In April, when President Biden announced his intention to end the United States’ military mission in Afghanistan, he told Americans and the world, “We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit. We’ll do it responsibly, deliberately and safely.” Four months later, the U.S.-backed government has fallen in a matter of days; Afghan citizens, embassy staffs and members of international development organizations have been left scrambling toward the airport. In an address last month, Biden said, “It’s up to Afghans to make the decision about the future of their country.” But by suddenly severing U.S. support for Afghanistan’s military, he took that decision for the Afghan people — and handed them over to the Taliban.
He has justified this in the most disingenuous terms. Hearing his statements, you would be forgiven for thinking the U.S. was getting itself out of another Vietnam War: fantastically dangerous and expensive, achieving nothing, and impossible to sustain. But in truth, U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan formally ended in 2014; troop levels had decreased to about 2,500; and there have been no American combat fatalities since February 2020.
When he became president, Biden took over a relatively low-cost, low-risk presence in Afghanistan that was nevertheless capable of protecting the achievements of the previous 20 years.
Clearly, Afghanistan wasn’t a self-sustaining, Western-style democracy, but it had come a long way since the initial intervention. When I first saw Kabul in 2001, the city was a ghost town filled with bombed-out buildings and abandoned cars. Close to 4 million Afghan refugees were outside the country, having fled civil war and Taliban rule. Walking in the winter of 2001-2002 from Herat to Kabul, I found no electricity for hundreds of miles. Some of the Afghans I met were unable to accompany me for even a few miles because they were in armed conflict with their neighbors. In many villages, only a single man could read. When I became sick, the nearest clinic was a three-day walk away and had no drugs. Many villages had been burned by the Taliban, salt sown into the fields and the population driven across the border into Iran. One in eight children died before the age of 5. For rural areas, the administrative state didn’t exist. Afghans dreamed of having a say in who governed them, of having opportunities for education, of better access to health care and, above all, of escaping years of violence, in which they had lurched from communist dictatorship to Taliban brutality.
This was a country so fractured that it was unrealistic to think that the United States and its allies could completely transform it, even in two decades. Government corruption, demoralized police and poor overall security made basic governance almost impossible. It was unrealistic to think that the Taliban could be defeated in rural areas because it had support across the border from Pakistan, and its leaders were able to exploit deep-seated ethnic and religious grievances, particularly in the south, against a weak central government. But Osama bin Laden had been killed, across the border in Pakistan. The light U.S.-led international presence was able to prevent a Taliban takeover; to disrupt, if not eliminate, the terrorist threat from the country; and to continue to help improve the quality of life for Afghans: increasing life expectancy, improving access to clean water, and transforming educational and work opportunities, particularly for girls and women.
And Biden understood all this when he was vice president.
He was the Obama administration’s principal advocate for the late-coming but eventually successful approach of a smaller coalition presence in Afghanistan. In 2009, he argued against the Obama administration’s grudging consensus, which eventually ramped troop levels to about 100,000. Biden wanted to reduce the American presence and adopt a narrower counterterrorism approach (as opposed to a wider counterinsurgency approach), reducing the U.S. presence to a few troops, garrisoned in bases, and advising and training Afghan forces to take over most combat responsibilities themselves, which they ultimately did.
Biden lost the argument at that time to figures such as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and President Barack Obama himself. By the end of Obama’s presidency, however, Biden’s preferred strategy had largely been adopted — if only by default. So long as the United States and other members of the NATO alliance provided strategic command structures and air support from their bases, the Afghan security forces were able to contain the Taliban in rural areas and protect major cities. The lighter American footprint was sufficient also to preserve the fragile stability of Afghanistan while sustaining some remarkable progress, which changed the lives of many Afghans.
But instead of acknowledging that he had inherited the light footprint for which he had argued, Biden and his team pretended it was still 2009 and presented his decision to withdraw as freeing Americans from the high-casualty, budget-breaking operations of a “forever war.” He made little effort to explain how moderate the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan has been in recent years, how much had been achieved, or how much the coalition was protecting. Even though Afghanistan wasn’t the issue on which the 2020 presidential election was contested, the president appears to have looked at the polls and sensed this narrative appealed to voters. Within three months of taking office, he timed the pullout to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary.
Two decades of multilateral cooperation and, in many individual cases, long-standing relationships of respect and trust have been shattered. Livelihoods, protection for women and the government itself have collapsed, all within a matter of days. Afghans, particularly those who have worked with the coalition, are in mortal danger. The younger, educated Afghans in Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul, who have become as much part of the modern world as their peers in nearby India or Indonesia, have been abandoned to their fate.
This catastrophe could have been forestalled by sustaining the modest military presence. But the United States has been reduced to flailing to provide after-the-fact humanitarian assistance, hurriedly processing refugee visa applications for fleeing Afghans and supposedly delivering “over-the-horizon” intelligence and air support.
Biden was right to question the unworkable aims of the early intervention. But by the time he became president, he inherited exactly the footprint for which he had argued, and with it an opportunity to demonstrate that the United States could find an alternative to the extremes of over-intervention and total withdrawal, with a sustainable long-term role supporting American allies. Instead, he embraced a policy largely indistinguishable from former president Donald Trump’s isolationism, leaving with no adequate transition in place, apparently indifferent to the horror in its wake. Unrealistic optimism has been replaced by naive and unrealistic pessimism. Afghanistan and American foreign policy interests have been cruelly, recklessly and unnecessarily betrayed.