April 23rd, 2021
WASHINGTON – Here we go. After some debate within his administration, President Joe Biden declared that all US troops will leave Afghanistan before September 11, a symbolic anniversary. This is not a decision contingent on conditions on the ground. We are leaving because of domestic politics calculations. Biden thinks that he will gain points with US voters by finally ending the now 20 year old “never ending war”.
Punish Al Qaeda
America invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to punish the Al Qaeda perpetrators and the Taliban government that willingly hosted them. 20 years later, the Taliban is undefeated and in fact dangerously close to seize power. Back in 2001, almost immediately after US troops landed, this US retaliatory strike –by definition limited in scope and time– was transformed into a long term and tragically ill-advised “Let’s redo Afghanistan” project. The goal was nothing less than remaking Afghanistan, an extremely poor and backward country defined by tribal allegiances, into a reasonably modern democracy that would never again host radical Islamist groups that would use their bases in the country to plot attacks against the US and its Allies.
Mission Futile and Impossible
Let’s be clear. This almost unchallenged assumption that America and its NATO Allies had to turn Afghanistan into a workable democracy in order to deny Islamic terrorists the sanctuary they enjoyed when the Taliban first controlled the country was and is silly. Suppose we succeeded. Then Afghanistan today would be a democracy. So what? Terrorist groups are flexible and agile. They can easily move and relocate elsewhere. The global viability of al Qaeda and other similar organizations was not and is not contingent on having training camps in Afghanistan. Nice to have them, of course. But they are not essential. Plenty of failed or semi-failed states offer similar sanctuary opportunities.
What is most amazing is that different American administrations insisted on pursuing this hopeless Afghanistan modernization policy, even when most of the evidence proved that this project had no chance of success, given the tragic backwardness of the country.
The Taliban quickly came back
Indeed, after the initial defeat, over time the Taliban regrouped and proved to be once again a formidable, relentless foe. Notwithstanding rivers of US money poured into the effort of arming and training the Afghan regular forces and police, (while at the same building capacity in all government institutions in Kabul and beyond), they have proven unable to contain, let alone defeat the Taliban.
The invasion of Afghanistan was and is a policy disaster for Washington. Still, America could not easily leave. It was obvious that, lacking US material support, the pro-Western Kabul government would probably collapse.
Aware of the likely consequences of a US full withdrawal, nonetheless President Biden decided that he wants to close this sorry chapter of compounded failures. Hence the decision to remove all US troops and leave Afghanistan before September 11, 2021.
Washington is now trying to sweeten the bitter pill of defeat by selling the idea that the US will still be able to safeguard its national security interest, even after the departure of its military advisers and trainers. We are told that America will retain intelligence assets in Afghanistan even after all the US troops are gone. That should be enough to make sure that Afghanistan does not turn once more into a big Washington headache. I hope the Biden administration is right on this. But it is unlikely. My sense is that as soon as we are gone the Taliban will take over. May be not immediately. But it will happen. And this cannot be good for America.
And this is where we are now, more or less. With Washington pushing for an agreement, the Taliban and the pro-Western Afghans still in power in Kabul are negotiating some kind of power sharing deal, with the proviso that under no circumstances al Qaeda elements would be allowed into Afghanistan at any point in the future. Good luck with all that.
The point is that as soon as the Taliban become convinced that once gone the Americans are not coming back, they will fail to abide by whatever power-sharing agreement will be reached. So, expect an Islamist, anti-Western government to rule Afghanistan pretty soon.
For America, this debacle (twenty years of costly engagement, and almost nothing to show for it) should be an opportunity for rethinking its conceptually flawed anti-terror strategies.
The advantages of keeping a US military presence in Afghanistan
That said, even though the modernization process failed, the decision to leave now –for good—is not an enlightened one. Keeping a small force of about 2,000 US troops in Afghanistan, (along with other small contingents supplied by some NATO countries), does not represent an enormous burden for the US. Keeping them there would give confidence to the Kabul government in its ongoing struggle against the Taliban. This small US and NATO contingents are now and would continue to be in the future a Western bridge head in Afghanistan. They would keep US and NATO military and political options in the region.
The Biden decision to leave now, simply because we have been there too long and America is tired of all this, is an answer to domestic political pressures. It is perfectly understandable. But it is not smart.
The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.
|Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.