He argued that the original goal of disabling a terrorist threat against the homeland was accomplished. (“We did that,” he said bluntly.) He promised to avoid a “hasty” exit and cooperation with allies while “reorganizing our counterterrorism capability” to “monitor and disrupt” terrorist networks in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Those who have long advocated an end to “forever wars” are delighted; critics insist it is reckless and morally questionable to leave the Afghan people in the lurch when the costs and risks of keeping some 3,000 troops there were low. Perhaps it is time for some long-overdue humility.
Many people in the mainstream media and at think tanks have made plenty of mistakes about foreign policy over the past few decades. What seemed logically sound at the time often turned out to be tragically wrong. This includes the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the promise that capitalism would bring political liberalization in China, the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a reformer and the notion that Israel had to make peace with the Palestinians before improving relations with Arab states.
The left never expected the fall of the Soviet Union. Conservatives (including me at the time) predicted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would lead to massive cheating by Iran and inevitable confrontation; instead, it largely worked. The right insisted leaving the deal in favor of a maximum-pressure campaign would bring Iran to its knees; others (including me) warned that for all its faults, the deal had curtailed Iran’s nuclear program and that we had no better alternative. Sure enough, maximum pressure was futile, and Iran not only expanded its nuclear program but increased its aggressive actions in the region and its human rights atrocities at home.
It should surprise no one that the same people who misread many if not all of these events have impassioned views on Biden’s decision to pull the plug on a military presence in Afghanistan. We have watched the intransigence of the Taliban in talks, its ongoing attacks on civilians and its refusal to renounce al-Qaeda, as well as the fate of weak regimes in places such as Iraq and Vietnam after we departed. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan could well trigger the collapse of its regime, the ascendency of the Taliban, the return of terrorist bases and the return of fundamentalist rule that will reduce women once again to the status of chattel.
My colleague David Ignatius aptly sums up the worst-case scenario: “The downside is easy to imagine: a spiral of violence in which provincial capitals fall, one by one, leading to a deadly battle for Kabul — a fight in which the people who believed most in the United States’ intervention will be at greatest risk, and pleading for help.” It is, to say the least, a high-risk proposition that replaces the low-risk proposition of leaving a small contingent of U.S. troops on the ground for training and intelligence-gathering.
Nevertheless, critics of this move ought to recognize that the track record of foreign-policy predictions over the few decades has been rotten. Pundits tend to underestimate uncertainty (e.g., questionable evidence of weapons of mass destruction), inaptly apply lessons from one society to an entirely different one (e.g., the Arab Spring turned out to be a bust) and overestimate the degree to which the past is prelude to the future. The certitude of critics often looks inversely proportional to their track record of accuracy.
It is possible, after all, that after 20 years, the Afghan regime is better able to withstand the Taliban; that women’s rights are sufficiently secure to avoid a return to the Dark Ages; that the populace will no longer tolerate strict Islamist rule; and that the United States can keep an eye out for signs the terrorists have reconstituted themselves as a threat to our homeland. The administration may have correctly assessed (in what appears to be a methodical, thoughtful process) that the terrorist threat is more diffuse and less likely to resemble the pre-9/11 situation when terrorist camps congregated in Afghanistan. This may seem Pollyanna-ish, but it might turn out to be accurate — or accurate enough to avoid the worst-case scenarios.
Likewise, it is also possible we underestimate the benefits of withdrawal. The New York Times’s David E. Sanger writes, “If Mr. Biden can truly focus the country on far bigger strategic challenges — in space and cyberspace, against declining powers like Russia and rising ones like China — he will have finally moved the country out of its post-9/11 fixation, where counterterrorism overrode every other foreign policy and domestic imperative.”
So while I do not agree with the decision to withdraw all troops, I have a deep appreciation for the media’s collective inability to predict how things will play out. It is not for nothing that generals are accused of perpetually “fighting the last war.” While hot takes are the currency of cable TV and social media, on this we might all benefit from a large serving of humility. In any case, we should all pray that Biden made the correct call. Heaven help the people of Afghanistan — and the West — if he did not.