On Tuesday night, the Democratic presidential candidates vied with one another to offer the harshest condemnation of President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria. Joe Biden called it “the most shameful thing that any president has done in modern history … in terms of foreign policy.” Elizabeth Warren said Trump “has cut and run on our allies,” and “created a bigger-than-ever humanitarian crisis.” Kamala Harris announced, “Yet again Donald Trump [is] selling folks out.”
Pete Buttigieg’s denunciation was the most personal. Recalling his military service in Afghanistan, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor asked whether America’s wartime allies would ever trust it again. “When I was deployed,” he declared, “not just the Afghan National Army forces but the janitors put their lives on the line just by working with U.S. forces. I would have a hard time today looking an Afghan civilian or soldier in the eye after what just happened over there” in Syria.
It was a powerful statement—but also an ironic one. Because if Trump’s unilateral, non-negotiated withdrawal from northern Syria makes it harder for Buttigieg to look America’s Afghan allies in the eye, the same might be said of the unilateral, non-negotiated withdrawal that Buttigieg and the other leading Democratic candidates are proposing in Afghanistan itself.
At this week’s debate, Warren explained that the United States should only have withdrawn its troops from northern Syria “through a negotiated solution.” But speaking about Afghanistan last month in Houston, she rejected that very same principle. ABC’s David Muir asked whether she would “bring the [American] troops home starting right now with no deal with the Taliban.” Warren replied, “Yes.”
In Houston, Warren’s rivals also refused to condition America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan on a negotiated deal. When Muir asked Buttigieg whether he would stick to his pledge to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan in his first year despite warnings from top American commanders, Buttigieg ducked the question and insisted that “we have got to put an end to endless war.” Turning to Biden, Muir cited “concerns about any possible vacuum being created in Afghanistan.” But Biden brushed them off, declaring, “We don’t need those troops there. I would bring them home.”
What makes these statements so remarkable is that experts warn that if the United States withdraws its troops from Afghanistan in the absence of a peace agreement, Afghanistan will suffer a fate remarkably similar to what is happening in northern Syria. In this week’s debate, Warren denounced Trump for having “created a bigger-than-ever humanitarian crisis.” But earlier this month, the International Crisis Group warned that, if American troops unilaterally leave Afghanistan, “Afghans could pay a heavy price” as that country’s war “would likely intensify and become more chaotic.” A Rand Corporation report in January predicted that following a unilateral American withdrawal, “civilian deaths will spike, and refugee flows will increase significantly,” and that “the major advances that Afghans have achieved in democracy, press freedom, human rights, women’s emancipation, literacy, longevity, and living standards will be rolled back.” In September, nine former American diplomats with experience in Afghanistan pleaded, “A major withdrawal of US forces should follow, not come in advance of [a] real peace agreement,” or else the United States might “betray all those who have believed our promises or stepped forward with our encouragement to promote democracy and human rights.”
Afghans themselves have offered equally ominous warnings. In February, two Afghan women—Mariam Safi, who runs the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies in Kabul, and Muqaddesa Yourish, a commissioner on Afghanistan’s Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission—predicted that “a hasty American withdrawal will jeopardize for Afghans the future of hard-won gains such as constitutional rights, freedoms of citizens and democratic institutions.” In March, Palwasha Hassan, the executive director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center, urged “a responsible withdrawal that is not at the expense of women’s rights.” And in July, Akram Gizabi, a leader of Afghanistan’s Hazaras, a Shia minority, noted that his people had suffered under the Taliban in “brutal, vicious and unimaginable ways” and that “women and Hazaras [had] thrived after the Taliban.” Now, Gizabi said, Taliban victims “watch with amazement that the United States is busy finding the fastest way out of Afghanistan, while leaving the Afghans to the wolves.”
The parallels between Afghanistan and northern Syria aren’t merely humanitarian. In condemning Trump’s actions in Syria, Warren accused him of having “helped ISIS get another foothold, a new lease on life.” But experts forecast a similar terrorist resurgence if Warren carries out her proposed Afghan withdrawal. Following a unilateral American departure, the Rand report predicts, “extremist groups, including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, [will] gain additional scope to organize, recruit, and initiate terrorist attacks against U.S. regional and homeland targets.” In their joint statement, the nine former American diplomats envision “an Afghan civil war in which the Islamic State (IS) presence could expand its already strong foothold” and “the Taliban would maintain their alliance with al-Qaeda. All of this could prove catastrophic for US national security as it relates to our fight against both al-Qaeda and IS.”
In Houston, Warren suggested that in the absence of American troops, the United States and its allies could combat terrorism in Afghanistan through “economic investment” and by “expanding our diplomatic efforts.” But Rand maintains that, if American troops leave Afghanistan before a peace agreement, the resulting insecurity will spark “the departure of foreign diplomats, aid agency officers, and other civilians,” including “many of Afghanistan’s most educated and capable citizens.”
In another ugly echo of the current chaos in northern Syria, leaving Afghanistan unilaterally could endanger American troops. The International Crisis Group warns that if the U.S. leaves without a deal, the Taliban “might then be unwilling to allow departing U.S. forces safe passage. Those forces might end up fighting their way out.” The thousand or so personnel at the U.S. embassy in Kabul might have to be evacuated from the building by air, as happened in South Vietnam.
There are, of course, differences between Afghanistan and northern Syria. Afghanistan hosts about 14,000 American troops at an annual cost of roughly $45 billion. And in each of the past five years, the Afghan war has claimed roughly 20 American service members’ lives. In northern Syria, where the United States stationed only 1,000 troops prior to Trump’s recent withdrawal, the financial and human costs were lower. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces are battling a homegrown Taliban rebellion (aided by foreign support), whereas the recent bloodshed in northern Syria is largely the result of a foreign invasion by Turkey (aided by local Syrian allies). In Afghanistan, the United States is defending a government it installed when it overthrew the Taliban in 2001. In Syria, by contrast, the United States was, until Trump’s withdrawal, defending an autonomous zone—known as Rojava—that the Kurds carved out themselves, and then expanded with American help during the war against the Islamic State.
If pushed to distinguish their positions on Syria and Afghanistan (which, sadly, didn’t happen at this week’s debate), Democratic candidates might survey these differences and declare that America’s presence in Rojava was sustainable in a way the Afghanistan mission is not. The best argument for a rapid, unconditional American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is also the harshest. It’s that Afghanistan is doomed either way. Rand, the International Crisis Group, and the former diplomats all suggest that, if the United States makes a deal with the Taliban that conditions America’s withdrawal on a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, then Afghanistan might survive an eventual American troop departure without collapsing into civil war and again becoming a terrorist sanctuary. At least Americans won’t have to be ferried off the embassy roof via helicopter.
But to the skeptic, all this sounds suspiciously like Henry Kissinger’s request that the North Vietnamese allow a “decent interval” following America’s departure before conquering Saigon. Since America won’t keep its troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, and since the Afghan army will likely crumble once they leave, neither Washington nor Kabul possesses the leverage to make the Taliban keep its promises, even if there is a peace deal. According to a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War, Afghan warlords are already preparing for the civil war they now expect. So why, leading Democratic presidential candidates might ask, should the United States wait around for a negotiated agreement that is unlikely to make a difference? It’s not worth sacrificing any more American lives and spending tens of billions more dollars to delay for a couple of years—and perhaps reduce from 95 percent to 85 percent—the likelihood that Afghanistan descends into hell.
Intellectually, this is a defensible answer. But it’s not an answer the Democratic candidates can easily give. They can’t give it because Democrats aren’t comfortable with the brutal language of unvarnished national interest. They aren’t comfortable acknowledging tragic tradeoffs between the welfare of ordinary Americans and the welfare of vulnerable people overseas. Donald Trump is. He genuinely doesn’t care what happens to the Kurds or the Afghans—or any other group of people who can’t offer him votes or money or project his image onto the side of a luxury hotel. Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden do care, which is why they found it so easy to offer ferocious moral denunciations of Trump’s Syria policy at this week’s debate. They just don’t care enough to ask Americans to sacrifice to reduce the chances that Syria’s horrors repeat themselves in Afghanistan.
The trauma of America’s post-9/11 wars, and the reduction in America’s resources, are pushing Democrats toward policies of retrenchment that can only be coherently defended in the language of realism, a language few Democrats speak. And because they don’t speak it, the Democratic candidates for president had better hope that no enterprising moderator asks them about Afghanistan and Syria at the same time.