Still the right decision to leave Afghanistan — yet still no accountability
As the introspection and finger pointing on Afghanistan intensifies with the one-year anniversary of the Aug. 15 fall of Kabul, we must once again recognize that it was time for U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. As war rages in Ukraine, and the strait of Taiwan become ever more contentious, it should be possible to recognize that the United States could not continue wasting resources and risking American lives on a losing peripheral strategic interest that distracted policymakers from the signal issues of our times.
I spent more than three years in Afghanistan, the last two as U.S. ambassador; I followed the Doha peace process as senior adviser to the Secretary of State. There were never conditions for staying indefinitely, or even a few more years, and our failure was not because of a lack of will. We had made the commitment as a nation — almost $1 trillion of expenditure, including through the Great Recession of 2008 as millions of Americans lost their homes and livelihoods; as 1 million mostly young Americans from across our country were sent to Afghanistan to fight and die for an increasingly failing policy; and as we developed an almost ideological fixation on the “global war on terror” as the world changed and much more existential threats to the United States emerged.
Our engagement in Afghanistan was never going to work fundamentally for two reasons: because we compounded mistakes on the battlefield, politically, and in assistance by masking over years just how badly our intervention was going; and second, because Afghans, sometimes for good reasons, did not fully commit to the transformation of their country.
We never truly confronted what Afghans knew: that the Afghan government was deeply corrupt and largely dysfunctional, dependent on U.S. ambassadors, secretaries of State, and presidents to hold it together. At the provincial level, warlords loathed by the local population held sway, reinforcing the perception that the democratic political transformation was surface-deep.
The Afghan armed forces never developed into an effective military, but year after year, U.S. government reports to Congress said they were on track to do so. The “surge” in U.S. forces, which temporarily dented the Taliban’s advance, would not have forestalled the inevitable even if it had continued. Ordinary Afghans knew what we never took seriously: that the Taliban had purpose and popular support inside the country and could not be defeated militarily as long as they had sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan. Perhaps it should not be surprising that return visitors to Afghanistan report a country more at peace than it has been in a decade or more.
There is one additional element that has not received as much attention as it should have. There was a political reason for the hastily negotiated “peace” agreement in Doha, which resulted in Afghanistan falling to the Taliban instead of a political transition. That reason was then-President Trump. The leadership at the National Security Council was part of the negotiating team; so was the Department of Defense through the senior military commander on the ground in Afghanistan. Whatever their reservations, they worked with State Department Special Envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, because they all understood that the agreement, weak as it was, represented the only alternative to Trump’s threat to pull all U.S. troops out with no notice, and the unpredictable consequences that would bring. That threat hung permanently in the air and was taken seriously by most everyone who worked on Afghanistan at the time.
The eventual timeframe for the implementation of the agreement, over a year, should have been enough for the Afghan government to prepare for the U.S. military withdrawal, and for the United States to prepare the Afghan military for the transition to come. The Afghan government, however, had ceased to be functional by then, and the shell that was the Afghan armed forces was so heavily reliant on U.S. contractors and air cover that its leadership could not envisage fighting for itself. In this environment, the Taliban, in ways we have yet to fully understand, built the networks and political understandings that allowed them to take over all 34 provincial capitals and a population of 40 million in the summer of 2021 without meaningful opposition.
In the case of the Biden administration, there could have been a decision to slow the withdrawal, as it became evident that the Afghan military was struggling, to past the fighting season and certainly past the loaded anniversary of Sept. 11. Doing so also would have permitted a more orderly evacuation program for Afghans who had worked with us and, perhaps, to pressure the Taliban regarding their continuing ties to al Qaeda.
Regardless, Afghanistan was on course to fall to the Taliban, as the intelligence correctly foretold. It is semantics to argue about whether it would have been weeks or months; the abject failure to nation-build across the previous 20 years was evident to all.
Three questions merit some form of accountability if we are to truly come to terms with our failure in Afghanistan. A first is why $100 billion-plus of U.S. government developmental assistance and 20 years of building uneven but genuine democratic rule and institutions, economic reconstruction across the country, and social transformation for girls and women, had so little lasting effect. A second is asking why a well-armed Afghan military that, on paper, numbered 330,000 soldiers, and which was supplemented by forces under the command of regional warlords, could collapse with such a speed when faced with perhaps 70,000 poorly armed Taliban insurgents. A third is why and how did U.S. political, military and developmental strategy so manifestly fail across three presidential administrations.
It is much easier to seek to assign blame. Doing so won’t help thinking through what to do with an Afghanistan where the Taliban carry out the most extreme form of gender repression of the modern age; or how to respond to the emergence of a new terrorist sanctuary (although threats are much greater elsewhere, and the killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri demonstrated that “over-the-horizon” capabilities can work). It won’t help decide how best to provide much-needed humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. And it won’t help us understand that the United States could not continue spending billions of dollars, deploying military assets, and thousands of troops to confront what had become a secondary national security concern, and where we were not winning.
Leaving was the right decision. Now let’s make the effort to understand why as we chart a way forward, on Afghanistan and the conflicts to come. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again.
P. Michael McKinley is a nonresident senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. During his 37-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service, he held senior leadership positions in missions in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and South Asia and was a four-time ambassador, serving in Peru (2007-2010), Colombia (2010-2013), Afghanistan (2014-2016) and Brazil (2017-2018).