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The Catastrophic U.S. Exit from Afghanistan

A humanitarian crisis, refugees fleeing the Taliban, and severe damage to America’s reputation.
August 4, 2021
The Catastrophic U.S. Exit from Afghanistan
U.S. Marines with the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, RCT 2nd Battalion 8th Marines Echo Co. step off in the early morning during an operation to push out Taliban fighters on July 18, 2009 in Herati, Afghanistan (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Disaster is imminent in Afghanistan. The judgment that the United States should draw down the roughly 3,500 troops still supporting Afghan forces after twenty years of effort, despite the relatively low casualties and the fact that Afghans were bearing the brunt of the combat, was an arguable proposition when Biden made the call. Reasonable people and experts could and did disagree. What is inexcusable is the failure to foresee and plan for the downstream consequences.

Over the past few days, the Taliban has shifted from sweeping through largely rural districts to contesting larger urban areas and important provincial capitals—Herat, Kandahar, and Lashkar Gah, where the Taliban appears to have seized nine of the city’s ten districts with only the government center, reinforced apparently with units from Kabul and U.S. airstrikes, barely holding on.

The Taliban will likely find that urban areas fall less quickly and less easily to their forces than the rural areas they have taken so far. But the group’s rapid resurgence over the past few months raises the prospect that Afghanistan will collapse much more quickly than the Biden administration appears to have expected when it announced its withdrawal deadline of September 11. As one anonymous senior Defense Department official told Politico, “I . . . don’t think anyone thought Afghanistan would turn so badly so quick.”

Yet the reaction of the U.S. government seems almost otherworldly. The secretary of state has called the carnage “deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable,” while the U.S. embassy in Kabul has tweeted that the Taliban’s actions constitute possible war crimes and that unless it holds its commanders in check it should have no place in the future governance of Afghanistan. And yet the Biden administration’s policy appears to be meekly to accept a new Taliban emirate, with all that implies.

At the end of the Vietnam War, American officials, recognizing the political difficulty of maintaining an independent and free South Vietnam, allegedly sought a “decent interval” between the American withdrawal and Saigon’s collapse. The Biden team seems to have estimated that completing the withdrawal in September would provide a similar “decent interval.” Instead, the rushed, politically timed withdrawal has created an indecent overlap: The Kabul government is in retreat and crisis even before the last American advisers have left. Given the concerns of military experts, the intelligence community, outside authorities and observers, it is hard to understand how the Biden team could have been so blind to the possibility—nay, the probability—of this outcome.

The second- and third-order consequences are creating yet more difficulties for the administration. If, as seems likely, the worst is yet to come, then the administration is right (if disastrously tardy) to focus on evacuating the Afghans who, in whatever capacity, worked with the United States effort over the past twenty years. This is not only a moral obligation, a debt of honor to those who fought by our side in a noble cause. (The frustrating and often inconsistent American prosecution of the war only accentuates their bravery.) It is also a practical imperative: Who around the world will want to work with the United States in difficult conflicts if we allow our partners to be slaughtered like sheep?

The operation to safely extract and relocate those Afghans who worked with us is taxing the resources of the State Department, which is “just groaning under the weight of the task.” And yet it only grows more urgent thanks to the gruesome atrocities—massacres, beheadings, rapes, and all manner of barbarities—that have accompanied the Taliban’s reconquest.

The administration should do everything it can to defend the government in Kabul, including by providing air support for Afghan forces. It is still not too late to return some military forces and contractors to enable Afghan forces to hold provincial capitals like Herat and Kandahar in the desperate struggles ahead.

Alas, the administration would certainly face a barrage of criticism from the right- and left-wing advocates of abandoning America’s “endless wars.” If the Biden administration were interested in spending its political capital on a satisfactory resolution to the war in Afghanistan, the current crisis could have been avoided. But clearly they are not, and there is no reason to expect that their calculation will change, so attention necessarily turns to what steps the Biden team is taking to mitigate the worst consequences of Kabul’s collapse.

Despite warnings from the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group and the intelligence community about the potential for al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State to re-establish themselves in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the administration has asserted that it will maintain a counterterrorism overwatch from beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Yet nearly four months after announcing the withdrawal, neither the president nor the secretary of defense can explain how they plan to do so. Surely they don’t intend to wait for attacks on the United States or its allies before putting the plan in place.

The Biden administration has correctly identified East Asia as the locus of the most important long-term strategic challenge facing the United States. But what will the allies and partners we need to confront an aggressive China—India, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and others—think when they see how the United States has treated Afghanistan, another neighbor of China’s? The reputational damage to the United States will be excruciating.

Refugee flows are already increasing as Afghans are trickling into Central Asia en route to safer pastures. (Afghanistan’s neighbors, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are among the least-free countries in the world—that Afghans would flee there demonstrates their desperation.) If the trickle turns to a flood, as it did from Syria and Libya in the wake of their civil wars in 2011 and 2014, how will the administration respond? Although it is much more difficult for Afghan refugees to reach Europe than it was for Syrian and Libyan refugees, some are already streaming into Turkey. If a sizable portion of Afghan refugees does head toward Europe, how will the Biden administration hope to prevent the further destabilization of European politics? How will it blunt the impetus that refugee flows will impart to populist, authoritarian movements?

The potential for destabilization in neighboring Pakistan from an influx of refugees and the galvanizing effect of a radical Islamist regime in power next door is considerable and alarming, particularly given the growing Pakistani nuclear arsenal. It is understandable that the administration would not want to talk about these kinds of contingencies, but one would hope that the planning for possibly dealing with loose nuclear weapons is high on their list.

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is arguably the most consequential national security decision that the Biden administration has made so far, and the early returns are not encouraging. As Afghanistan slides into what may be a regime-ending crisis and a return to Taliban rule, the fecklessness of the administration’s response is extremely worrisome. It is one thing to make a difficult and controversial decision. It is totally another to ignore the consequences and not take ownership of the results.

Eric S. Edelman

Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a non-resident senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is also the co-host of The Bulwark’s Shield of the Republic podcast.  He was U.S. ambassador to Finland from 1998 to 2001 and under secretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009.