For every story lambasting the Biden administration for a calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, there’s another solemnly noting the unavoidable eventuality of a disorderly U.S. departure. The reasons to leave are compelling, but so too are the reasons to stay—lives, financial resources, and the futures of innumerable individuals are at stake. The U.S. is desperate to break the shackles of a forever war, but what else will break when it leaves?
The Factual’s recent polling showed our readership to be largely aligned with the U.S. population writ large. Some voiced the compelling reasons to retain significant capacity in Afghanistan—from carrying through on a post-war commitment to rebuild and develop the country, to an imperative to safeguard the rights of women in particular—but an absolute majority (52%) insisted that withdrawing, despite its consequences, was the right call. Even with the difficulties of recent weeks, a majority of Americans still support the U.S. exit.
In the interim, the media has been swarmed with “hot takes,” and readers have likely been overwhelmed with impassioned essays on what the U.S. should have, would have, or could have done. To provide some clarity on the issue, this week The Factual is revisiting some of the basic rationales for and against a continued U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Reasons to Leave Afghanistan
A Deal with the Taliban
The biggest driver of the U.S. departure is an agreement made with the Taliban—signed by then-President Trump and followed through on by President Biden—to remove U.S. forces from Afghanistan by May of 2021. This deadline was eventually moved back to September 11, marking the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Taliban promises to not attack U.S. forces in the interim held strong, though they increasingly put pressure on Afghan government forces. As has been widely reported, the Taliban’s rapid progress mirrored U.S. withdrawal, with most Afghan forces surrendering or deserting without a fight.
Source: Council on Foreign Relations
Deals alone do not always spur action, but the Taliban’s position was strengthened over time by their growing capabilities and military success, as well as the release of Taliban prisoners held by the government, a condition of the deal. This growing force, and the rapid fall of government positions, demonstrated a dynamic that had long been obvious to many observers: successful government resistance against the Taliban was contingent on U.S. support. Some U.S. policymakers long-predicted such a scenario, but the requirements to reverse such an outcome—a substantial recommitment to sustained U.S. military support, including putting more American lives on the line—was a possibility that very few politicians would entertain.
High Costs, Fiscal and Human
An ever-present rationale for ending U.S. involvement in Afghanistan has been the burdensome costs on Americans—roughly $2.26 trillion dollars in total. But the recent attack on the Kabul airport serves as a powerful reminder of the immense human cost as well, placed on the families and loved ones of Americans, Afghans, coalition partners, and others who served, lost their lives, or were in other ways impacted by the conflict. For Americans, that includes 2,461 U.S. servicemembers and 3,846 U.S. contractors (Afghan losses numbered over 150,000 if one combines Afghan military and police forces, civilians, and Taliban fighters).
A full reckoning of the costs of such wars are difficult to grasp—a study by the Costs of War Project found that four-times as many U.S. servicemembers have died due to suicide as have died in combat during the Global War on Terror, which includes U.S. activity in Afghanistan. In truth, the human costs of the conflict, at home and abroad, will never be fully understood.
And just as those human impacts will influence the families and communities that directly shouldered the burden for generations to come, the financial costs will last for decades. Some estimates suggest that the cost “could eventually exceed $6 trillion—with American taxpayers still paying the tab when the 50th anniversary of 9/11 arrives.”
Original Purpose Fulfilled
Another common point to justify a departure from Afghanistan is that the coalition forces have long since completed their intended goal. As Biden remarked in early July, “We went for two reasons: one, to bring Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell … the second reason was to eliminate al-Qaeda’s capacity to deal with more attacks on the United States from that territory. We accomplished both of those objectives.” Toward that specific goal, U.S. activity in Afghanistan has been hugely successful: al-Qaeda has been unable to conduct any operations on the scale of 9/11 (and has completed few successful attacks in general). Plus, with one exception, “every single senior al-Qaeda leader has been killed or captured.”
While a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan is likely a key reason for the ongoing success in this counterterrorism mission, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan stretched well beyond that initial remit, embroiled in a long-term process of combat, state building, development, and security assistance training.
Reasons to Stay
Counterterrorism and Renewed Threats from Al Qaeda and Others
The foreign policy community isn’t entirely certain what the Taliban’s resurgence means for terrorist threats from al-Qaeda, offshoots of ISIS, and other extremist groups. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has been adamant that the Taliban have a clear “self-interest” in not letting such groups establish themselves in Afghanistan, but a miscalculation here could have disastrous repercussions. The attack outside of Kabul airport on August 26 made the danger all too clear.
As one Afghanistan expert put it, the “Taliban victory presents a remarkable opportunity for these [terrorist] groups to reorganize and threaten the U.S. at home and abroad.” Another warned: “it is virtually certain that Al Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot terrorism against the United States and others.’’ The truth, at this point, is that no one knows if the Taliban has learned lessons from 9/11 and truly changed to the point where it will crack down on extremist groups in its midst. So far, the evidence suggests otherwise.
U.S. Reputation in an Era of Great Power Competition
The departure of the U.S. has been cast as another blemish on its global reputation, in the same vein as the abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria. As some have put it, forces and populations who have supported and worked with U.S. partners are at risk of being abandoned, left to fend for themselves. At the extreme, this has been cast as indicating a hollowness in U.S. commitments abroad, risking undermining current and future alliances (which others doubt). More modestly, it casts doubt on the ability of U.S. foreign policy to accomplish major goals on the world stage against determined, deeply entrenched opponents.
Waiting in the wings are foreign competitors like China and Russia, eager to paint the withdrawal as a long-coming policy failure indicative of a declining superpower—“the collapse of America’s international image and credibility,” according to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua. At the same time, worries about the U.S. ceding substantial opportunity for influence to China are likely overblown. If Afghanistan can somehow play a role in China’s geopolitical machinations, they will have to contend with the country’s instability the same as anyone else. The term “graveyard of empires” remains pertinent, at least insofar as any external power will struggle to impose its will on the country.
Losing Hard-Won Human Gains
The Taliban have decreed Afghanistan to be the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and declared intention to implement Sharia law, indicating that the legal specifics of the new state will be determined by a council of Islamic scholars, not the principles of democracy. Beyond fundamentally changing the decades of nation building undertaken by the U.S., this portends an uncertain future for many, especially women. A Taliban spokesperson “assured women their rights would be respected ‘within the framework of Islamic law,’ adding that women would have the right to education and work.” This would represent an easing of principles imposed by the Taliban’s hardline interpretation of Sunni Islam in the 1990s, when women and girls’ schools were closed and certain professions were closed to women, but no one is sure if the Taliban will follow through.
Source: Council on Foreign Relations
This is a particularly difficult outcome to contend with, as the equal treatment of all people is a fundamental tenet of the democracy-promotion and nation-building work encompassed in the two decades of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Departure, then, is not just inviting an immediate danger to those the Taliban deem as Western collaborators, but also a pained acceptance that millions of lives will be less fair, less equal, and less free.
Support for the withdrawal has deflated somewhat in the last few weeks, amid images of the Taliban seizing U.S. equipment, stowaways falling from aircraft, and Afghans pleading for evacuation. Yet a majority of Americans still seem to support the withdrawal, if not its execution. That Americans can acknowledge the hardship the exit is creating and still support it suggests that the reasons to leave are stronger than those to stay, and perhaps that a continued U.S. presence was unlikely to change the difficult realities being faced today.
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