Brief # 103
What is the Biden administration doing in Afghanistan?
By Will Solomon
The War in Afghanistan is the longest running war in US history; this October will mark the 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion. Despite limited successes, the war has broadly been a failure. The Taliban remain active and in control of much of Afghanistan, and likely will return to power in some form in the event of a US withdrawal. The state is deeply unstable, corruption is endemic, and new terror groups—including the Islamic State—remain active. The strategic objectives of the two-decade long war have not been achieved, and the US remains mired in a sort of stalemate.
While other issues overshadowed the 2020 election, the Biden administration came into office with this reality fully clear—and pledged, during the campaign, to end the war. Indeed, Biden inherited from his predecessor an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by May of this year. However, it has been unclear whether Biden intends to stick to this timetable, and many in his orbit are opposed to the agreement.
All this begs the question—if the United States is mired in an unwinnable war, and American soldiers’ presence is effectively the sole guarantor of the current regime not collapsing—what is this country doing in Afghanistan?
The thorniness of the question has deep parallels in US history—Vietnam, and Iraq, to name the obvious. As with Iraq in particular, the US also has a long history of meddling in Afghanistan, including supplying and promoting the forces it now seeks to defeat.
The obvious reality now is that the US cannot “win” this war in any meaningful way. It is also true, as critics of a US withdrawal point out, that without US military support the current Afghan government may fall to the Taliban, meaning the country would be a similar position to where it was on the eve of the US invasion. These critics argue that we should not sacrifice the “progress” that has been made in the intervening two decades—in women’s rights, representative democracy, etc.
So what exactly should we do?
While improvements in some aspects of the social situation in Afghanistan are real, they have come at the price of perpetual instability, an unfathomable civilian death toll—including heinous war crimes, committed by and with support from the United States, deeply rooted corruption, and an expanding drug trade. As was revealed in detail in the Afghanistan Papers, the US government has systematically lied about the course and status of the war.
At this point, it’s unclear what the United States can meaningfully do about the war, outside of withdrawing in an organized fashion. This is especially true given that the divide is increasingly between those who insist on a withdrawal, and those who would be content with a US military presence in that country in perpetuity.
This said, a recent article in Foreign Policy suggests that Biden may be attempting to facilitate a sort of power-sharing agreement between the current Afghan government and the Taliban. This suggests one sort of “compromise” to the current situation. While it’s frankly difficult to see this holding up long-term, without US troops in the country, a more organized withdrawal than the sort undertaken by the Trump administration—in Syria, for instance—might help lessen the impact of the United States leaving.
All this said, it must be made clear: it is long past time for the United States to exit this war. The US presence in Afghanistan is doing more harm than good, both in the Greater Middle East, and in this country. Ideally withdrawal will be completed in an organized fashion and obviously, the US should support all diplomatic efforts, including working with NATO and the UN, to help stabilize the country upon its withdrawal and end violence. But the US remaining in Afghanistan adds fuel to the fire, and it is time to leave.
https://quincyinst.org — “The Quincy Institute is an action-oriented think tank that will lay the foundation for a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. The current moment presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together like-minded progressives and conservatives and set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing.”
https://www.democracynow.org — “Democracy Now! produces a daily, global, independent news hour hosted by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González. Our reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues.”
https://aboutfaceveterans.org — “We are Post-9/11 service members and veterans organizing to end a foreign policy of permanent war and the use of military weapons, tactics, and values in communities across the country.”