Leaving Afghanistan Is a Bad Move
American troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan. As we will see, this is a bad idea.
Why are U.S. forces being removed from Afghanistan? A major reason seems to be that America’s elites think there is enormous popular support for the move, supposedly due to exhaustion with a protracted conflict. This reading of public opinion has been seriously challenged by Noah Rothman, who goes through some statistics in an article in “Commentary” to demonstrate that the American people are much less enthusiastic about withdrawal than many have assumed, and large segments of the population simply do not care strongly about whether U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan or leave. In fact, Rothman suggests, the aftermath of a departure may cause a substantial backlash in public opinion.
Nonetheless, American politicians on both sides of the aisle have sought to capitalise on the populist talking point, a half-truth at best, that their country is engaged in so-called “forever wars”. This cartoonishly inappropriate label makes U.S. military engagement abroad sound far more intensive than it has actually been in recent years.
Thus, Daniel Greenfield — incidentally, a commentator favourable to withdrawal — notes that, due to high crime rates, more Americans were killed in Chicago in a single weekend than in Afghanistan over a span of two years. He specifies:
By way of context, there were no American military combat casualties in Afghanistan in 2021. And there were 4 combat deaths in 2020.
If the USA are not to withdraw from Afghanistan, what are they to do? They are to stay on. In retired General David Petraeus’ opinion, defeating the Taliban and other terrorists may take longer than a generation, but the USA can keep the fight up easily. Gen. Petraeus is quoted as having said:
We need to accept that and acknowledge that this requires a sustained commitment – albeit one that is sustainable in terms of blood and treasure
What we are doing now in Afghanistan – and also in Iraq and Syria and Africa and elsewhere – is absolutely sustainable, even as we embark on a renewed military focus on possible conflict with peer competitors, given the return of so-called great power rivalries.
Similarly, Noah Rothman argues in the aforementioned article that the financial costs of the American presence in Afghanistan are tolerable considering how much the U.S. government spends on other endeavours, and especially in light of the dramatically raised spending under Joe Biden.
What of the drawbacks of withdrawal? They are considerable. Since the announcement of the withdrawal by Joe Biden, the Taliban have gained ground at a breakneck speed. Aside from a strengthening of the Taliban’s position, leaving naturally creates a power vacuum liable to beget international tensions. A 2014 academic paper notes:
In a climate of disappointment over the Obama administration’s
Middle East policies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE recently have become
more assertive in taking unilateral action to safeguard their interests.
This proactivity could extend to Afghanistan if officials in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi feel that other regional states may make political gains or fill any potential security vacuum at the expense of Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
Yet the conflict in Syria, where Qatar and Saudi Arabia have backed rival militias and competing political groups, highlights the challenge to stability posed by such unilateral decisions (Ulrichsen 2014: 49-50).
Such attempts on the part of regional powers to gain clout in Afghanistan are bound to ensue. India and Pakistan already have a storied history of projecting their long-standing enmity onto the Afghan arena (see Bhatnagar and Ahmed 2021: 73).
Another problem has been highlighted by political commentator Vitaly Portnikov, who believes that
ties to the Taliban will help Putin to blackmail not only the government of Afghanistan, but also Russia’s allies in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. (Translation mine.)
Aside from these fundamental problems, the withdrawal has been conducted embarrassingly. In the face of calamity on the ground, those responsible have resorted to deception: the U.S. military has downplayed the losses, while the USA have pretended there was a peace process even though the Taliban were completely uninterested in talks.
Perhaps leaving Afghanistan at this historically sensitive moment will prove the correct decision. What is more likely, however, is that it will go down in history as yet another example of populist folly, a convulsion of an ailing body politic.
Bhatnagar, Stuti, and Zahid Shahab Ahmed. 2021. “Geopolitics of landlocked states in South Asia: a
comparative analysis of Afghanistan and Nepal.” Australian Journal of
International Affairs 75 (1): 60-79.
Ulrichsen, Kristian Coates. 2014. “The Persian Gulf States and Afghanistan: Regional Geopolitics and Competing Interests.” Asia Policy 17: 47-53.