The Biden administration’s plan to pull all American soldiers out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 was a good strategic move that required a lot of political bravery. The administration rightly judged that continuing the US military presence in Afghanistan has become a strategic burden and a pointless investment that has lost its potential to change the country’s core political and military dynamics. That is not to say that when the US military leaves Afghanistan, desired political and security changes will occur. However, the risk of a more intense, perhaps highly divided, and deadly civil war exists, and the Taliban’s formal rise to power will wreak havoc on the country’s democratic system.
Afghanistan’s harsh realities
The administration’s decision is based on the understanding that continuing US military participation would not change these dynamics, and that military, financial, diplomatic, and leadership resources would be better invested elsewhere. Despite this, the administration’s announcement contained some major tactical errors.
The US has not succeeded in its aim of defeating the Taliban. On the battlefield, the Taliban has been gradually ascending to power for several years. It is on track to become Afghanistan’s most powerful political movement and a key player in any future Afghan administration.
The presence of US troops has delayed, but not stopped, the Taliban’s military and political successes. Since 2015, the United States’ strategy in Afghanistan has been to hope that the Taliban would make enough strategic mistakes to defeat them on the battlefield.
Furthermore, maintaining a US military presence in Afghanistan until a peace agreement is reached ignores the fact that any genuine discussions in the context of the ground realities necessitate the Afghan government ceding significant authority to the Taliban. Naturally, the Afghan government did not want to do so and had no interest in really engaging with the Taliban.
Kabul has no motivation to engage as long as the United States was willing to stay militarily and prop up the Afghan government. In contrast, a definite US pullout timetable, which Trump and now Biden have stated, encourages the Taliban to wait until after US forces have left and the Taliban has gained more authority before negotiating.
Supporters of a long-term presence argue that the US exit is not sudden; rather, it has been indicated frequently over the past decade. In 2014, for example, the Obama administration was on the verge of reducing its military presence to that of an embassy. The Afghan government and political elites, on the other hand, have rejected the repeated warnings, expecting instead to trap the US in an open-ended military commitment that would last for years or decades until the Taliban was severely weakened.
The Biden administration was accurate in its assessment that the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan now is lower than that emanating from other regions of Africa and the Middle East. Al-Shabab, for example, is rapidly growing in Somalia, and the group maintains a strong commitment to al-Qaida. Even if the Taliban refuses to cut ties with al-Qaida, the threat posed by the Taliban is not comparable to the terrorist threats directed at the United States and its allies from other parts of the world.
Even though Washington sold the Afghanistan mission to them as one of defensive patrolling, state-building, and economic development, the US has been urging NATO allies under the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to devote more military forces to Afghanistan and leave their bases to engage in offensive counterterrorism actions for years. While NATO allies rely on the US for information, surveillance, reconnaissance, and logistics, they are increasingly concerned about the withdrawal. The possibility of Afghan refugees, as well as the anticipated deterioration of security and political dispensation in Afghanistan, presents major internal political challenges for them. However, extending the withdrawal deadline from May 1 to September offers NATO allies more time to plan a smooth exit from Afghanistan.
A significant tactical mistake.
Despite being correct in its fundamental strategic choice, the Biden administration committed a huge miscalculation by revealing the new departure schedule only days before a planned Istanbul summit on Afghanistan. The summit had been a huge diplomatic challenge. The US and the international community wasted a lot of diplomatic resources on a hasty and undercooked attempt, further undermining the Afghan government and exacerbating contentious tendencies among the Afghan elite.
Needless to say, the Taliban said that they will not participate in any peace talks until all international forces have left Afghanistan. This tactical miscalculation by the United States will be expensive to American and international diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan in the future.
The US must stay involved in these initiatives and continue to push for power-sharing in Afghanistan. It should continue to provide Afghan security forces with financial, intelligence, and maybe other forms of remote assistance.
Regardless of the chastening withdrawal, the ability to dissolve imprudent commitments and divert resources to more important priorities is a core characteristic of great power, and the Biden administration has demonstrated this ability.