and adversaries alike.

Even U.S. commanders registered their concerns. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee on April 20 that removing U.S. forces from Afghanistan will make tracking, pinpointing and neutralizing anti-U.S. terrorist threats a far more difficult and expensive proposition.

None of these arguments, however, should be taken for granted. Some, such as the contention that the U.S. lost the war in Afghanistan, is downright inaccurate. Others, such as the claim that U.S. credibility is now shot, is based more on conjecture than how international relations tend to work.

For one, those who focus on the humanitarian aspects of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan are missing the forest for the trees. Sure, a corruption-free, thriving utopia would have been much more desirable than the present situation. But the fact remains that the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was never a humanitarian mission. While the George W. Bush administration often spoke about the depravities of Taliban rule, the core U.S. mission set in Afghanistan was about counterterrorism. For the U.S., the war in Afghanistan was never about crafting a functioning democracy from the ground up. The operation, rather, was about taking revenge against Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization which committed the worst act of mass murder on U.S. soil in American history. As hindsight has proven, accomplishing anything more was likely to trap the U.S. military in the muck of Afghanistan's internal affairs at high cost to other national security priorities.

Bluntly put, once Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were shredded and demoralized in the early months of 2002, Afghanistan turned into a bottomless distraction for the United States—one U.S. competitors like China were more than happy to watch.

Critics have a point when they argue that withdrawing U.S. troops will likely doom the intra-Afghan peace negotiations. With U.S. forces gone, the Taliban have even less of an incentive to compromise with Kabul on the numerous bones of contention—power sharing, demobilization of combatants, elections, decentralization of power—that have hobbled the talks from the moment they started last year. The Taliban's decision to boycott the Turkey-sponsored peace conference this month is reflective of the Taliban leadership's state of mind right now.

Biden
President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on April 21, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Arguing that a U.S. troop withdrawal will doom Afghanistan's peace process is one thing. But assuming that holding off on withdrawal and maintaining a U.S. military presence in the country would save the peace process is quite another. Many members of the U.S. national security community (exemplified by the Afghanistan Study Group) tend to adopt this train of thought without bothering to answer a fundamental question: If the Taliban weren't interested in striking a peace accord when 150,000 U.S. forces were patrolling the country, why on earth would the organization be interested if Washington opted to keep a residual troop presence in the country?

If the U.S. was truly interested in a peaceful settlement to Afghanistan's civil war, Washington would withdraw their troops immediately. Why? Because ordering the U.S. military to stay until an accord was signed would likely compel the Taliban to pull out of the diplomatic process altogether and resume large-scale operations against the U.S. troops who remain. Confident Washington would stay for the long-term, the Afghan government would have no reason to treat diplomacy seriously.

The one drawback of withdrawal that is at least plausible is its effects on U.S. attempts to sustain counterterrorism operations against terrorists. Counterterrorism researchers Asfandyar Mir and Colin P. Clarke wrote that the Biden administration will now have to figure out how to adapt an off-shore counterterrorism presence. This will likely require the U.S. State Department to negotiate with Afghanistan's neighbors for alternative basing arrangements.

And yet as my colleague Gil Barndollar, a U.S. Marine infantry officer and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, observed in the The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. military has extensive experience conducting successful punitive expeditions without an in-country ground presence.

"Thanks to strategic mobility, expeditionary logistics, and high levels of readiness, the U.S. military is peerless when it comes to projecting combat power," Barndollar said. Indeed, if an $85 billion U.S. intelligence community budget can't buy this capability, what can it buy?

A post-U.S. Afghanistan will not be rosy. But despite the passionate opposition that mounted against Biden's decision, one is still hard pressed to find a compelling case as to why doing the same thing for another few years is a remotely better alternative.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.