Leaving Afghanistan After Only 20 Years
Four administrations and two decades later, it's about to be over.
President Biden announced yesterday that US troops will be fully withdrawn from Afghanistan on September 11 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked our invasion. The prominent neoconservative Eliot Cohen reflects on the war for The Atlantic, rightly, I think, seeing this as merely a phase shift rather than an end:
There is little point in debating whether the move is correct: There is no abstract ideal of a policy, only that which can be successfully executed by those charged with so doing at a given moment. The Afghan War has lacked high-level American commitment for years now. If there is any surprise, it is that for eight years of Barack Obama and four years of Donald Trump, the United States persisted in a conflict that most senior officials in those administrations regarded with pessimism and distaste.
This cannot be a moment for final judgment about America’s Afghan war—we are simply too close to make measured assessments. But we can make preliminary, if uncomfortable, judgments, and embark on morally and strategically prudent policies.
This is not the end of the war; it is merely the end of its direct American phase. The war began more than four decades ago, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and its first American phase, in the 1980s, featured indirect United States intervention on behalf of the anti-Soviet mujahideen. The war will assuredly last well beyond the American exit. There will be no power-sharing, no reconciliation, no peace of the brave.
The war will grind on, with the edge going to the brutal fundamentalist warriors of the Taliban, who will torture and slaughter even as they repeal the advances made in women’s education and secularism in any form. But they will not have it all their own way. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, and the Central Asian republics have their own stakes in this war, and not all of them want to see an outright Taliban victory. So they will fund clients and proxies, as will, in all likelihood, the United States. And the people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer.
The American temptation to declare victory and walk away helped enable the rise of the Taliban after Soviet forces evacuated Afghanistan; the temptation to declare defeat and do the same may have similar consequences. Afghanistan will remain the cockpit of Great Power rivalries, as well as the home to a toxic and unrepentant Islamic fundamentalism that previously sheltered al-Qaeda, a movement that is not dead, and that may even gain some energy from this outcome.
The United States will be able to pick sides in the conflict, a luxury it does not now have. For decades it has been subject to implicit and explicit Pakistani threats to choke the supply lines running to American forces in Afghanistan. Once the withdrawal eliminates Pakistan’s hold on its logistics, the United States can and should more freely support India’s efforts to protect its own interests in Afghanistan. The United States can similarly play off the Russians against the Chinese, who do not necessarily want the same things there.
Given how little attention American policymakers have paid to Afghanistan despite ostensibly being at war there, I’m skeptical that we’ll be overly invested once we finally give up—something we should have done more than a decade ago.
Despite a strategic view that’s rather a bit much too Great Game, treating the people who will continue to suffer and die in Afghanistan as though they were pawns on a chess board, Cohen makes an important point that Joshua Foust and others have been making for years:
The Afghan exit will also come with a moral cost, which honesty should compel Americans to acknowledge and act upon. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans, if not more—from interpreters and helicopter pilots, schoolteachers and bureaucrats—have thrown in their lot with us. Americans owe them something. It takes a moderate amount of resolve to pull out of Afghanistan; it will take more to belatedly welcome Afghan refugees to the United States, as we did with Vietnamese refugees. And the Vietnamese example suggests that the people fleeing Afghanistan will be as hardworking, patriotic, and productive a group of citizens as any other Americans, foreign or native-born.
Opening American doors is a matter of this moment. Passing historical judgment on the meaning of America’s Afghan war is something best deferred for a decade. The temptation will be to blame it all on an ur-mistake, be it going to Afghanistan to begin with (a move that few opposed) or showing a fatal lack of will (was there evidence of anything but regression on the battlefields in recent years?).
There’s little doubt in my mind that those who worked for the Americans, especially our military, will be targeted once we’re gone. The moral equation is rather a difficult one. We owe it to these people to allow them to start over in the States if they choose, bringing their immediate family with them. But pulling out schoolteachers, bureaucrats, and those we’ve given technical training makes it even less likely that Afghanistan transitions to anything like a modern society.