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Disentangling the Disaster in Afghanistan

August 17, 2021

This is a tragedy, but not for the reasons some think.

The day after the Taliban seized Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, I received a few media inquiries. I said it’s horrible that the Taliban have taken over the country, but it was also inevitable; it’s unlikely a sustained US presence would have led to any other outcome. At the same time, there is no excuse for the Biden Administration’s apparent failure to plan for the withdrawal, especially concerning the safety of Afghans who had worked with the United States. I got the sense that wasn’t what they were expecting to hear. They wanted to know whether this would undermine US credibility, whether it would increase terrorist threats.

Meanwhile, others were making much stronger statements than I was. People seemed to be rushing to attack the entire withdrawal, begun before Biden took office. Some compared the scenes from Kabul to the fall of Saigon, calling it a major failure for Biden. My Democratic Lieutenant Governor even issued a tweet of concern that seemed like a veiled attack on the Administration.

It felt as if the media and policy experts were framing this as a disaster set into motion by the Biden Administration, which oversimplifies what really happened. This urge–whether intentional or subconscious–to catastrophize the US withdrawal threatened to obscure the nature of the disaster in Afghanistan and prevent a real debate on what to do next.

What Biden should have done differently

First, the Biden Administration is far from blameless.

They delayed the withdrawal date set under Trump. This left plenty of time to secure or evacuate Afghans who worked with the United States and would likely be under threat if/when the Taliban took over.

Knowing the shakiness of the Afghan political system, they should have been prepared for its collapse under Taliban assault. They should have known the Afghan military would be unable to stand up to the Taliban without US support. The lack of Afghan capabilities may be frustrating, but it was not a surprise. As a result, they should have had a plan in place to respond to a quick Taliban offensive.

Biden (or really his Administration) messed up. But much of what occurred was out of his control.

Instead, they seemed completely caught off guard. Jen Psaki, Biden’s spokesperson, was “out of the office.” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Adviser, had an awkward interview in which he struggled to explain why a helicopter evacuation from the US embassy wasn’t a problem. This is embarrassing for the Biden Administration and for those of us (like me) who’ve spent years trying to defend and build a viable liberal foreign policy.

What Biden could not have avoided

So Biden (or really his Administration) messed up. But much of what occurred was out of his control.

The United States has tried for years to increase the Afghan military’s ability to secure the country on their own. Aid groups and other organizations attempted to establish a functioning economy and political system. To be blunt, none of this worked. We’ll have to figure out why. Some suggest America hadn’t invested enough in the country. Others that military leaders were not making effective use of the resources we gave them. Either way, the Afghan government was not going to survive a US withdrawal.

The problems ran deeper. When the Bush Administration invaded they never planned to stabilize the country. It is possible that a more comprehensive initial mission in Afghanistan could have eliminated the Taliban threat. It’s also possible even that would not have led to a stable and cohesive Afghan state. Again, either way, these were not problems Biden could have solved.

The most important thing America can do now is help the Afghans under threat from the Taliban.

Overall, withdrawal was Biden’s only choice. Staying in Afghanistan would perpetuate an uneasy stalemate at the expense of US lives and resources. That may have been better than an Afghanistan run by the Taliban (I believed this for awhile). But it was not a permanent solution. And as we saw with the way Trump’s attack on “endless wars” resonated, both parties were tiring of the situation.

Why this matters

I worry that US policy experts and media are confusing these aspects of the US withdrawal.

It is fair to criticize Biden for the nature of the withdrawal. I actually think we are obligated to do so, as that will increase the likelihood of quick action on refugees and Afghans who worked with America.

But some of the attacks are broader then that. They seem to indicate we shouldn’t have withdrawn at all. Of course, few specify what the alternatives were. Should we have just kept troops there forever? Was there some other strategy Obama or Bush should have adopted? Were they angry with Trump for negotiating with the Taliban and planning a withdrawal? I worry for some this is just a way to vent about a horrific situation, while for others it’s an easy attack line.

This matters politically for Biden. He may lose Democratic allies rushing to look tough on national security. And it may hurt Democrats in the mid-term elections.

But it will have more important impacts. The most important thing America can do now is help the Afghans under threat from the Taliban. If people focus on attacking Biden rather than figuring out a way to do that, this tragedy will metastasize.

Additionally, America needs to have a real debate on its foreign policy. Since World War II, the bipartisan consensus has been one of American primacy. This has changed in recent years, with both left and right pushing for a more restrained US approach to the world. We’ve seen good and not so good arguments calling for restraint (some of which I’ve discussed here). The withdrawal from Afghanistan was part of an attempt to rein in America’s commitments. If people fall over themselves to condemn Biden over it–instead of recognizing and struggling with the real tradeoffs involved in restraint–we will be stuck in the status quo.

How to shift the discourse

So what can we do to make sure we have the right debate (and take the right action) on Afghanistan?

  • Be clear about what you’re arguing against. Are you upset about the way Biden handled the withdrawal (as I am)? Do you think we should have kept troops there indefinitely? Do you think we shouldn’t have invaded in the first place? Too often arguments get sloppy.
  • Suggest alternatives. People are pointing to tangible ways Biden could have prepared to help people threatened by the Taliban takeover. We’re seeing less of that when it comes to broader critiques. Should Biden have left a small troop presence indefinitely? Should we have committed more troops, maybe on the scale of Vietnam? Without this, it feels like a cynical attack.
  • Keep the focus on the tangible impacts. Maybe America will lose credibility. It’s not clear. Maybe a new al-Qaeda will emerge in Afghanistan, but it’s hard to say. What we do know is that there is a need for refugee admissions to America, and quick action to help Afghans who worked with America. That should be everyone’s priority.

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.