Balancing the Risks and Rewards of Withdrawal

There are plenty of good reasons—or defensible ones, at least—for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan. The war isn’t going well for the Afghan government, and there is little hope of decisively turning the tide. The pull of competing priorities such as an ever-more dangerous rivalry with China is strong and getting stronger. The war often feels like the residue of an American preoccupation with the threats of a receding era rather than the threats of the emerging era. The human and financial costs of the war would probably go up if the Taliban began attacking American forces after a U.S. refusal to withdraw.

Yet most of these assertions, or variants of them, have been true for a long time. When Barack Obama announced his Afghan surge in 2009, he acknowledged that conditions in the country were grim: “The Taliban has gained momentum” and the Afghan government was losing ground. It has been clear, since the end of the George W. Bush years, that the primary focus of American national security policy should be the dangers posed not by Afghanistan but by the country next door—a rising and increasingly assertive China. The costs of the war were much higher in 2005, or 2010, or even 2015 than they are today.

So why is Washington undertaking a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan only now?

The easy answer is politics: Presidents Obama and Trump surely feared paying some electoral cost for admitting defeat in that war. But the obvious follow-up question is, “Why would there be a political cost associated with ending a long, frustrating war?” The reason was fear of the real security consequences that might follow.

For years, it has seemed unlikely that the Afghan government would survive an American withdrawal. As Carter Malkasian, America’s sharpest observer of the war (and my colleague at Johns Hopkins SAIS), has written, the upshot of retrenchment would probably be a Taliban takeover of most of the country—or, perhaps, a return to the all-out civil war of the 1990s. The Taliban, which maintains very close ties to al Qaeda, might not actively encourage terrorist attacks against the United States, but it might not do very much to prevent them, either. Or, if Afghanistan simply collapsed into a Syria or Libya-style civil war, extremists—even those the Taliban sees as rivals, such as ISIS—might fund opportunity in upheaval. As Malkasian argues, “The United States should recognize that the most direct route out of Afghanistan is to live with the threat of terrorism.”

Experts argue about how to measure the risk of major terrorist attacks following an American withdrawal, but that risk seemed sufficient that both Obama and Trump—two very different presidents who nonetheless converged in their evident desire to leave Afghanistan—ultimately chose not to.

They were able to make that decision because of a second factor: The costs of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan have fallen quite dramatically over the past decade. American fatalities in Afghanistan never exceeded 22 in the years between 2015 and 2019, compared to nearly 500 in 2010. American commanders believed that they could shore up the Afghan government and keep the pressure on terrorist groups with a presence of a few thousand troops (complemented by a similar allied presence), not the 100,000 that were present at the height of the American surge. In the same vein, the other major U.S. counter-terrorism intervention of recent years—the counter-ISIS campaign, centered in Iraq and Syria—cost a few billion dollars per year and took a mercifully small toll in American lives.

Lost amid all the talk of “forever wars” is that the United States had, finally, arrived at a sustainable counter-terrorism model featuring airpower, special operations forces, and other unique enablers deployed in support of local forces that made the vast majority of the sacrifices. That’s why the politics of the Afghanistan war were actually so permissive—the costs simply weren’t high enough for most Americans to care very much about whether the United States stayed or went.

Indeed, it is misleading to argue that the United States should withdraw from Afghanistan because the costs of the Global War on Terror have been too high. Of course, the costs of the GWOT have been too high. If American policymakers had foreseen, in late 2001, the price the country would have to pay in lives, dollars, and distraction for fighting two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they might well have made different choices. (Then again, given the shock of 9/11 and the fact that the American homeland has mostly escaped significant Salafi Jihadist attacks in the twenty years since, they might not have.) But the costs of 2007 or 2011 are not the costs of 2021. The question is whether the United States should continue paying the far more modest price of sustaining its present CT model.

That question is difficult to answer, because it hinges on something not yet knowable—what the costs of withdrawal will be. In one relatively optimistic scenario (with the emphasis on relatively), Afghanistan becomes a humanitarian nightmare but the strategic costs to the United States are modest. The threat of international sanctions or even renewed U.S. military intervention prevents the Taliban from reverting to its worst old habits. The United States funds proxies, such as a renewed Northern Alliance, to prevent an entirely hostile Afghanistan. A layered approach to counter-terrorism—support for friendly Afghan forces, backed by the prospect of over-the-horizon military strikes, supported by all the diplomatic, intelligence, and financial measures the U.S. government uses to keep extremist groups off-balance—limits any resurgent threat.

Yet there are severe uncertainties about this scenario, involving the durability of the Afghan government, the feasibility of even knowing what to hit once the United States has lost situational awareness in a remote, landlocked country, the Taliban’s future intentions, and other issues. So there is also some real possibility of a much darker scenario, roughly comparable to what happened after the United States left Iraq in 2011. In this scenario, a chaotic or malignly governed Afghanistan generates instability and threats that require Washington either to live with an undesirable level of danger or re-intervene at a higher cost in lives, treasure, and strategic distraction.

This is why President Biden’s decision to withdraw is best characterized as a gamble. It is a gamble politically, in the sense that the politics of the Afghanistan issue could change if the result of withdrawal is a horrifying refugee crisis, systematic human rights violations, or a humiliating withdrawal of the American embassy under fire. And it is a gamble strategically, in the sense that Biden is running a real-time test of the proposition that America can reduce the military pressure it has exerted on the world’s most dangerous Salafi-Jihadist groups without allowing the threat they pose to return to intolerable levels.

If Biden’s wager pays off, he’ll be vindicated and critics of the “forever wars” will surely ask, not without justification, why America didn’t pull the plug sooner. If it doesn’t pay off, then America’s long stay in Afghanistan might not seem, in sad hindsight, like such an absurdity after all.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Emma Ashford reviews the costs of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and hails the impending withdrawal as long overdue. She suggests that not only is Afghanistan “the poster child for mission creep,” it may have soured the foreign policy community on nation-building as a core element of U.S. foreign policy. Attention may be returning to the great power competition that was formerly, and may soon be again, the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Response Essays

  • Hal Brands argues that there have been lots of good reasons to leave Afghanistan for quite some time—so why is it only happening now? The answer, he says, is U.S. domestic politics, and the fear that previous presidents had of terrorist attacks. Brands finds that Afghanistan’s future may be grim regardless of what the United States does, and that the decision to withdraw amounts to a gamble that the country will not once again become a haven for terrorists targeting America.

  • Barnett Rubin stresses the importance of U.S. actions in creating the mess in Afghanistan. In particular, equating the Taliban with al Qaeda appears to him as a step that dominated U.S. choices on the ground and may have delayed achieving peace for many years. In the resulting chaos, U.S. policymakers seized on many different rationales for their actions, and the result was simply incoherent.

  • Laurel Miller argues that removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan was “a distinctly immodest goal” and that nation-building was a necessity thereafter, one implicit in the decision to go to Afghanistan in the first place. Far from an example of mission creep, nation-building was exactly what we signed up for.