Will the American war in Afghanistan ever end?
The sad truth of the matter is this 20-year conflict, which has cost the United States over $1 trillion and 2,400 lives, to say nothing of the havoc and suffering it has wreaked on the people of Afghanistan, is no longer of interest to most Americans. Nonetheless, getting out is a pressing objective of American foreign policy today. Joe Biden’s two predecessors promised to do it but were unable to do so.
Biden, surely, will not fail. He faces too many serious national security challenges to waste much more time and resources on a war that has been widely recognized as an unwinnable war by military experts and much of the Washington foreign policy establishment for close to a decade. Besides, he has personally been an advocate for withdrawing American forces from the war for many, many years.
But as the president has already hinted several times, he will not be withdrawing America’s garrison of 3,500 troops by the May 1 deadline specified by the February 2020 agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban. He has sound reasons for leaving U.S. forces in place for a year or so, and perhaps a bit longer.
Prominent among them is that the Trump agreement was a strategic blunder of the first order, promising as it did to remove the main obstacle in the way of a dramatic Taliban military victory in exchange for vague promises to keep al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from operating in territory it controls, halting attacks on American and NATO forces, and agreeing to enter into peace negotiations with the government of President Ashraf Ghani. In a typically self-aggrandizing move, Trump gave away the store in the hopes that he would go down in history as the man who pulled the United States out of its longest war.
A second reason concerns the most likely short term result of a rapid U.S. withdrawal. It would set off a major panic in Kabul, and leave the door wide open for the Taliban to abandon altogether its stalled talks with the current government, which the Biden administration is vigorously attempting to re-energize with a new plan of its own, and attempt to win on the battlefield what it cannot at the negotiating table with the government and with other regional powers: unfettered dominion over the entire the country.
Given the parlous state of the Kabul government and its beleaguered forces’ dependence on American air power to fend off insurgent attacks, such a victory is essentially a foregone conclusion. According to Carter Malkasian, an American military historian who served for several years as a State Department adviser to the government in Kabul and has written extensively about the war there, “there is no doubt that [ a U.S.] withdrawal would spell the end of the Afghan government that the United States has supported for nineteen years.”
One would be hard pressed to find a reputable military analyst to disagree.
Last fall, the Taliban launched a major offensive against government forces around two key cities, Kunduz in the north, and Kandahar, the economic hub of southern Afghanistan, and the spiritual home of the Taliban. The insurgents are now on the verge of overwhelming the defenders in the cities proper. The Taliban and their allies have also driven off beleaguered government forces from their outposts in the rural areas of the country, and cut major roads leading to the capital, Kabul. Today, they control more real estate in the country than any other time since before the October 2001 American invasion. As Antonio Giustozzi, a leading Taliban expert, told The New York Times recently, “Clearly things have gone in the wrong direction. Things have worsened under [Afghan president Ashraf] Ghani. The trend is in the Taliban’s favor.”
Meanwhile, the government in Kabul remains drenched in corruption, dysfunction, and in-fighting. It is largely unresponsive to the needs of its people, and widely seen among Afghanis as hopelessly ineffective. Even with billions of dollars in American military and economic support, it cannot provide Afghans with the most basic asset required of any government: security.
Biden faces an unenviable problem, for which there is no truly good solution: how and when to extricate the U.S. military once and for all from a war that was widely recognized as unwinnable as long as a decade ago but is now on the precipice of being definitively lost on the battlefield.
Pundits and scholars have been comparing the war in Afghanistan to Vietnam for well over a decade, but the comparison has never seemed more grimly apt than today, or more useful in illuminating the moral and political conundrums the Biden administration confronts as it tries to bring an end to American military involvement in Afghanistan with as little damage to American dignity and prestige as possible.
Both Vietnam and Afghanistan have always been “graveyards of empires,” says the renowned diplomatic historian George Herring. Both peoples have been “fiercely resistant to the will of even the most powerful outsider.” And both wars were offshoots of larger global conflicts. Vietnam was a part of the Cold War, while the conflict in Afghanistan has been a part of the Global War on Terror.
Both conflicts were counterinsurgency wars, in which the United States committed itself to establishing an independent, pro-democratic government as a bulwark against the repellant ideology of the insurgents.
The adversaries the United States aimed to defeat in Vietnam and Afghanistan were much better organized and more effective in battle than the forces of America’s local allies. The communists in Vietnam pursued a protracted war policy, in which they suffered hundreds of tactical defeats on the battlefield as they waited for the people of the United States to grow weary of the fighting and the dying, and for the relationship between Saigon and the Washington to grow more and more acrimonious and dysfunctional.
The strategy worked brilliantly.
The Taliban and its allies have pursued a similar strategy of waiting the United States out, secure in the knowledge that once American forces are out of the country, it will be able to overwhelm a weak and fractious administration in Kabul, with or without the encumbrance of peace talks.
In neither war did American policymakers possess even a basic understanding of the society and political culture they were trying to transform. As a result, senior political and military decision-makers in each conflict made a series of strategic blunders, and then compounded their mistakes by lying to the American people, Congress, and to some extent, themselves about the extent of progress being made on the ground.
The “peace agreement” of January 1973 forged by Nixon and Kissinger led to the withdrawal of all remaining American combat forces from Vietnam within a couple of months and established a ceasefire between the Vietnamese combatants. Nixon proclaimed the agreement brought “peace with honor” to the United States. This was largely rhetoric, designed to obscure rather than illuminate what was really going on. The Vietnam peace agreement, it is widely agreed, brought neither peace nor honor. It was little more than a well-choreographed piece of diplomatic fiction to ensure a “decent interval” of time between the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and the fall of South Vietnam—a result that Nixon, Kissinger, and most seasoned observers took as a given by 1972, on the exceptionally sound theory that if South Vietnam couldn’t win with 500,000 American troops, it had no chance whatsoever to survive without them.
Within hours of the 1973 ceasefire, heavy combat erupted between communist and South Vietnamese forces, and continued at greater and lesser levels of intensity until South Vietnam was conquered in a dramatic spring 1975 offensive by 20-plus divisions of the North Vietnamese army.
Thus, the peace agreement ending the American war in Vietnam turned out to be the jump off point for the final phase of the communists’ 30-year struggle to unify all of Vietnam under their rule.
Biden finds himself in the unenviable position of Nixon in 1972, in eerily similar strategic circumstances. Thanks to the grim situation that obtains on the ground in Afghanistan, and to America’s need to put the Afghanistan War behind it and get on with other pressing projects, he has little choice but to try to create a similar interval between the withdrawal of American combat troops and the collapse of the corrupt and dysfunctional regime the United States created way back in the early 2000s.
No one knows the course of the (currently stalled) Afghanistan peace talks will take, but anyone who thinks there is much of a chance that they will lead to a lasting peace with real power sharing between the adversaries hasn’t been reading much about the war in Afghanistan, or the core belief system of the Taliban. In fact, from the perspective of either the Taliban or the government, the recently leaked Biden peace plan does not look very promising, even as a starting point.
The eight-page, double-spaced document contains several provisions that are sure nonstarters for one party or the other, and sidesteps many issues of contention entirely. Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, steadfastly refuses to have his administration replaced by a completely new team of interim government officials—which is the foundational concept of the plan—and the Taliban are hardly going to swallow the call for retaining basic principles and institutions of democratic government, since their medieval vision of Afghan society holds democracy to be both foreign and against the will of God. This is not so much a criticism of the Biden plan as it is a statement about the worldviews and histories of the adversaries in Afghanistan.
And so Joe Biden appears to have no other viable choice than to try to create, through diplomacy, a respectable interval between an American withdrawal and the current government’s demise, under the guise of pursuing a peace process that the vast majority of experts on both the war and the region believe to have less than a whisper of a chance of succeeding in any meaningful sense.
Withdrawing from a lost war is never fun, but someone has to do it. Stephen Walt, a leading U.S. foreign policy scholar at Harvard, puts it well in a recent essay in Foreign Policy: “We can palaver about peace terms and residual forces... as long as we want, but the cold, hard reality is that the United States has lost the war in Afghanistan. All we are debating—whether in talks with the Taliban or in op-ed pages back home—is the size and shape of the fig leaf designed to conceal a major strategic failure in which thousands of lives have been lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered.”