The United States has lost its longest war. After twenty years of conflict and nation building in Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed Afghan regime collapsed like a house of cards in just a few weeks after the announced departure of American and NATO troops from the country. A final flurry of activity by the U.S. military managed to rescue 123,000 people from Kabul, but as Winston Churchill once said of Dunkirk, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” The United States now needs to reckon with the strategic, political, and military repercussions of defeat, while assessing what could have been done differently to prevent this tragic outcome at such a high cost in blood and treasure.
The most important strategic consequences of the defeat in Afghanistan include the impact on America’s alliances and the future of counterterrorism in the region. America’s partners are already reassessing the viability of their alliances with the United States in the wake of its abandonment of its Afghan partners. Europe, once enamored of President Joe’s Biden’s claim that America is back in the global arena, has discussed the need for more autonomy in its foreign and defense policies given the potential unreliability of the United States as an ally. Afghanistan was a NATO war as well as an American one, and the unwillingness of the Biden administration to discuss the impact of the withdrawal of foreign forces from the country has soured America’s NATO allies on the relationship, at least for the moment. Former UK Prime Minister Theresa May stated in the House of Commons, “What does it say about NATO if we are entirely dependent on a unilateral decision taken by the United States?” That statement came from a member of the “special relationship”; imagine what other NATO countries are thinking.
The impact of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will also resonate across Central and South Asia. The Biden administration has vowed to continue its counterterrorism work in the region via over the horizon strikes, but the lack of intelligence on the ground makes such actions tenuous at best. An errant drone strike on August 29 targeting a supposed car bomb hit an aid worker and his family instead, killing three adults and seven children. This action was undertaken with U.S. troops on the ground; how much harder, then, will it be for intelligence to pinpoint terrorist leaders absent a robust human intelligence component in the region?
Over the horizon strikes are problematic in other ways as well. What would be the main target of drone strikes in Afghanistan? Presumably these would not include the Taliban, on whom the United States will now depend to suppress the even deadlier Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K. There clearly isn’t any love lost between the two groups, but the prospect of the United States providing support for the Taliban to target their enemies is unsavory at best. The technical difficulties are also manifest. Maintaining surveillance of terrorist leaders in the remote regions of Afghanistan will be difficult, as transit times for drones from bases in the Gulf region or elsewhere are long, giving the platforms limited loiter time once on station. The technological challenge is not impossible, but it is expensive—and for limited benefit given the many other areas of the world in which terrorists can operate.
The defeat in Afghanistan will also have domestic political blowback, although this will be shorter lived. Republicans are blasting the Biden administration both for its withdrawal and the manner in which it was executed, conveniently ignoring the fact that under the deal inked by the Trump administration with the Taliban, U.S. forces would have been withdrawn from Afghanistan three months earlier and under similar chaotic conditions. Even if Biden were to be blamed for a catastrophe four presidential administrations in the making, it is unclear if American voters will care. A majority of Americans believe the decision to withdraw was correct, even if they also believe the withdrawal was poorly conducted. Foreign policy also does not sway many voters, who tend to vote based on economic or cultural issues. By the mid-term elections Afghanistan will most likely be an afterthought.
The U.S. military was already shifting its focus to major power conflict well before the Taliban entered Kabul. If anything, the defeat in Afghanistan will reinforce and sharpen this new focus. After Vietnam the U.S. military failed to institutionalize the lessons of counterinsurgency warfare learned in that conflict, choosing instead to focus on the greater threat of the Red Army in Europe. The danger today is a repeat of that experience, where the hard-won experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan are ignored in the halls of professional military educational institutions.
The sad reality is Afghanistan did not have to fall. The American people, most of whom sacrificed nothing to prosecute the war in Afghanistan, were not tired of “forever wars.” They were tired of hearing about them. The provision of several thousand troops and $20 billion a year would not have bankrupted the U.S. military, but it would have maintained the foundation under the Afghan Security Forces, which relied on U.S. logistical, advisory, airpower, and intelligence assistance to keep the Taliban at bay. There needn’t have been an end date for such support, as critics contend. Seventy-five years after the Korean War, U.S. troops are still on the Korean Peninsula, maintaining stability in a region critical to the United States. The American people are not clamoring for their removal from East Asia. In Afghanistan, the Taliban was emboldened by their belief that the United States would not stay the course.
Sadly, that turned out to be the case.