To me, as to many, the most haunting images of the end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan are those of Afghans crowding an airport runway the day after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Afghans running after a U.S. Air Force plane, hanging onto it as it took off, tragically falling to their deaths — those images reflect the desperation, the chaos, and the shock of that day, and foretold the scenes outside the gates of Kabul airport in the days that followed.
But the crisis of the withdrawal was about far more than the enormous task of removing Americans and Afghan allies in August. Lost in all the focus on evacuations was the big picture: the ignominy of the war ending with the Taliban’s return, 20 years after America removed it from power. This was an agonizing outcome given the enormous costs of the war — all the thousands of U.S. and NATO troops lost and money spent, and the scale of the destruction and loss of life of both civilians and Afghan security forces.
The Taliban’s return to power means that this fall the vast majority of Afghan girls have not been allowed to attend secondary school, setting back the gains a generation of girls had enjoyed in Afghanistan’s cities. The country is now on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, with nearly 23 million people facing acute food insecurity.
Some have argued that the fact that the Taliban took over so quickly proves the futility of staying any longer in Afghanistan. If we could not defeat them in 20 years, how could a few more months make a difference? Many point to the factors that would mire America in Afghanistan indefinitely: an ascendant Taliban; an Afghan government intent on corruption and personal gain; President Donald Trump’s Doha deal, which President Joe Biden inherited with a May deadline, after which the Taliban would resume offensive operations against America. Given these factors, the argument goes, the prudent decision was the one Biden made.
Last week in Persuasion, my colleague Jon Rauch made a compelling case along these lines. He further adds that deciding to stay would have required Biden to level with the American public and warn that we could now be in Afghanistan for an indeterminate period of time — something that would be politically impractical. I am sympathetic to the argument. Anyone who argues Biden’s decision was easy does a disservice to the difficulty of the choice.
But the enormous cost of the war, and the losses that Afghans bore and continue to bear, gave America a moral responsibility to ensure a better outcome. This is about more than sunk costs. Biden argued that America went into Afghanistan for counterterrorism purposes (to rout al-Qaida) and not for nation-building, and that the conflict in Afghanistan was “another country’s civil war.” But that elides American responsibility for outcomes in Afghanistan.
Biden’s argument fails to acknowledge that once the Bush administration went in and routed the Taliban in 2001, later refusing a peace deal with them in December that year, then, by necessity, the project of nation-building had begun. It wasn’t really mission creep — Afghans needed a new government once the Taliban regime was toppled.
It is true that America was dealt a bad hand with the corruption of the subsequent Afghan government, and with the sanctuary the Taliban found in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the project of building and training an independent Afghan army proved far more difficult than anticipated, and ultimately failed. But all of this does not absolve America, given its decision to begin the war in 2001. Afghanistan was not “another country’s civil war” — it was a Taliban insurgency against the Afghan government and its American backers.
Reckoning with that American responsibility and taking it seriously did not mean making a decision to stay forever in Afghanistan. The choice as it is presented — a dichotomous one between staying indefinitely or leaving now — misses a third way. It puts the entire onus on America’s commitment to withdraw per Trump’s badly-negotiated Doha deal, without focusing on the counterterror commitments we had required of the Taliban.
The third way would have been to leave once an intra-Afghan peace deal (between the Taliban and the Ghani government) was reached. The Doha deal contained provisions for the intra-Afghan negotiations to be set in motion. But while Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad repeatedly assured Congress that all the elements of the deal came as a package, it was difficult to argue, with the deal as it was written literally (and without the content of the annexes — those have never been made public), that our exit was conditional on an intra-Afghan peace deal. Yet that is the minimum that we should have ensured.
As I see it, there were two ways to have done this: renegotiate the Doha deal to make withdrawal explicitly conditional on an intra-Afghan agreement, as Biden was well within his rights to do as a new president; or, starting January 2021, put maximum pressure on the Taliban and the Ghani government to compromise. The Biden administration could have set the wheels for this in motion after the election in November 2020. For both options, our presence in Afghanistan was the leverage we needed.
Time was not on Biden’s side here. But the administration lost precious time in undertaking an Afghanistan policy review. Then, in March, the State Department announced a moonshot attempt at diplomacy, and in April Biden announced an entirely unconditional withdrawal, which threw out the conditions Trump’s Doha deal had negotiated without even giving the Biden administration’s own attempt at diplomacy a chance.
We should have pushed for Afghan women and girls to retain their basic rights to an education and to employment (rights now greatly jeopardized), and for Afghanistan to have a functioning economy that would ensure Afghans don’t starve to death (as is the danger presently). Any power-sharing agreement that would have emerged would have been better than the current outcome, where the Taliban rule Afghanistan unchecked.
An aggressive attempt at diplomacy would possibly have spilled over past the summer, and the Taliban may have begun to attack U.S. troops. But that scenario was manageable: It would likely have meant going back to a pre-February 2020 level of warfare, in which U.S. troops sustained very low levels of casualties over the last few years. A more considered withdrawal would also have meant giving the Afghan security forces more cover as we eventually withdrew — taking intelligence and air support away step by step, and empowering them in the process, rather than pulling the rug from under them.
There’s no guarantee that this would have worked, given the Afghan government and the Taliban’s track record — but we had a moral responsibility to try. The choice was not to stay forever or to leave this summer, unconditionally. The choice was to assert our power while we were on the ground to try and achieve a better outcome for Afghans — one that was, with talks in motion, closer to being achieved than it had been at any point in the past.
We owed this much to Afghans. Arguing that the Doha deal left us no choice but to withdraw this summer may have been the politically and domestically expedient move. But it was not the morally correct one.