Since the fall of Kabul on August 15, U.S. President Joe Biden and his top advisers have advanced four main claims to justify the decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan and to deflect criticism of the disastrous outcome. They have said that the mission in Afghanistan was unsustainable without a dramatic escalation of U.S. forces. They have argued that they had no choice but to honor an agreement that the administration of President Donald Trump reached with the Taliban that required the United States to withdraw its military forces from the country. They have lamented that Afghanistan’s military was unwilling to fight the Taliban. Finally, they have claimed that the administration “planned for every contingency” but that chaos was unavoidable.
None of those things are true—and Biden knows it. His cynical defense of a failed policy and its inept execution are only adding to the damage caused by this catastrophe.
A HOLLOW DEFENSE
The administration’s case that the status quo was unsustainable rests on two premises. The first is that the Taliban were inexorably gaining ground and could have been pushed back only with large additions of U.S. military forces. The second is that the only thing preventing U.S. casualties was the agreement that the Trump administration had made with the Taliban.
On the inevitability of a Taliban victory, perhaps one should credit the group’s own view of its chances: “We have achieved a victory that wasn’t expected,” remarked the Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar after Kabul fell. The fact is that until relatively recently, Afghan security forces had held their own against the Taliban, even as U.S. and allied forces stepped back from direct participation in the fighting. As recently as 2018, the Taliban controlled only four percent of Afghanistan’s territory—just 14 largely rural districts out of 419 total. Meanwhile, 122 districts had no Taliban presence at all. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, until at least mid-2020, Afghan national security forces were growing stronger and more capable of doing the fighting that the United States wanted done but didn’t want to do itself.
American casualties dropped not because the Taliban stood down but because the Afghan military stood up.
What accounts for the reversal of fortunes that saw the Taliban gain momentum and the Afghan military weaken? First, corruption in the Afghan state eroded public trust in the government, encouraged greater support for the Taliban, and even funded the insurgency. As the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction concluded in a 2016 report, “corrupt officials at all levels of government victimized and alienated the Afghan population. Substantial U.S. funds found their way to insurgent groups.” Worse yet, Washington was fully complicit in the Afghan government’s decadence: according to the Afghanistan expert Sarah Chayes, who advised the U.S. military for many years, the Obama administration made a conscious policy choice to permit corruption, because it was so pervasive among the very Afghan political leaders on whom Washington’s strategy relied.
Corruption wasn’t uniquely or particularly a military problem; corruption among Afghan police was far more problematic. But the Afghan government inflated its military budget by putting “ghost soldiers” on its payrolls, allowing corrupt officials to skim $300 million. The Afghanistan expert Carter Malkasian observed as early as 2009 that corruption led to many Afghan troops not getting paid, with predictably damaging consequences for morale. Still, corruption coexisted with progress, and the United States managed to limit the harm caused by graft by depositing money directly into the bank accounts of Afghan soldiers.
That progress, however, evaporated with the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban and the Biden team’s decision to adhere to it. The deal humiliated the Afghan government, which was excluded from the negotiations but was required to release around 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters as part of the agreement. The deal badly damaged morale in the Afghan military and among the police, since Washington secured a promise from the Taliban to cease targeting U.S. personnel but won no such concession for Afghan forces. It is not uncommon for Washington to negotiate with adversaries without the participation of U.S. allies that will be affected by the result. But the agreement with the Taliban allowed adversaries to attack U.S. allies without any risk of retribution—a concession without any clear precedent in U.S. history.
The Biden administration has asserted that repudiating the agreement would have caused an explosion of violence in Afghanistan, necessitating an escalation of U.S. military involvement. Yet even if that were true, the Afghan government and Afghan soldiers—and not American forces—would have borne the brunt of it, and they were willing to do so. For them, continuing the fight with limited U.S. backing would have been far preferable to the current situation. And if coupled with redoubled efforts to reduce corruption, a continuation of the U.S. military mission would have improved the Afghan government’s public standing. Biden has suggested that he had no choice but to proceed with the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban. But such circumspection doesn’t appear to have constrained him from reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement or from seeking to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump walked away.
It is hard to overstate the damage to U.S. credibility wreaked by this fiasco.
Biden’s contention that his administration “planned for every contingency” has been fully exploded by finger-pointing leaks from within his own administration. And anyone watching the botched exodus from Kabul can see that the administration was unprepared for this outcome, even though intelligence agencies and diplomats had been warning for months about the prospect of a rapid disintegration. Seeing American civil society organizations mobilize to help evacuate Americans and Afghans who worked with U.S. forces has been heartening but should not have been necessary. Biden claims that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani pleaded with him not to evacuate Americans and Afghans who worked with them earlier. But if, as Biden also contends, chaos was inevitable and the timetable for withdrawal was already set and in motion, there was little reason for him to defer to Ghani’s request. American veterans organizations had been pushing for months to get more people out; in mid-July, the U.S. embassy in Kabul also advocated accelerating the evacuation.
Finally, Biden’s shameful disparagement of the Afghan security forces ignores the reality about who has done most of the fighting and dying in this war. As the writer and veteran of the Afghan war Elliot Ackerman stingingly points out, “as much as we’ve heard about Afghans giving up the fight, we should not forget who was the first to leave the battlefield: It was us.” Although every casualty is cause for grief, it has been the Afghan security forces who have borne the brunt of losses since at least 2007. Negotiations with the Taliban carried out by the Trump administration and the Biden administration are not the reason that U.S. casualties dropped; in truth, the United States has suffered relatively few casualties since 2014, when Afghan forces took over primary responsibility for direct combat operations against the Taliban. American casualties dropped not because the Taliban stood down but because the Afghan military stood up.
It is hard to overstate the damage to U.S. credibility wreaked by this fiasco. Biden’s cynical self-justifications have not acknowledged the commitment of the other 36 countries with troops in Afghanistan nor how Washington’s accelerated abandonment of the country has made it harder for those countries to pull out safely and justify the mission to their publics. These countries have spent 20 years in Afghanistan not primarily because they consider Afghanistan essential to their security but because they consider the United States essential to their security. The disastrous withdrawal will make it harder for Washington to put together such coalitions in the future. And after the U.S. surrender to the Taliban, it will be hard for anyone to take seriously the Biden administration’s posturing about promoting human rights and defending democracy—which are supposedly central features of Biden’s foreign policy.
The Taliban’s success in Afghanistan will encourage jihadis everywhere. Whether the Taliban are brazen enough to provide direct support to jihadis probably depends on their calculation of Washington’s willingness to reengage in Afghanistan. A Taliban regime would be able to withstand one-off U.S. airstrikes; the group endured much worse when the United States had forces in country. And the Taliban can reliably bank on Biden’s likely refusal to do more. The administration’s claims that the United States will maintain the ability to carry out counterterrorism operations inside Afghanistan are unlikely to deter jihadis, given the limits on U.S. intelligence that will be the inevitable consequence of ending the U.S. military presence there.
It is true that Afghanistan is a marginal U.S. interest. The Afghan war wasn’t a central front in a conflict between great powers, comparable to Germany during the Cold War. It was more akin to Korea in 1950 or to Vietnam in the 1960s. It is also true that the United States dramatically overreacted to the threat of terrorism after 9/11, diverting the country’s trajectory and squandering both hard and soft power with its policy choices. U.S. interests would have been better served and American power better sustained by limiting the objectives in Afghanistan and not invading Iraq.
But none of that reduces the unnecessary damage that Biden has inflicted on Afghans, on U.S. allies, on his own broader foreign policy agenda, and on American power. The Biden team made costly choices and is counting on public apathy to prevent any political blowback at home, even calculating that the horrifying images of Afghans desperate to flee the country will eventually benefit the president politically. Reputations matter in international politics, and the Biden administration has just earned a bad one.