Was leaving Afghanistan ‘the right way’ ever possible?

President Biden on Monday stood by his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but lamented the “gut-wrenching” events taking place as the Taliban swiftly regained control of the country.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Within weeks, American forces had successfully disrupted al-Qaida operations and toppled the Taliban regime, which had harbored the terrorist group. But American troops maintained a presence in the country for the next 20 years in order to prop up the Afghan government and military, both of which fell to the Taliban with little resistance once American forces pulled out of the conflict.

The administration of President Donald Trump reached a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, agreeing to a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in exchange for promises that the group would pursue a permanent peace deal with the Afghan government and block terrorist groups from operating in its territory. Biden pushed the withdrawal date back a few months but followed through with the agreement, despite clear evidence that the Taliban was not holding up its side of the deal.

The result was a rapid Taliban takeover of the entire country as soon as American forces began to pull back, culminating in chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport as local citizens scrambled to escape the reemergent Taliban regime, which is known for its oppressive — and often brutal — enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Why there’s debate

The withdrawal has come under intense criticism from lawmakers, military families and the Afghans themselves. While a large share of experts believe leaving Afghanistan was the right choice in theory, they argue that drawing down the U.S. presence so rapidly and haphazardly made the resulting Taliban sweep through the country all but inevitable.

Many have accused Biden of falsely presenting the options available to the U.S. as either a complete and rapid withdrawal or a reescalation of conflict with the Taliban, when, they argue, a much more systematic and tactically sound drawdown was always possible. Others say there was no reason to withdraw at all, since minimal U.S. involvement was clearly critical to maintaining a shaky peace. Specific criticism has been aimed at the U.S. failure to ensure that tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who aided American troops over the past 20 years were safely taken out of the country before the Taliban took back control.

Biden does have his defenders, however. In the eyes of some experts, any version of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — whether it happened next month or next decade — would have ultimately led to the Taliban sweeping back into power. They argue that the U.S. had 20 years of evidence that nation-building efforts were a clear failure and that no amount of time, money or military assistance could overcome the fundamental issues — on both the U.S. and Afghan sides — that made the Afghan government unable to stand on its own.

What’s next

The Biden administration has turned its attention to securing the Kabul airport and getting as many as 9,000 people out of Afghanistan per day, at least until the final deadline for withdrawal on Aug. 31. About 100,000 people, including American citizens and Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas, or SIVs, are believed to be seeking to leave the country.

Much more effort should have gone into getting people at risk out of Afghanistan

“The Biden administration did not do nearly enough to accelerate the special immigrant visa, or SIV, program for Afghans who worked for the U.S. during the war, and the rapid collapse of the Afghan government has only raised the likelihood of a broader refugee crisis. Biden can argue that there was little he could have done to prevent Afghanistan from collapsing. But he will be wholly responsible if the U.S. fails to rescue these people.” — Matt Ford, New Republic

The withdrawal should have been more gradual and tactical

“The collapse of the Afghan government wasn’t inevitable until we made it inevitable. … The military should have understood that immediately cutting off support would cripple the Afghan military. And, knowing this, someone should have threatened to resign as a way to forestall this calamity.” — Jonah Goldberg, Los Angeles Times

There was no reason to stick to a deal the Taliban never intended to honor

“​​What the administration has done in Afghanistan doesn’t make much sense. Biden could have easily said the Taliban had reneged on their agreement with the United States so he could continue to keep a relatively small US military force in Afghanistan to advise and assist the Afghan Army and to support the Afghan Air Force to thwart Taliban advances.” — Peter Bergen, CNN

There was never a real commitment to nation building from the U.S.

“Most tragically, our consistent messaging that we were on our way out of Afghanistan encouraged Afghans in positions of power to embrace corruption—specifically, the siphoning of resources for personal gain—as the one clear and sure means of survival. Corruption became a financial contingency plan, the choice any reasonable Afghan would make to ensure a safe future for their children.” — Elliot Ackerman, Atlantic

Leaving undermines the counterterrorism mission of the U.S.

“It is not an accident that we have not experienced a 9/11-level terrorist attack in the U.S. in 20 years. Effective counterterrorism requires denying jihadist networks safe haven and state sponsorship. That is what we have been doing in Afghanistan for the past seven-plus years. Just as our enemies do not disappear because we weary of them, neither does the mission evaporate.” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review

There was no reason to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan

“In the last several years, the United States has maintained a relatively small force in Afghanistan, largely devoted to providing surveillance, logistics and air cover for Afghan forces while taking minimal casualties. Any American president could have maintained this position almost indefinitely — with no prospect of defeating the Taliban but none of being routed by them, either.” — Bret Stephens, New York Times

No level of investment from the U.S. could have built a stable Afghan government

“In strategic terms Biden may have been essentially right in saying there was no reason for the United States to stay any longer; the Afghan state and its security forces were plainly an empty husk, utterly unable to operate on their own, and any further U.S. involvement would not have altered the military odds, only staving off the inevitable.” — Michael Hirsh, Foreign Policy

The drawdown of America’s presence was always going to end this way

“The situation unfolding in Afghanistan is heartbreaking, but the alternative would have been worse: continuing to throw away American lives in an unwinnable war. Delaying the withdrawal would have only postponed the inevitable. Another five years or another 20 years of American engagement in Afghanistan would not have changed the outcome.” — Paul Scharre, USA Today

There was no way to prop up a government that the country’s citizens didn’t want

“Ultimately, the Taliban resumed control of Afghanistan because their message strikes to the core of what the majority of the populace defines as what it means to be Afghan. America’s idyllic visions of Afghanistan emerging from the lingering conflict, a democratic, freedom-loving, McDonald’s-eating society, were always delusions of grandeur.” — Tim McMillan, Washington Examiner

More focus should be on the mistakes that started the war in the first place

“There should be a serious accounting for the Afghanistan debacle. … Rather than focusing on how we got out, it would be far wiser to focus on how we got in.” — Katrina vanden Heuvel, Washington Post

Delaying the withdrawal wouldn’t have accomplished much

“I have no idea whether what some people I admire … are insisting is true: that Biden could have waited a short period of time and evacuated many worthy American allies. Everything we’ve ever been told about Afghanistan is quicksand. Those who claim it would have taken a week would eventually have to admit it would have taken a month, and those who’d claimed it would take a month… well, you get the point.” — Joan Walsh, The Nation


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