For the U.S., There Was No Goldilocks Option in Afghanistan | Opinion

Four months after President Joe Biden decided to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a narrative continues to proliferate in the ether that the White House could have simply carried on with the status-quo ante: retaining several thousand U.S. troops and helping the Afghan government maintain control with a combination of air power, training and advisory support. The horrendous ISIS attack near a main gate at Kabul airport on Aug. 26 that resulted in multiple casualties, including U.S. troops, is only amplifying the speculative analysis.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 20, Retired Gen. David Petraeus (a former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan) said this type of U.S. commitment on behalf of Kabul would have been "sustainable." Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested something similar. "After 20 years, the U.S. had reached a level of limited involvement commensurate with the stakes," Haass wrote in an Aug. 16 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

Yet when it comes down to it, the Biden administration only had two choices as it debated what to do about Afghanistan: withdraw from a failed 20-year state building exercise or escalate in the hope the situation on the ground would eventually stabilize. The notion there was a Goldilocks option in Afghanistan between these two poles is unsupported at best and fanciful at worst.

First and foremost, maintaining a gradually eroding stalemate at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a year can hardly be called a sustainable U.S. war strategy, let alone an effective one. It certainly wouldn't be sustainable from the standpoint of the Afghan people, whose lives have been torn apart by a civil war whose viciousness and intensity were only getting more pronounced as Afghan and Taliban forces were duking it out across the country. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded more than 5,000 civilian casualties in the first six months of this year—a 47 percent increase from 2020. This high rate of violence was happening at a time when the U.S. military was already deescalating, handing over military equipment to the now defunct Afghan security forces and preparing the logistical system necessary to fly U.S. forces out. Logically, those numbers would have gone up considerably if the U.S. continued with offensive operations against the Taliban. Such is the nature of warfare.

Second, the idea that more time and more resources from the U.S. military would have a positive, long-term impact on Afghanistan's security environment is nebulous. The Taliban have proven themselves to be stubbornly committed, no matter how many bombs were dropped on their heads. Despite the Trump administration conducting a record-pace of airstrikes against Taliban fighters in 2019, the group remained highly determined to press its cause on the battlefield and remained highly resilient in terms of replenishing its ranks. While it's true the Taliban were talking to the U.S. directly at that point, this had less to do with battlefield dynamics and more to do with Washington's decision to speak with Taliban representatives without the Afghan government in the room. Rather than a military route or better terms for the U.S. at the negotiating table, doing more of the same would have just delayed those talks from reaching a conclusion (assuming the Taliban didn't walk away from them first).

Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport
In this handout provided by U.S. Central Command Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force loadmasters and pilots assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron load passengers aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 24, 2021. Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa via Getty Images

Nor is it certain the middle-ground option Petraeus and Haass seem to support would have prevented the Afghan government from eventually collapsing under its own ineptitude. While the Afghan army's 11-day meltdown surprised many policymakers and intelligence analysts in the U.S. government, the Afghan security forces were barely treading water years before the Taliban's bloodless capture of Kabul this month. U.S. commanders were calling the rate of Afghan army and police casualties "not sustainable" as early as 2014, when the U.S. still had between 20,000-30,000 troops in the country. In 2018, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, now the commander of CENTCOM, used those same words during congressional testimony. In 2019, ex-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani revealed that more than 45,000 Afghan troops were killed in battle during his first five years in office. Over time, Afghan troop casualties got so bad that Kabul asked the U.S. military to stop publicizing the figures, lest they ruin morale. The seeds of the Afghan army's disintegration were planted long before the dog days of summer.

None of this even mentions how costly the so-called proper balance of U.S. forces would be for the United States if it indeed sought to extend its presence there. Commentators argue that because no U.S. troops have been killed in action for the last year and a half, maintaining a residual presence and military support to the Afghan government would be a low-cost proposition.

However, these very same commentators tend to ignore why this is the case. The February 2020 Doha deal signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban essentially traded a suspension of fire by the Taliban in exchange for a U.S. troop withdrawal over a period of 14 months (Biden later pushed the timetable to Aug. 31). Not proceeding with the withdrawal as agreed to would have been a direct violation of the accords—and the Taliban would have treated it as such. Attacks against U.S. forces would resume, as would U.S. casualties. Staying with the same amount of U.S. troops would in fact be a roundabout way of escalating the conflict, with the Afghan government just as corrupt and helpless at it has always been.

So the next time you watch a former U.S. commander or senior defense official on television wax about some magic solution to Afghanistan's problems, save yourself the trouble and change the channel. The sustainable stalemate is a myth, nothing more and nothing less.

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.