On July 8, President Joe Biden updated his timeline for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The mission is now set to reach its end on August 31 rather than the original September 11 deadline. Nearly 20 years in the making, America's longest war looks to be finally drawing to a close.
For some, it's too soon.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say so, claiming that the departure is hasty and leaves no clear path forward for the Afghan government. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) said the move would be the president's "biggest mistake yet." Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D–N.H.), who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, argued that "the U.S. has sacrificed too much to bring stability to Afghanistan to leave [without] verifiable assurances of a secure future."
Thankfully, the loud critics in Washington have not deterred Biden. "Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us that the current security situation only confirms that 'just one more year' of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution," he said July 8, "but a recipe for being there indefinitely."
His view is increasingly in line with the wishes of the American people. An April survey revealed that 73 percent of polled registered voters supported Biden's withdrawal plan. Broken down by political affiliation, 90 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 54 percent of Republicans back the move. Those serving in the military and those who previously served also support withdrawal by a slim margin.
In 20 years of conflict, the U.S. has accomplished its initial security goals. The 2001-era Taliban was ousted, and since 9/11, no terrorist attack on U.S. soil has been carried out by an organization rooted in Afghanistan. Security concerns now lie elsewhere. "The Biden administration correctly assessed that the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan today is in fact smaller than from various parts of Africa and the Middle East," as Vanda Felbab-Brown writes for the Brookings Institution. Al Qaeda's capacities are limited. To say that Afghanistan hosts the same level of outward threat that it once did is patently false.
Internal threats do exist, largely in the form of a Taliban emboldened by the U.S. departure. Taliban fighters say they've gained control of 85 percent of Afghanistan—a claim the Afghan government has dismissed as propaganda. It's impossible to correctly assess current territory holdings, but Taliban attacks and seizures have increased recently. As a result, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that the Afghan government could fall just six months after the Americans take their leave. Two former secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, both worry about the implications of a full withdrawal; Rice even suggested the U.S. may need to return, according to Axios.
Coming from architects and longtime supporters of the war, this is hardly a surprise. Their views hinge on two still-open questions: Can the Taliban pull off a full takeover, and if so, will it be the U.S.'s responsibility to fight it? Experts are divided on the first. They float possibilities from a protracted civil war, to the preservation of the status quo, to an uneasy power sharing arrangement. Biden concedes that it's "highly unlikely" that there will be a unified government controlling the whole of Afghanistan. With peace talks between the Taliban and an Afghan government delegation currently taking place in Qatar, we may soon have a clearer picture.
As for the second, it's difficult to justify a continued role for the U.S. given its track record in Afghanistan. Over 47,000 Afghan civilians, 66,000 Afghan national military and police, and more than 6,000 U.S. service members and contractors have died. The Taliban still hasn't been banished. As Biden notes, "it's the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country."
It's extremely unlikely that a 21st year of conflict would be decisive after the first 20 haven't been. We know the nature of the conflict and what continued warfare would involve—more dead soldiers, more dead civilians, and an increasingly futile commitment to nation building that will, in all likelihood, result in a less stable country.
Plus, U.S. lawmakers never voted to declare war in Afghanistan; they gave the president broad discretion to carry out "necessary" campaigns to bring justice to the actors who orchestrated 9/11. And only once since 9/11 have the costs of war been mentioned by those in the Senate Finance Committee. The price tag has come up just five times in the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee. Costs and casualties already incurred in Afghanistan were used as reasons to push on; the U.S. had invested too much to give up the fight.
Leaving without a clear picture of what Afghanistan's government will look like in just a few months is an unsatisfying conclusion to America's longest war. That doesn't mean the U.S. should put off its withdrawal, or that it should already be gearing up to send troops back. While there may be an effective American role to be had in facilitating future peace talks between Afghanistan's warring parties, American participation in the conflict must end.
Politicians are wrong to treat the Afghanistan withdrawal as Biden's fatal blow. It's a sign of humility—recognizing where the U.S. has failed and where it cannot possibly succeed. It's quite easy for presidents to start wars. It's another thing entirely to end them.