Strategic Benefits of Withdrawal | Opinion

In the roughly four months since President Joe Biden announced that all U.S. troops would be coming home from Afghanistan by September 11, most of the headlines surrounding the decision have been grim, if not downright depressing. While a majority of Americans support withdrawing, it was inevitable that removing the finest fighting force on the planet would have an adverse impact on the Afghan government's ability to sustain itself. Reports surrounding Afghanistan today are laser-focused on the dire security situation Kabul currently finds itself in, from the Taliban's foray into southern Afghanistan to the hundreds of Afghan troops fleeing their posts.

The current narrative, however, is highly skewed toward the negative. The strategic benefits of the belated U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan are left completely out of the picture. By cutting Afghanistan loose, the United States is turning the tables and forcing the country's immediate neighbors to take far more responsibility for Afghanistan's security and development than they have previously. The U.S., in effect, is making Afghanistan somebody else's problem and pushing it into the laps of those who have a greater stake in managing it.

Critics of the Biden administration's decision will of course object to this characterization as highly sinister, as if the U.S. is deliberately throwing Afghans to the wolves. But after 20 long years on the hamster-wheel, the reality is clear and the evidence is overwhelming: despite spending trillions of dollars in taxpayer money and at one point deploying nearly 100,000 troops into the war, the U.S. military is simply unable to fix the systemic problems that have plagued Afghanistan from the get-go.

If the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan created any winners over the last 20 years, they were Russia, China and Iran. All three countries were able to complain about Washington being a pernicious influence in South Asia while at the same time reaping the benefits of U.S. investment there. For as much as Moscow and Beijing were eager to point the finger at the U.S., they were also more than happy to sit on the sidelines as multiple U.S. administrations attempted to stabilize a nation that hosted an alphabet soup of terrorist groups (like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) that were more interested in attacking Russia and China than they were the United States. The U.S. found itself in the absurd situation of doing the lion's share of the work while simultaneously taking the lion's share of the blame.

An Afghan National Army commando stands guard
An Afghan National Army commando stands guard along the road in Enjil district of Herat province on August 1, 2021. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Fortunately, the U.S. troop withdrawal will eliminate this absurdity. With U.S. forces no longer doing the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, Russia, China and Iran are now faced with a stark choice: either make your own arrangements with an unstable neighbor or risk watching Afghanistan's own security problems bleed across your border.

Many countries have already made their choice. Russia, whose own humiliating history in Afghanistan is well known, is increasing its ties with the Taliban at the same time it retains a formal diplomatic relationship with the Afghan government. To ensure Afghanistan's civil war doesn't begin threatening the fragile stability of Central Asia, Moscow is also reinforcing its military base in Tajikistan to help this poor and dependent Russian client state manage any fallout that may ensue from an intensified civil war between the Taliban and Kabul. Instead of arming the Taliban in an attempt to make the U.S. military's life in Afghanistan more difficult, the U.S. withdrawal has coerced Russia into getting more involved—not because it wants to but rather because it needs to. The same can be said of China, whose hosting of senior Taliban leaders last week in the Chinese city of Tianjin is an acknowledgment from the Chinese Communist Party that it no longer has the good fortune of piggy-backing on Washington's shoulders.

Iran, too, has some decisions to make. Tehran and the Taliban have a complicated history with one another. Back in the late 1990s, the two almost went to war after Taliban fighters stormed the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif and killed nine Iranian diplomats. In 2001, the Iranians proved to be highly valuable to the U.S. campaign against the Taliban, utilizing contacts with anti-Taliban fighters in the Northern Alliance and assisting the international community's efforts in establishing an interim government in Kabul.

Ties between Iran and the Taliban, however, have warmed considerably since then. The Iranian government has solidified its relationship with some Taliban factions in Afghanistan's west, in large measure to buttress a security buffer against any Islamic State cells that may happen to be operating near Iran's borders. The Iran-Taliban relationship at its core is entirely pragmatic and perhaps even transactional, giving both parties advantages they previously didn't have. Yet the U.S. withdrawal could very well throw a wrench into the works. With a common enemy in the U.S. no longer operating on Afghan soil, Tehran and the Taliban have less incentive to cooperate and more reason to revert to their traditional historical wariness with one another. Divisions within the Iranian political elite on how to manage Afghanistan and the extent to which Tehran should be supporting Taliban factions will also rise to the surface—divisions Iranian officials never needed to address courtesy of the U.S. military presence in a neighboring state.

For Afghan civilians who are at risk of being swallowed up by the brutality of the Taliban and the inefficiencies of their own government, none of this is particularly encouraging. Afghanistan's civil war will continue far into the future. The country, after all, has been enveloped in warfare since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. While U.S. special representative Zalmay Khalilzad may hope Taliban and Afghan government officials will discover the maturity and dexterity of ending the war through a diplomatic settlement, we have to be honest: the prospects of diplomacy succeeding don't look encouraging right now.

U.S. presidents, however, don't have the luxury of endless time and endless resources. Tough decisions have to be made. However one feels about the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the war, one thing is undeniable: Afghanistan's domestic troubles are no longer a U.S. responsibility.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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