No serious person contests that the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a debacle. To which the president demurred in an interview with ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos: “Look, it was a simple choice. . . . The idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens.”
Nor do I. If a withdrawal plan will cause chaos, the simple choice is to not withdraw—period. Better to stay for as long as it takes, perhaps forever.
This insight is not new. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign, the late senator John McCain, who endured years of painful captivity in North Vietnamese prisons, said in no uncertain terms that he saw no exit strategy from Iraq, where the situation had been badly bungled after the United States’ initial military triumph in 2003. McCain insisted that the important objective was not to remove American soldiers from Iraq but to ensure the peace and safety of both the Iraqis and the United States by keeping them there—a precipitous withdrawal could put accumulated capital at risk of a hostile takeover.
McCain noted that the United States has maintained an extensive presence in Korea and Western Europe as an insurance policy against further disruption in those regions. Remaining in any foreign country does not involve just sitting back in garrisons while the world marches by. It requires continuous engagement with key local political forces and social groups, using both carrots and sticks to preserve a fragile peace. To McCain, no short-term military stint could establish credibility and correct past errors. Rather, hopefully in the long term, the United States could taper its involvement as friendly local forces consolidate power.
Recall that McCain made these statements just as the naysayers questioned the success of the “surge” in Iraq engineered by David Petraeus during the late years of President George W. Bush. That venture turned out to be a great success, precisely because, as General Petraeus recognized, the US military had to engage in strategic leadership to build a legitimate presence. That task requires cooperation and a diffusion of authority. It means venturing out from protected enclaves. It means using force against supposed allies who do not cooperate. And most tellingly, perhaps, it requires a commitment to stay the course, so that your local allies won’t fear retribution if at a future date you decide to pull up stakes and depart.
Not everything went according to plan, but much of this program worked in Afghanistan, especially with female advancement through the education of girls and integration of women into the country’s commercial and political life. Moreover, at the same time, as Tim Kane noted just this past week, the rate of casualties in Afghanistan plummeted.
Given this steady progress, Petraeus, as usual, was correct when he recently argued in the New Yorker that it was unwise for then-president Trump to agree to a deal with the Taliban that included both a release of some five thousand prisoners and a fixed withdrawal date in exchange for little to nothing at all. President Biden has consistently claimed that he inherited a bad situation from Trump, ironically for entering into a deal that he himself would have made. But as former vice president Mike Pence wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Trump at least persuaded the Taliban to agree to negotiate with established leaders to create a new coalition government. Biden massively raised the ante by pulling out early, without preconditions, on the naive belief that the death of Osama bin Laden spelled “mission accomplished” and ensured an orderly withdrawal was in the cards.
It is ironic, as Petraeus observed in a conversation with Tunku Varadarajan, that Biden eagerly reversed Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accords and the World Health Organization, only to double down on Trump’s poor Afghanistan deal.
Biden badly misplayed his hand, for, just as with global warming, he has failed to grasp that life is lived at the margin. Thus, as Tim Kane stressed in practice, there are “no binary choices” but a wide array of interim positions. Here, the hard question for both Trump and Biden is why they saw any substantive reason to end the status quo ante. Indeed, why unnerve a local ally by trying to negotiate with a mortal enemy for a decade or longer? The cost of keeping troops in Afghanistan was a fraction of what it had been, and the benefits were far larger. This is evidenced by the Afghan forces’ notable victories with American support over Taliban elite units in Lashkar Gar, as late as July 2021—only for the city to become a death trap by early August.
Why, then, cut and run? As Petraeus told the New Yorker, the military presence in Afghanistan anchored just about everything else. It allowed the United States to supply tactical in-time advice to Afghan troops through advise-and-assist units, and to back close air support. It provided assurances to thousands of US civilians who supplied critical goods and services to the Afghanis that the government had their back. It gave an implicit vote of confidence to our allies that we would be there for them. And most important, it signaled to the Afghan population that if they aided the United States, they would face no dreaded day of accountability because they knew that the United States would not pull up stakes. Trump, in effect, vindicated the Taliban’s waiting game, while Biden’s precipitous response ensured the collapse’s inevitability—leaving in its wake the spectacle of a disoriented and ineffective president left to beg the Taliban for the release of Americans and vulnerable Afghan allies and their families, who are trapped behind enemy lines.
Biden’s ignorance led him to miss the synergies created through the American presence. It also puts into perspective Biden’s ungracious lament to Stephanopoulos about “the significant collapse of the Afghan troops we had trained, up to three hundred thousand of them, just leaving their equipment and taking off.” None of that would have happened if Biden understood the stakes. And so, the United States has managed to lose, in the course of several weeks, the prestige, wealth, and influence it had painfully built up over the last twenty years.
At this point, we are left with two questions: Why did Biden do it? And what will happen next? The answer to the first is that, for all his years in government, Biden, unlike Petraeus, has no idea how to take advice. Strong leaders appoint chief lieutenants who know more than they do about a particular area of competence. A good leader takes input from all circles, engages in collaborative discussions, and forms a consensus before reaching a decision. Biden, in his haste to pull out early, showed no willingness to do anything of the sort.
And why? Political reasons. For Biden, the prospect of leaving twenty years to the day after 9/11/2001 was perceived to be a coup for the majority of Americans who wanted out, so much so that the public’s short-term memory would overlook the multiple human tragedies occurring nearly fifteen months before the November 2022 congressional elections.
Don’t count on it. Whatever the odds of collective amnesia regarding a clean withdrawal, they are far lower now. As critic after critic has reminded our hapless president, the precipitous withdrawal guarantees a long and messy aftermath, given that approximately fifteen thousand Americans are trapped in both outer provinces of Afghanistan and, it appears, at the Kabul airport—on top of double or triple that number of Afghan citizens who worked for the United States as translators and support staff and are now likely to face death and torture if left behind.
The 1975 fiasco in Vietnam and siege of the American embassy in Iran in 1980 will have their parallel history today—the wall-to-wall media coverage is sure to put the Afghan withdrawal into high relief. Biden will be unable to duck the criticism from all quarters. He stiffed British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. He has shaken the confidence of our allies in NATO. He has materially emboldened Pakistan, our inconstant ally. He has increased the odds that the Chinese will be emboldened, after waiting patiently for seventy-two years, to begin an air and naval assault on Taiwan—the province that got away in 1949.
I have long been a defender of Pax Americana, which saw its decline with President Barack Obama’s bad handling of the exit from Iraq in 2011 and with the Syrian “red line” fiasco in 2013. Pax Americana does not mean that the United States rushes foolishly into situations around the world. But it does mean that the United States must realize that a power vacuum ensures someone else will move in, such as China or Pakistan. Leaders, like Biden, who ignore this lesson do so at their own peril—and frankly that of the entire free world—raising the prospect that once again we shall have to invade Afghanistan, if and when civil war breaks out.