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Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal Puts Symbolism Before Strategy

Biden risks repeating the mistakes of his two predecessors.
April 15, 2021
Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal Puts Symbolism Before Strategy
U.S. President Joe Biden removes his mask to speak from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan on April 14, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden announced his plans to pull all remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 in a final step towards ending America’s longest war. (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

Yesterday, President Biden announced, through an unnamed “senior administration official,” that the United States will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by September 11. You see what he did there?

In 2019, President Donald Trump similarly tried to reach a peace deal with the Taliban on the eighteenth anniversary of 9/11. On the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, President Biden will triumphally take credit for ending America’s longest war.

It’s naïve to expect foreign policy decisions to be independent of domestic political considerations, but it shouldn’t be too much to ask that the costs and benefits of the policy also factor.

Last year marked a record low for American casualties in Afghanistan: of the ten total fatalities in 2020, only four were in action. The number of troops is at its lowest ebb since 2001. The war’s financial cost has become a rounding error in the annual U.S. budget—most of the approximately $50 billion spent annually in Afghanistan (compared to the total Pentagon annual budget of more than $700 billion) goes to civilian development projects, not fighting. The “forever war” in Afghanistan is, at this point, little more than a counterterrorism operation.

Of course, $50 billion per year isn’t a small amount of money. But the return on investment is significant. For all the (valid) criticism of the Afghanistan War as a quagmire, it’s been good enough. The purpose of the war was to make sure that Afghanistan would cease being a safe haven for terrorists who would attack America, and it has succeeded to that extent. We failed to make Afghanistan into a shining example of democracy in South-Central Asia, and it seems exceedingly unlikely if the government and security forces will be able to stand on their own, but that doesn’t mean that the war was a total failure, either.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan was informed of Biden’s intentions just one day before the announcement—the same day the Washington Post published preliminary reports of the decision. The Afghanistan War is a NATO-led mission, not a U.S.-led mission, and indications from the “senior official” and other reports indicate that NATO partners and other allied members of the coalition in Afghanistan were informed of the decision, but not consulted. So much for repairing our alliances!

There is more to gain from keeping a force in Afghanistan. The United States is engaged in peace talks with the Taliban. In fact, Biden decided to retain former President Trump’s questionable, scandalous, and likely corrupt Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to continue the negotiations. Yet now Biden has chosen, for the sake of symbolism, to throw out America’s leverage in the talks. The Taliban had been engaged in diplomacy, but, hours after Biden’s announcement, its spokesperson tweeted that no further talks will happen until NATO’s full withdrawal. After all, why would they talk with us now, when we have commited to weakening our hand?

Odds are that, once America withdraws, chaos will erupt, as it did after the U.S. withdrew hastily from Iraq in 2011. As Michael O’Hanlon and Madiha Afzal wrote last month, “the most likely outcome of pulling out of Afghanistan would be very ugly, including ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country.” The rise of ISIL in 2014 and Afghanistan in 2001 are good reminders that chaos tends to find the United States, especially when the United States doesn’t go looking for it. Indeed, the senior administration official who announced the withdrawal was asked what lessons the administration learned from the Iraq withdrawal debacle, to which the official responded,

And a lesson that we learned from the drawdown in Iraq is that we have to have the intelligence and military capabilities positioned in the region and the attention of our national security apparatus sufficiently focused to ensure that if the al Qaeda external plotting threat begins to reemerge, we deal with it.

In other words, the intelligence community and the military are going to continue counter-terrorism operations inside Afghanistan, but they’ll be based outside the country—not because it’s good strategy, but because, in the official’s words, it’s time to “close the book on a 20-year conflict in Afghanistan and move forward with clear eyes and an effective strategy to protect and defend America’s national security interests.”

Biden’s announcement of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan breaks his campaign promise to “bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS” (emphasis added), while “Any residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be focused only on counterterrorism operations.” Yesterday’s announcement reversed course, holding that “The remaining military presence in Afghanistan will be the force required to protect our diplomatic presence.”

Much of the announcement focused on the need to confront new threats, including more geographically distributed terrorist networks and China, which is the kind of near-peer adversary the Taliban and al Qaeda never were. But looking at Afghanistan on a map, it’s unclear how leaving helps us contain such threats. The country borders two nuclear powers, China and Pakistan, as well as part of Kashmir claimed by increasingly illiberal India (also a nuclear power), and Iran. It shares borders with several former-Soviet Republics which Russia considers part of its sphere of influence. Without an American presence, the rush to gain influence over Afghanistan will be intense, destabilizing, and almost inevitably detrimental to the United States. And as our adversaries are bidding for influence, President Ghani will be forced to choose whatever he considers the least bad option to secure foreign help to prevent the collapse of Afghanistan’s republic.

The situation on the ground indicates that a withdrawal will lead to catastrophe. It is also premature. The administration has been in office for less than three months. It has rightly devoted most of its attention to the pandemic. It is, thanks to the chaotic transition, understaffed. There are no under secretaries or assistant secretaries at the State Department. The deputy secretary assumed office on the day of the announcement. There are no under secretaries or assistant secretaries at the Department of Defense (with the exceptions of a few holdovers from the previous administration). There has been no Afghanistan strategy review. This is happening all in a haste for the sake of showmanship.

Trump made policy by tweet, including multiple surprise announcements of precipitous withdrawals of American troops from war zones. Biden has improved upon his predecessor in style, but not in substance.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.