An irresponsible exit

What's next after the debacle in Afghanistan

There’s little commentary can add to the moral and strategic catastrophe under way in Afghanistan right now. Thousands of American troops are back in the country to secure Kabul’s airport and evacuate Americans and other foreign nationals; thousands of desperate Afghans crowded the tarmac in order to leave the country of their birth while the Taliban have set up checkpoints to control access to the airfield and prevent Afghans from reaching it. Countless more Afghans have been murdered as the Taliban brutally extinguishes their hopes for a better future right before the eyes of the world. 

This unfolding disaster threatens to fatally undermine the two central pillars of the Biden administration’s wider foreign policy: convincing other nations that “America is back” and emphasizing democracy as a core foreign policy issue. Defense and foreign policy officials from America’s closest allies – including the United Kingdom, which lost 455 soldiers fighting in Afghanistan – have objected to the Biden administration’s lack of consultation regarding its decision to withdraw. These allies had over 7,000 troops in Afghanistan at the start of the year and scrambled to pull them out when President Biden unilaterally announced that U.S. troops would be gone by the end of the summer.

Second, the seeming indifference to the fate of Afghanistan and its people among top American political leaders and policymakers from President Biden on down undercuts their own stated desire to make democracy a primary organizing foreign policy principle. His August 14 White House statement on the crisis made little mention of democracy or human rights, instead focusing on the protection of narrowly-defined interests. What’s more, the Biden administration made little apparent effort to protect those Afghans who worked with, fought alongside, and trusted in the United States. 

The Biden administration’s cocktail of cold-blooded realism and peremptory unilateralism on Afghanistan sends a strong signal that America does not care much about the fate of democracy or human rights overseas and will pursue its own interests without much regard for the concerns or interests of its traditional allies. That’s a stark contrast with the foreign policy message the Biden team has publicly and repeatedly put forward during its first six months in office. As a result, it wouldn’t be difficult – or necessarily wrong – for critics at home and abroad to describe the Biden foreign policy as America First with a human face.

Biden shares responsibility for this disaster with three previous U.S. administrations, all of whom committed significant errors that helped lead Afghanistan to its present predicament. The United States does not bear sole responsibility for this collapse – much of it belongs to the Karzai and Ghani governments that ruled Kabul for the past two decades – but major policy choices from the Bush to Biden administrations contributed to the current calamity.

  1.  Shifting attention and resources to Iraq. The Bush administration’s decision to launch a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq almost immediately diverted American attention and resources away from Afghanistan – planning for the invasion began in November 2001, just a month after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan – for more than six years as American troops confronted an insurgency and sectarian civil war in Iraq.

  2. Escalation in 2008-2011. Attention shifted back toward Afghanistan later in the decade as the Taliban gained ground. American policymakers sought to apply counterinsurgency tactics they believed had proven so successful during the Iraq “surge” of 2007. Troop levels began drifting up in 2008 and reached their peak at just under 100,000 in 2011, pursuing a mission defined by President Obama as both expansive and limited at the same time. Having learned inaccurate lessons from the Iraq experience, counterinsurgency proponents then applied a set of abstract tactics to a very different situation in Afghanistan - including the deployment of a “government in a box” to rural towns. The end results fell far short of what was promised.

  3. Negotiating above and around the Afghan government. The Trump administration negotiated a withdrawal deal directly with the Taliban, effectively cutting out America’s erstwhile Afghan partners from the process. In exchange for the definite removal of American troops by a date certain – as well as the release of prisoners held by the Afghan government – the Taliban made vague and unenforceable promises to disassociate from al Qaeda and engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. Nor did matters improve much when the Biden administration took office; it appears that the new team saw the Afghan government as a greater obstacle to peace than a Taliban that had taken advantage of Trump deal to mount a campaign of assassinations against journalists, judges, and civil society activists. In any event, these talks were much-delayed and ultimately irrelevant as the Taliban imposed their own military solution on the conflict.

  4. An abrupt and poorly-executed withdrawal of U.S. troops. President Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan both demoralized the Afghan military and severed its logistics, dependent as they were on foreign contractors to maintain their equipment. Without these contractors – or American air and intelligence support – the Afghan military “simply couldn’t operate anymore.” It’s not hard to imagine how or why an Afghan military that had suffered more than 11,000 deaths since September 2018 alone might collapse under these conditions.

  5. Persistent policy mistakes. In addition to these major decisions, the United States persistently pursued a number of ill-advised policies in Afghanistan. These included building an Afghan military in the American mold rather than one better suited to Afghan conditions as well as pursuing an aggressive, counterproductive, and ultimately futile counternarcotics policy that likely undermined the Afghan government and fueled the Taliban insurgency. More broadly, as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction recently noted, the United States government never understood Afghan realities and consistently sought quick - and expensive - fixes that would allow us to leave as soon as possible rather than pursuing more patient and less ambitious reconstruction plans.

There’s nothing that can be done now to rectify these mistakes, and this catalogue of errors does little to tell us what the United States should do now. Indeed, any policy recommendations feel hopelessly inadequate given the scale of the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the United States cannot adopt a fatalistic attitude toward events in Afghanistan and should take three immediate steps along the lines detailed by Brian Katulis yesterday:

  1. Evacuate Americans, foreigners, and as many Afghan partners as possible. The United States now has some 7,000 troops deployed or en route to Kabul’s international airport to provide security for the evacuation of Americans, foreigners, and a number of Afghans. Other American allies like France and Germany are deploying troops and aircraft to carry out evacuations as well. This presence should be maintained as long as necessary to evacuate all Americans and foreigners from Afghanistan – especially those still trapped behind Taliban lines. It should remain in place as long as needed to bring out as many Afghan partners as possible. That doesn’t at all discharge our moral obligations to those Afghans who fought alongside our troops or risked their lives to help us, but it’s probably the best we can do under the present circumstances.

  2. Step up intelligence and surveillance of Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks. Thanks to the collapse in Afghanistan, the United States will need to maintain a strong military presence in the Gulf region to monitor Afghanistan and ensure it cannot serve as a platform for international terrorism moving forward. It’ll also need to maintain robust intelligence and counterterrorism relationships with Gulf partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. That complicates the widespread desire in Washington to pay less attention and devote fewer resources to the Middle East - to say nothing of widespread Washington displeasure with Gulf partners like Saudi Arabia and the UAE - but it will be necessary to keep an eye on events in Afghanistan and ensure they do not threaten America or its allies and partners around the world.

  3. Repair ties with European allies and prepare for a wave of migration. The Biden administration caught America’s European allies off guard with its decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, and many of these allies are now understandably concerned that they will shoulder one of its likely major consequences: large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers leaving Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for better lives in Europe and elsewhere. Even if this migration surge fails to materialize, it will be better to be prepared for it than not and avoid a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis that gave a boost to right-wing populist political forces across the continent.

Again, none of these steps can truly address the disaster now taking place in Afghanistan. America has already failed its moral duties toward those Afghans who risked their lives to help us and our effort in their nation, and little we do now can change that fact. It didn’t have to be this way, but there will be time for blame and recriminations later. For right now, we ought to focus on doing what we can to get as many of our Afghan partners out of the country as we evacuate Americans and other foreigners while preparing for the likely global consequences of this avoidable catastrophe.