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How the Afghanistan Debacle Harms U.S. Interests

Even beyond the humanitarian toll, the retreat from Afghanistan increases the risk of terrorism and damages America’s credibility.
August 16, 2021
How the Afghanistan Debacle Harms U.S. Interests
Thousands of Afghans rush to the Hamid Karzai International Airport as they try to flee the Afghan capital of Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 16, 2021. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The American loss in Afghanistan is a national humiliation, and an unfolding humanitarian and human rights catastrophe. Those are reason alone for lamentation. But does the Afghanistan retreat hurt our core national interests and risk our national security? Advocates of withdrawal, including Presidents Trump and Biden, and adherents of “restraint” in foreign policy, purport to make policy choices untainted by sentiment, based on a cold, rational calculation of the national interest. They contended that the United States had little or no national interest in continuing our modest force of a few thousand troops and intelligence officers in Afghanistan.

I do not share their optimism. A more realistic assessment shows American interests harmed or put at risk in several ways by the Trump-Biden withdrawal. None of these outcomes is certain, nor are they binary—some or all of them may come about on a lesser scale. But taken together or apart, these interests are now endangered by America’s ignominious retreat from Afghanistan.

1) Terrorism. The risk of another large-scale terrorist attack on the United States will almost certainly increase. Given the Taliban’s track record, Afghanistan might return to its status on September 10, 2001: a safe haven for al Qaeda and perhaps other groups able and willing to strike the United States. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is still at large, probably somewhere in the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands, and now he and his lieutenants will at a minimum find little resistance from the Taliban—perhaps even encouragement—in reconstituting al Qaeda as a potent force with global reach. The American retreat will also aid jihadist recruitment. Back in the 1990s, Osama bin Laden regularly invoked previous U.S. withdrawals from Beirut (1984, after the 1983 Marine barracks attack), Somalia (1993), and the anemic response to the 1998 African embassy bombings as indicators of America’s lack of will to fight. Bin Laden described al Qaeda as the “strong horse” that jihadists and fellow travelers would prefer to align with, against the “weak horse” of America.

Nor should we hope that the Taliban will be deterred from aligning with al Qaeda by memories of their swift defeat by American-led forces right after 9/11. The younger generation of the Taliban rank and file do not remember this; rather their formative years have been steady advances and final victory against Afghan and American forces, culminating in Kabul’s fall this past weekend. Even though America’s counterterrorism capabilities overall are much improved from twenty years ago, our withdrawal from Afghanistan renders us effectively “blind,” with very limited intelligence resources to detect and eliminate new terrorist threats.

2) Regional destabilization. All nations bordering Afghanistan may be at risk of some instability rom refugee flows and other spillover effects, but the biggest risk, by far, is to the fragile Pakistani state. The lines between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are blurry, and probably will blur even further now—it is quite possible that the Taliban will next target a takeover of Pakistan, or at least large swaths of western Pakistan. This could in turn trigger the perennial nightmare scenario for Pakistan: Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal falling into jihadist hands.

3) Great power competition. Despite Biden’s claims that he wanted to exit Afghanistan in part to rebalance resources towards China, the loss of Afghanistan hurts the American posture in our competition with China. First, it deprives us of the only airbase (Bagram) and military presence we had in a nation bordering China, and also of our intelligence collection capabilities based in Afghanistan targeting western China—where Beijing is currently building a massive array of nuclear missile silos. Second, the loss of Afghanistan damages our relations with India. New Delhi will now face an Islamist regime in its own backyard coupled with potential instability in its archrival Pakistan. These new challenges will likely cause India to shift attention and resources towards managing the threats in its immediate neighborhood, and away from its partnership with the United States to counter China.

4) Credibility with allies. Many U.S. allies and partners, especially NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, made significant investments in Afghanistan and trusted American commitments. Both the fact and manner of our abandonment—the latter including little consultation with our allies, leaving them in the lurch—damage our credibility with them. Such things can be hard to quantify, but American policymakers will assuredly see the bitter fruits next time we ask any favors of our allies, or ask them to incur any risks or costs on another priority issue for the United States.

A poignant subcategory is our failure to keep faith with the tens of thousands of Afghans who served U.S. troops and intelligence officers as interpreters, guides, and sources, and who now find their lives at risk. People in other nations will see how the United States abandoned those Afghans and factor that into their calculations next time a U.S. intelligence officer or soldier asks them for help.

5) Credibility with adversaries. One of the underappreciated legacies of America’s loss in Vietnam was how it emboldened the Soviet bloc to promote insurgencies across the Third World. In the seven years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Soviet-supported Marxist regimes took power in Angola, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua, not to mention the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (undertaken to prop up a Communist regime). Soviet archives and former Kremlin officials testify in abundance that they pursued these revolutions at least in part because they perceived U.S. weakness, irresolution, and demoralization after Vietnam, and calculated there would be little price to pay in U.S. opposition. The analogy to today is inexact, but the geopolitical dynamic could be the same: Moscow and Beijing feel further emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal to extend their influence in developing countries, or test the United States in other ways. Ukraine and Taiwan are at further risk now than they were a week ago. Indeed, China’s gleeful state media is already using Afghanistan to troll Hong Kong democracy activists about American unreliability.

7) Demoralization of the U.S. military. It took the American military a decade or two to recover its institutional morale after Vietnam. Again, the comparison to Afghanistan is inexact, but as the war has now gone from a frustrating stalemate (costly but not catastrophic) to a humiliating defeat, its damage to the Pentagon’s confidence and fighting spirit will be notable. This concern for the morale of the force is one of several reasons why Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley had urged Biden against withdrawal.

A final thought. For the past two decades the American debate over Afghanistan has generally oscillated between the two poles of either 1) fix Afghanistan and turn it into a relatively stable self-governing state, or 2) pull out entirely since it is a hopeless endeavor. (In full disclosure, for many of those years I was in the first camp.) In the past few years, however, U.S. policy quietly arrived at a more realistic posture—one that treated Afghanistan as a problem to be managed. The United States was doing just that with a light footprint a few thousand troops and air support, combining train-and-equip and combat support for the Afghan National Army, and special operations direct-action missions. This force posture was helping the Afghan government hold together, keep the Taliban contained, and prevent a major al Qaeda resurgence, all with minimal American casualties and a manageable financial cost.

The problem-management approach did not promise a great outcome, just good enough, at least in protecting our national interests. Which is often the best one can manage in foreign policy—and certainly much better than the disaster unfolding this week.

William Inboden

William Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin.  He previously served at the Department of State and on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.