The government of Afghanistan, created under US auspices and propped up by the US military for almost two decades, appears to be collapsing under a rapid military onslaught by the Taliban. This has been triggered by but I think by no means caused by President Biden’s decision to withdraw all US military forces from the country.
Let me share a few thoughts about this in no particular order.
There’s no question this is an unfolding catastrophe for many Afghans, particularly the residents of the major cities, for women and perhaps most immediately anyone tainted by collaboration with the United States. I hope we are doing everything we can for those who have worked directly with the US military – translators, clerks, contract employees, etc. We don’t have a responsibility to bring or impose our system of values and rights on Afghanistan. But we do have a direct and deep responsibility to protect those who are endangered by their association with us. I really hope we are acquitting ourselves of that responsibility.
We got into Afghanistan in part on a mission of retribution but more broadly on the premise that Afghanistan had become a safe haven for terrorist militant groups and that that safe haven allowed for the plotting and planning that led to the 9/11 attacks. From the perspective of the Clinton and Bush years, these were the bleeding edges of the emerging world order, where military, law enforcement and trade networks didn’t reach, and from which asymmetric attacks on that world order could be launched.
Many voices today are saying we’ve quickly forgotten the lesson of what happened the last time we “ignored” Afghanistan.
Whether or not this is true in general it’s outdated in the particular.
There are numerous regions today which are potential safe-havens for the kind of militant and terrorist groups we’re talking about – big, though decreasing parts of Syria, Yemen, Libya. There was the ISIS “caliphate.” Obviously we could go over a whole long list in and out of the Islamic world. But the point being, to the extent that’s the “lesson” of 9/11, it’s not like Afghanistan is the only place this can happen from or that it is uniquely likely to happen from.
So to the extent people think that twenty years on we’ve just forgotten the danger of not maintaining involvement in or control over what happens in Afghanistan, I think that’s simply wrong. There was a logic to this in 2002 and 2003 and perhaps for years after which just doesn’t apply anymore.
Yes, failed states can become the breeding grounds for asymmetric threats against the US and other established, powerful states that are unassailable by conventional means. But there are lots of failed states. We can’t occupy all of them. And really Afghanistan was and is just one failed state that happened to be one that caused a grave attack 20 years ago. If such a thing happened again it could easily come from at least a half dozen other places.
The conclusion of Point 2 is what must, by definition, be behind the decision to withdraw US military forces. It’s not like the US couldn’t stay in Afghanistan for another decade or multiple decades if it was really critical for US national security. It’s just not. But in the escalating commentary about what appears to be the rapid collapse of US-backed government numerous commentators have argued that the withdrawal was done too quickly, that there was insufficient planning and coordination, that the Biden administration architects of the withdrawal are shocked by the speed of the collapse.
I suspect all of this is simply wrong.
In fact, I’m shocked that people are shocked. To me it really seemed like a given and something everyone understood that when the US left the current government would collapse. That’s why it was a big decision. That’s why the people who were against leaving were so against leaving. I’m not saying this for effect: I really thought everyone took that as a given.
The idea that it was just mishandled or poorly planned also seems wrong to me. And I’m pretty sure I’m not saying this out of a general desire to defend an administration I support. I don’t think you can finesse this. I think people who claim otherwise are either fooling themselves or actually don’t support withdrawal. The government is propped up by the US military. The Taliban believes that. So with a US military departure they are trying to conquer the country. Perhaps even more critically the government army clearly believes that. And thus when the Taliban conquest comes to their province they are unwilling to fight against what is essentially a foregone conclusion. Why would they? This is all highly logical for all the players involved if you operate from the premise that the government is propped up by the presence of the US military and cannot survive without it.
In the coming days or weeks we’re likely to see a situation in which the government only controls Kabul. If you’re in the Afghan army how hard are you going to fight in that final battle? Why fight? The question answers itself.
If I’m right about what I’ve written above none of that is soluble with better planning. Perhaps at most some planning could provide a lengthier face-saving interval between withdrawal and collapse. But does that really matter? I’d say, not really.
The people who are saying otherwise fall into two camps. First are people who are trying to lay the groundwork for calling this a political failure for a Democratic administration. Yes, we should have withdrawn but you did it wrong. The consequences are your fault.
But there’s another group, diplomatic and military policy hands, who are in the nature of things very invested in the idea that situations like this can be managed, finessed for better outcomes. Years and years ago I followed the situation in Afghanistan and the US military’s role there quite closely. I haven’t in many years. So maybe there’s some aspect of preparation or planning that hasn’t been done that would have changed the calculus. But I doubt it. When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. But here there’s no nail.
A key reason we’ve been in Afghanistan for so long is that it’s always been clear that departure would be ugly. And it will be.
Final point is the domestic politics.
I think I heard Matt Yglesias say that in recent days and weeks everyone in the US has been playing more or less to form and consistent to their stated positions. Both parties’ foreign policy experts/elites have supported the US mission in Afghanistan; but popular support has been anemic at best for many years.
And yet US political culture is such that people can be tired of “forever wars,” as they clearly are, and yet still react negatively and look for people to blame when they see images of military defeat. This is why we’ve been there for so long. No current President or person in authority wants to be there to take the blame when the failure of the US mission in the country or at least its end comes due.
Several readers have written in telling me this will erupt into a political crisis for President Biden when Kabul falls. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think Americans care that much about Afghanistan. In many ways, that’s been the story all along. The American public is highly insulated from our deployment in Afghanistan. That’s why we’ve been there as long as we have. Having said this, I’m also concerned about the political fallout to the administration. Republicans will try hard to make it an issue and it will fit tonally for Republicans trying to create a narrative of weakness, decline and chaos. But I’m not that concerned about it. And I’m not concerned enough to make me second guess the core policy decision or to believe that more planning and preparation would have made a difference.