Biden will withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan — But this is not the end of the war

Biden will withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021

President Biden will announce his plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan over the coming months. This withdrawal deadline will mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the Twin Towers in New York. While this would extend the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline negotiated by the Trump administration, and well into the summer “fighting season.” However, it would be too short a period to create a serious incentive for the Taliban to agree to meaningful concessions in the ongoing peace process.

At present there are approximately 3500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan (which in DoD math is counted as 2500), with about another 7000 NATO and partner forces. The withdrawal of U.S. troops would necessitate the withdrawal of these other foreign forces as well, leaving the Afghan government on its own to fend off the Taliban.

The Biden administration has decided against using a “conditions-based” approach–an approach which most analysts believe is the most likely to result in a favorable outcome. According to a senior administration official, “The president has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.” Instead, he will withdraw U.S. troops according to a logistics-informed timeline that will result in the removal of all U.S. combat forces by September 11, 2021.

The delay beyond will allow time for the U.S.’s NATO and other international partner forces to withdraw in a measured, intentional fashion. It does however, effectively force them to follow the same policy as the U.S. since most rely on U.S. logistics to move major equipment.

The Afghan government will struggle

As pointed out by the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School,

… the 2021 threat assessment report from U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that a peace deal with the Taliban was unlikely in the next year, and that the Taliban would make battlefield gains. “The Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” the report said. The report released Tuesday did not contain an assessment of the likelihood of a return of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan, and some senior officials remain skeptical the Taliban would allow it. The report did say that Afghan government forces continued to hold major cities, but they have been “tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory.” 

This is not the end of the war, but a moment of humility

As Eliot Cohen argues in the Atlantic, “This is not the end of the war; it is merely the end of its direct American phase …. 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.”

He goes on to say, “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.”

However, the U.S. is unlikely to be fully done with Afghanistan. Given the precarious balance of power in Afghanistan and the continued interest of various regional and global powers (including the U.S.), the fighting in Afghanistan will continue for the foreseeable future. This move will give the Taliban a clear edge in the fight, but history shows that a central government in Afghanistan can hold off a concerted insurgency nearly indefinitely if it has enough international support. And since enough international powers want to avoid an outright Taliban victory, that support will likely be forthcoming.

So the war will grind on. The U.S. will send in troops again at some point, either as it did in scale in Iraq after its 2011 withdrawal and the subsequent rise of ISIS, or as it regularly does in smaller increments in Somalia to tamp down the terrorist cells that have taken root in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal in 1993. And as Cohen points out, we should not forget that it was the American penchant to declare success and go home that enabled the rise of the Taliban in the first place.

If we had been more honest with ourselves about the responsibilities that the U.S. was taking on when we toppled the Taliban, things would have been different. If we recognized that we would be taking on the role of patron (an enduring role) rather than “liberator” (a short-term role), we could have structured our aid and our military campaigns in such a way as to make progress not only more feasible, but also more durable. Lets be honest: Afghanistan was never going to be self-sufficient, given its political, demographic, and geographic position. What remains to be seen now is whether and how the U.S. will continue its role as patron, or if that role will be taken up by another regional or global power.

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