Exit Strategy

Soldiers in Afghanistan
Seamus Murphy / VII / Redux

In important aspects of foreign and national-security policy, the Biden administration is really the Trump administration but with civilized manners. In no respect is that more true than in the president’s announcement of a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11 of this year, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that brought the United States to that country’s stark mountains, fruitful valleys, and dusty towns.

There is little point in debating whether the move is correct: There is no abstract ideal of a policy, only that which can be successfully executed by those charged with so doing at a given moment. The Afghan War has lacked high-level American commitment for years now. If there is any surprise, it is that for eight years of Barack Obama and four years of Donald Trump, the United States persisted in a conflict that most senior officials in those administrations regarded with pessimism and distaste.

This cannot be a moment for final judgment about America’s Afghan war—we are simply too close to make measured assessments. But we can make preliminary, if uncomfortable, judgments, and embark on morally and strategically prudent policies.

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This is not the end of the war; it is merely the end of its direct American phase. The war began more than four decades ago, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and its first American phase, in the 1980s, featured indirect United States intervention on behalf of the anti-Soviet mujahideen. The war will assuredly last well beyond the American exit. There will be no power-sharing, no reconciliation, no peace of the brave.

The war will grind on, with the edge going to the brutal fundamentalist warriors of the Taliban, who will torture and slaughter even as they repeal the advances made in women’s education and secularism in any form. But they will not have it all their own way. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, and the Central Asian republics have their own stakes in this war, and not all of them want to see an outright Taliban victory. So they will fund clients and proxies, as will, in all likelihood, the United States. And the people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer.

The American temptation to declare victory and walk away helped enable the rise of the Taliban after Soviet forces evacuated Afghanistan; the temptation to declare defeat and do the same may have similar consequences. Afghanistan will remain the cockpit of Great Power rivalries, as well as the home to a toxic and unrepentant Islamic fundamentalism that previously sheltered al-Qaeda, a movement that is not dead, and that may even gain some energy from this outcome.

The United States will be able to pick sides in the conflict, a luxury it does not now have. For decades it has been subject to implicit and explicit Pakistani threats to choke the supply lines running to American forces in Afghanistan. Once the withdrawal eliminates Pakistan’s hold on its logistics, the United States can and should more freely support India’s efforts to protect its own interests in Afghanistan. The United States can similarly play off the Russians against the Chinese, who do not necessarily want the same things there.

But strategic freedom will come at the cost of strategic reputation. It is not possible simply to walk away from a war one has been committed to and pay no penalty, even if the penalty is less than the cost of continuing to fight. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the Great Power that knows Afghanistan best from its own experience, Russia, is now testing Western resolve by mobilizing forces on the Ukrainian frontier. The price of an Afghan exit, in other words, may be the need to show military determination in other hot spots in Eastern Europe or the Far East.

The Afghan exit will also come with a moral cost, which honesty should compel Americans to acknowledge and act upon. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans, if not more—interpreters and helicopter pilots, schoolteachers and bureaucrats—have thrown in their lot with us. Americans owe them something. It takes a moderate amount of resolve to pull out of Afghanistan; it will take more to belatedly welcome Afghan refugees to the United States, as we did with Vietnamese refugees. And the Vietnamese example suggests that the people fleeing Afghanistan will be as hardworking, patriotic, and productive a group of citizens as any other Americans, foreign or native-born.

Opening American doors is a matter of this moment. Passing historical judgment on the meaning of America’s Afghan war is something best deferred for a decade. The temptation will be to blame it all on an ur-mistake, be it going to Afghanistan to begin with (a move that few opposed) or showing a fatal lack of will (was there evidence of anything but regression on the battlefields in recent years?).

Despite the old saw, it is not victory but rather defeat that has many fathers. The initial light-footprint invasion that allowed Osama bin Laden to escape, a poorly conceived and externally imposed constitutional order, a failure to invest human and material resources in developing Afghan military forces, a reluctance to recognize erosion in security, a “surge” that could only reduce American endurance in a long-haul war, repeated signaling to Afghan partners that we were willing to abandon them—the list of mistakes is long and instructive. It bears study.

But Americans should remember that they were often not the most important actors on the scene. The Pakistani and other secret services, the Europeans, the Russians, and, yes, the Afghans themselves made their decisions and did consequential things. There were abler and weaker leaders, contingent events, and good decisions badly executed as well as bad ones vigorously put into effect. Sorting these out is the proper job of historians, not the contemporaries who will most assuredly get it wrong because of preconceived notions, partisan bias, or desire for vindication of previously held positions. Above all, Americans will never know what the consequences would have been of not acting—although the Syrian civil war, with all its ripples through the Middle East, may be a suggestive example to consider.

This is, then, a humbling moment for the United States. It is a moment of relief for the parents of servicemen and servicewomen who would otherwise deploy to a war in which their politicians do not believe. It should be a moment of reflection for the leaders of institutions that performed less well than they ought to have. It is a moment for diplomats to rebalance and reconfigure elements of American foreign policy. And it is most definitely a moment of moral responsibility. If Americans take that responsibility seriously, welcoming to freedom and citizenship those who put their faith in American words, American commitments, and American ideals, then something redeeming will be saved from the wreck of a decent cause.