New York ( Brussels Morning) The fall of Afghanistan and the victory of the Taliban since the US withdrawal of troops from that country confirms the expectations and fears expressed by many when President Biden announced that US troops would be leaving Afghanistan after having been there for close to twenty years. It is now apparent that Biden’s critics who argued that US withdrawal would inevitably bolster the Taliban were right.
It also should be clear that, short of committing to an endless US presence in Afghanistan, Biden had little choice. The Taliban victories are very unfortunate, but should not be surprising to anybody. While these gains may have been prevented by a continued and indefinite US presence in Afghanistan, they also demonstrate the failure of the US mission in Afghanistan and offer a reason to believe that Biden made a difficult, but ultimately reasonable decision.
Strengthening the Afghan government and military so that it could function on its own and defeat a Taliban insurgency has been the American goal in Afghanistan since shortly after the initial invasion in late 2001. Twenty years and more than $80 billion later, the world knows that effort has been a failure. While that failure may be perceived as a humiliation for the US and, more significantly, will lead to major human rights violations in Afghanistan, it has been inevitable for a long time.
To believe otherwise is to believe that a few more years, or a few billions more dollars would have been enough to tip the Afghan state, and military, into competence and strength. There is no reason to think that is the case, and every reason to think that another year or five and another few billion dollars would have simply been kicking the Taliban can down the road for a few more years.
The collapse of the Afghan government, and the victory of the Taliban, is being pointed to as evidence that Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a mistake, but in many respects these tragic events prove the wisdom of Biden’s decision. The extreme weakness of the Afghan military, and Afghan state, was evidence not just of the failure of the American project in Afghanistan but that it would have been foolish to think that that failure could be reversed by simply staying in Afghanistan for a few more months or years.
The rapid collapse of the Afghan government is also an intelligence failure that reflects very poorly on the Biden administration as well as on our military and other intelligence agencies. Biden’s words a month ago that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely,” have already come back to haunt him and may become the defining sound bite of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Perhaps that is unavoidable, but it also obscures the larger problem. Biden’s mistake was buying into a foolishly optimistic assessment of the strength of the Afghan military, not in the withdrawal itself.
Moreover, while the images and news from Afghanistan are deeply troubling and the collapse of the Afghan government is very disappointing, it is not clear what a better outcome would have looked like. If the Taliban had risen to power following a bloody civil war that lasted a few months or a few years, would that have been any better for the US or Afghanistan? More people would have died and the outcome would have been the same. Thus, while the last few days in Afghanistan have been humiliating for the US, the policy outcome is the same as if the Afghan army had held the Taliban off for a little while.
The last few days in Afghanistan have been a reminder of a central tension in American foreign policy between the question of what the US should do and that of what the US can do. In Afghanistan, the answers to these questions have always been very different, but our policy was largely informed by the former. There were always, and still are, many things that the US should do in Afghanistan including improving the lives of the people, ending gender discrimination and wiping out the threat of terrorism. However, for twenty years the US has been confronted with the reality that they cannot do all, or even most, of these things.
The ambitious, and ultimately unrealistic, goals of the US in Afghanistan go back not to the presidency of Donald Trump or even Barack Obama, but to George W. Bush. It was he and his neo-conservative cronies who decided that the attacks on the US of September 11th, 2001 were not simply a national security issue, but an opportunity for the US to flex its geopolitical muscle and remake much of the world. This extraordinary hubris led to expanding the mission in Afghanistan from destroying Al Qaeda to rebuilding the Afghan state. It also led directly to the war in Iraq which stretched the US way too much and made the project in Afghanistan much more difficult.
Events in Afghanistan over the last few days have been a long time coming. They may, in fact, demonstrate how President Biden mishandled the drawdown of troops, but they are better understood as what may be the final chapter in an overly ambitious war that flummoxed American policy makers over two decades and four presidential administrations.