The high costs of a precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan
As we enter into a new decade, America has been at war in Afghanistan for almost twenty years — the longest conflict in U.S. history. What started in the immediate aftermath of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as a counterterrorism mission has morphed into something more ambitious but less well defined and, ultimately, less successful.
The costs have been staggering — more than 2,000 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, over 15,000 have been injured, and — according to some estimates — U.S. spending may have totaled over $2 trillion.
Americans — from foreign policy elites in Washington to the general public — understandably want to see this chapter brought to a close. But history warns of the consequences when the United States leaves a conflict precipitously before the foundations for an acceptable political settlement are in place. In 1975, when the U.S. military withdrew fully from Vietnam, communist forces quickly overran a weak South Vietnamese government. If the Taliban were to sweep similarly to victory, harrowing human rights abuses could follow, and all our investments of blood and treasure could be undone.
There is good reason to worry, however, that a hurried withdrawal may be at hand. The administration has restarted negotiations with the Afghan Taliban with hints of a possible announcement from President Donald Trump regarding a further reduction in U.S. troops in advance of the November 2020 elections. The Washington Post added to the urgency with its reporting on various missteps and mistakes across multiple administrations. The frustration is bipartisan when little else in D.C. is. The Democratic presidential debates have on multiple occasions discussed the future U.S. role in Afghanistan.
Support for the Afghan government is the key to an expeditious but not haphazard wind down of the NATO mission. Ensuring the right balance of power exists between the Taliban and the Afghan government will be crucial to preserving the hard-fought gains made by U.S. and coalition forces over the past 18 years, but at present the government is not a formal party to the ongoing talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Failure to include the government in these talks is unwise, in our opinion.
Special Representative Khalilzad’s ongoing negotiations in Doha are focused on part of the puzzle —devising a settlement between the U.S. government and the Taliban; however, the parties appear to be quite far from a workable deal — and brokering an effective agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban will be even more challenging. For any intra-Afghan peace settlement to last, the Taliban must be willing to share power, participate in aspects of the democratic process, and accept constitutional limits. That is highly unlikely unless the United States and its coalition partners apply continued military pressure, show a willingness to extend the mission if necessary, and engage key regional actors to wield economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks to enforce the settlement. Given the different priorities and objectives of the United States, Afghan government, and Taliban — not to mention area powers like India, Pakistan, China, and Russia — the prospects for sustainable peace in the near term are unclear.
Throwing in the towel before those conditions are achieved presents a very real danger. A recent RAND report outlined likely consequences if the United States were to withdraw military forces before a peace deal is implemented. If U.S. forces withdraw too soon, Afghanistan may fall back under the heel of Taliban repression or slide back into civil war. This is precisely what happened after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, which led to the failed state from which al-Qa’ida successfully planned the Sept. 11 attacks. In either case, two decades of U.S. efforts to prevent a terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan, promote regional stability, and uphold values including women’s rights would be in vain.
Aspirations to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan in the coming year must be tempered by these real risks. U.S. forces must stay in place while talks between the Taliban and Afghan government are conducted and concluded and a settlement begins to be implemented. We must honestly confront the reality that this process will likely take years to complete, but it would be a dangerous mistake to substantially reduce U.S. capabilities in the country before this objective is achieved. The costs of strategic patience will be justified if a continued U.S. presence helps facilitate relative stability in Afghanistan while avoiding the risks of a hasty departure.
Dr. John Ciorciari is an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy and director of the Weiser Diplomacy Center.
Dr. Phil Potter is an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and director of the National Security Policy Center.
Mr. Javed Ali is a Towsley Policymaker in Residence at the Ford School of Public Policy and served as Senior Counterterrorism Director on the National Security Council from 2017-2018.
CPT Ryan Van Wie is a U.S. Army infantry officer, Master of Public Policy candidate at the Ford School of Public Policy, and future international affairs instructor in the Department of Social Science at West Point.