President Joe Biden has been widely criticised for his decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. It was hard not to be shocked by the tragic and chaotic scenes that unfolded in Kabul in recent weeks. But while the withdrawal itself was mismanaged, the reasons for leaving remain strong.
Critics of Biden’s decision argue that the NATO presence was low-cost and sustainable. There was no need to withdraw, they say, because the troop presence was small and there had been no American casualties since 2020. The US has stationed forces in Germany, Japan, and South Korea for decades, so why not in Afghanistan?
This argument is not only wrong, it’s ridiculous.
There were no casualties because of an agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban, which obligated the militant group not to attack NATO forces. If the US had stayed in Afghanistan far beyond the May 2021 deadline stipulated in that deal, the Taliban would have attacked its soldiers. Biden would then have had to send in more troops.
And when we consider Afghan lives – ignored by the critics of withdrawal – casualties are much higher. This has not been a low-cost war for the people of Afghanistan. Thousands of civilians and Afghan security forces were killed and injured year on year. The Taliban has suffered many fatalities, too.
For years the Afghan army had been losing more personnel through death, injury and desertion than it could recruit, while morale was declining. This was all documented in numerous US government reports and news stories. The military’s eventual collapse this summer was a long time in the making.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
There was no equilibrium in Afghanistan. The Taliban had been winning the war. Between 2015 and 2018, the Afghan government’s control of territory dropped from 72 per cent to 54 per cent, after which the US stopped disclosing such data, while also classifying casualty statistics to hide the extent of the losses.
Sustainable? I don’t think so.
There is no comparison between the US effort in Afghanistan and its military presence in Europe or East Asia. As Professor Barnett Rubin observes, the American deployments in Germany and Japan resulted from defeat of the enemy, in South Korea from an armistice following the Korean War.
And, since then, those countries have not been active warzones like Afghanistan. When was the last time American soldiers in South Korea were killed by a suicide bomb? How many troops have had their limbs blown off by IEDs in Germany? How often have US forces in Japan been hit by rockets fired by a militant group that controls half of the country?
Politically, the Afghan war was unsustainable. The government in Kabul was chronically corrupt and dysfunctional. Afghanistan has regularly ranked near the bottom on global corruption indices. Despite lofty western goals of democratisation, the US was propping up a kleptocracy incapable of running the country.
Worse still, every single Afghan election since the 2001 invasion has been marred by credible allegations of fraud. In 2019-20, an election dispute dragged on for months and threatened to escalate into civil conflict, until the US forced the squabbling factions to compromise and form a unity government.
The result of all this was a weak, divided administration, teetering on the brink of collapse. This was exacerbated by the irascible and dictatorial former president Ghani, who alienated ethnic minorities and key power-brokers, while firing competent officials and replacing them with loyalists.
The Afghan economy had also stalled. Afghanistan is a rentier state, largely dependent on external support, with 75 per cent of the government’s budget derived from foreign aid. Those aid flows boosted spending on imports, but barely increased domestic productivity. The result was a gargantuan trade deficit.
Compare that with Germany, Japan, or South Korea, which all became exporting powerhouses under the US security umbrella. To claim that Afghanistan resembles those countries is, quite simply, preposterous, and a lie designed to con people into supporting a failed and futile military occupation.
The percentage of the Afghan population living in poverty rose from 34 per cent to 55 per cent from 2007 to 2017. And, as economic conditions deteriorated and violence increased, more and more people fled the country, contributing to the 2015 refugee crisis. Food insecurity has long been widespread. Narcotics have boomed during the NATO occupation.
Afghanistan was falling apart long before Biden became president. Its government was fragile, its military shrinking, its economy in decline. The idea that the US could have eventually created a South Asian version of Germany if it maintained its troop presence indefinitely is baseless and delusional.
A continued military deployment would, at best, have kept the feeble and thieving Afghan government on life support and kicked the can down the road for another president to again face the unenviable choice of perpetuating failure or calling it quits. But the Afghan state was so weak it might have imploded even with NATO forces still in the country.
While the US was right to withdraw militarily, it must stay engaged in Afghanistan. The first priority is to work with the Taliban and neighbouring countries to ensure the evacuation of remaining Americans and Afghans who helped the US. Given the terrible economic crisis now unfolding, it is also essential to provide humanitarian aid.
The Taliban is under sanctions, which could undermine aid flows and add to the country’s woes. Western governments would be well-advised not to impose new sanctions, and to consider adjusting current measures so as to facilitate aid. Sanctions will not bring down the Taliban regime, which has access to ample revenues from trade and the illicit economy, and will only hurt the long-suffering Afghan people.
The US will also need to devise an effective way of handling terrorism threats in Afghanistan. That is harder without a military footprint, but it should be possible to conduct operations from the Gulf and work with regional countries on a limited basis, even adversaries such as Russia and China which share US concerns about militant groups.
America’s domestic security and counter-terrorism capabilities are far greater than they were before 9/11 and it does not need to permanently occupy foreign countries to defend itself. Besides, the NATO military effort in Afghanistan did not expunge terrorist groups, which continued to launch horrific mass-casualty attacks throughout the war.
It would be folly for foreign governments to recognise the Taliban regime any time soon. Recognition should be used as an incentive to encourage the Taliban to curtail terrorism and curb human rights abuses. If the group surpasses expectations and delivers results in those areas, then its government could eventually be recognised. But not yet.
Some have opined that the Afghan withdrawal is a symptom of America’s retreat from the world. But this is false. Biden’s decision to end a costly and unwinnable intervention that lasted twice as long as the disastrous Soviet war is rational and responsible, not a sign of reckless “isolationism”, as John Major has said.
US allies in Asia appear to be unconcerned by the departure from Afghanistan and retain confidence in American leadership. In his first months in office, Biden has taken firm measures to counter China and there is zero indication of a reduced commitment to the Indo-Pacific region: quite the opposite.
The US withdrawal is in fact bad news for China and Russia, which are geographically much closer to Afghanistan and more exposed to the problems it generates. For years they have counted on NATO to eliminate terrorist threats, but must now take greater responsibility for the country’s security.
Washington, finally removed from a costly occupation, can devote more of its resources to strategic competition with its rivals.
The author is a freelance journalist specialising in South Asia.