Opinion | Withdrawing from Afghanistan was an unconscionable blunder


Kent Nishimura, Los Angeles Times | TNS

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the evacuation of U.S. citizens and their families, SIV applicants and their families and vulnerable Afghans from Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

By Jack Troy, Assistant Opinions Editor

Like a multi-trillion dollar house of cards, the Afghan government was toppled by the Taliban on Aug. 15, though gently nudged might be a more accurate description. The costs of the war in Afghanistan are sickening next to this humiliating and tragic outcome — nearly twenty years, $2.26 trillion and the lives of 2,352 American service members, just to end up right back where we started.

The same goes for the now dissolved Afghan government and its people, who have borne the brunt of the human toll this war exacted. For every one U.S. or NATO soldier killed in Afghanistan, nearly 19 Afghan soldiers or police officers lost their lives. On top of that, 47,245 civilians died as a result of the war. Let’s not forget who many victims have really been, and now certainly will continue to be in the future.

I truly believe that remaining in Afghanistan only marginally benefitted American interests, a nebulous term that had largely outlived its usefulness for defining the war. So let’s set aside preventing a terrorist haven from emerging in Afghanistan as an objective. The Taliban remains on hostile terms with ISIS and complicated ones with Al-Qaeda, neither of which seem capable of carrying out an attack on American soil for some time, if ever. And we can also set aside nurturing a consolidated, functional and prosperous democracy as an objective — sorry Dubya, it was just too ambitious.  

But during America’s involvement in Afghanistan, there were real gains in literacy, women’s rights and life expectancy thrown away by the Biden administration’s choice to go forward with the principles of Trump’s slipshod withdrawal deal with the Taliban, which the militant group has broken at nearly every turn. And we’re already getting a glimpse at what renewed Taliban rule looks like. Protests have been violently suppressed, Taliban fighters are going door-to-door looking for those who collaborated with U.S. and NATO forces and girls are being barred from education in some districts. These are Afghan interests, and they were well within our ability to protect by continuing to support the country’s security forces.

It’s easy to say that America has given it our best shot — or as Biden has put it with a shocking lack of self-awareness, “We gave [Afghans] every chance to determine their own future.  What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.” I suppose the estimated 66,000 Afghan military and police killed during the war lacked the steely resolve Biden was looking for.

But the government’s collapse was not inevitable. And this certainly was not the humanitarian centered foreign policy that Biden claims to champion. He has pulled the rug out from under Afghans and with it, their future.

We sapped whatever will Afghan security forces had when we stuck to an inflexible withdrawal timeline that was negotiated without the country’s government even at the table, simultaneously bolstering Taliban morale and taking the training wheels off of a fighting force that was designed to complement and has only ever known working alongside the American military. The U.S. military relies heavily on a balance between air and ground operations and passed this operational style onto the Afghan army, which it could not realistically sustain without our financial and logistical support. Not to mention how incredibly demoralizing it had been for the Afghan military and police to watch Americans pack up and leave while the Taliban swallowed the countryside.

Our exit has proven an infamous Taliban saying true, “You have the watches, but we have the time.” And now the Taliban has both — as Afghan forces surrendered and hastily retreated, a wealth of American weapons and vehicles were left behind for them to inherit.

The most infuriating part of the withdrawal has been the relatively low commitment the United States could have maintained to avoid a Taliban takeover. An Obama-era surge, when troop levels nearly reached 100,000, would not have been necessary to keep, at the very least, the urban areas and provincial capitals of Afghanistan safe and secure. That level of involvement was a mistake then and would be an even bigger mistake now, but the fact that the war in Afghanistan has been a comedy of errors shouldn’t have prevented Biden from being clear-eyed about it now.

The time for nation building was over. So was the time for America taking on a significant combat role. But we hadn’t seriously committed to either of those in years and yet the situation remained relatively stable up until America’s final withdrawal was near and almost certain.

The number of U.S. service members in Afghanistan dwindled to 2,500 in January. The Taliban did not manage to take a single provincial capital, of which there are 34, until Aug. 6. By that point, the American military had handed over its largest airfield in Afghanistan and final withdrawal was well underway. Maintaining that January number in a train, advise and assist capacity would have cost the United States around $5 billion annually — a relatively inconsequential bill compared to the total cost of the war.

Keeping a small military presence in the country would have also been conducive to a conditions based, and not timeline based withdrawal — a positive outcome for both Americans and Afghans. Blunting the Taliban’s momentum could have coaxed them into returning to the negotiating table, while also preserving two decades of social and economic gains.

Instead, the Biden administration, as was the case with its three predecessors, was blinded by a win-lose dichotomy. I bet that Afghans would have gladly accepted a stalemate.

Jack Troy writes about politics, SGB and being tired of capitalism. Write to him at [email protected].