A disastrous Taliban takeover wasn’t inevitable. President Biden said his hands were tied to a withdrawal given the awful peace deal negotiated between the Trump administration and the Taliban. But there was still a way to pull out American troops while giving Afghans a better chance to hold the gains US made with them over the last two decades.
Biden chose otherwise. The way he announced the drawdown and eventual departure of American troops — at the start of the fighting season, on a rapid timeline and sans adequate coordination with the Afghan government — has in part gotten us into the current situation.
Reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of keeping American military forces in Afghanistan indefinitely, even at very low numbers. I and others have argued that the investment, including the risk to American personnel, is worth it.
Biden believes that further expending US resources in Afghanistan is “a recipe for being there indefinitely.” He rightly notes that President Trump had left him few good options by making a terrible deal with the Taliban. That’s a fine argument, but it explains neither the hastiness nor the consequences we are now observing: the Taliban overrunning the country, seizing Kabul and prompting the Pentagon to prepare for a possible evacuation of the US embassy.
A responsible withdrawal needed more time and better preparation. History will record Biden, a supposed master of foreign policy for decades, as having failed in this most critical assignment.
As US military planners well know, the Afghan war has a seasonal pattern. The Taliban leadership retreats to bases, every winter and then launches the group’s fighting season campaign in the spring, moving into high gear in the summer after the poppy harvest. At the very least, the United States should have continued to support the Afghans through this period to help them blunt the Taliban’s latest offensive and buy time to plan for a future devoid of American military assistance.
American diplomats could have used this time to negotiate access to regional bases from which to continue counterterrorism operations. Simultaneously, the American military should have prepared contingencies in case those negotiations failed.
And even that plan would have meant contending with an increasingly brazen Taliban. Adopting a more judicious approach would have required Biden to accept two things in addition to a longer timeline: the temporary deployment of additional US forces and the slightly increased risk of American casualties.
Sending additional troops into Afghanistan could have allowed the United States to carry out the withdrawal safely without severely disrupting military support. When the president ordered the pullout, there were some 3,500 US troops in Afghanistan. One thousand or 2,000 additional troops deployed for less than a year could have made a significant difference. They would have allowed Gen. Austin S. Miller, the former US commander in Afghanistan, to continue supporting the Afghan security forces while simultaneously prepping the withdrawal.
Obviously, Biden did not proceed in this manner. Instead, he ordered a hasty withdrawal of the military just as the Taliban offensive was moving into its major phase.
Several weeks after the president’s announcement, there was no clear plan for responding to terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan post-withdrawal. It was still unclear if the United States While the US military provided some support to Afghan forces this support was too limited and too late to save major cities under attack. To be clear, Trump did put the Biden administration in a bind with a peace deal that specified US troops had to leave by May 1.
Still, Biden blew past that deadline, so pushing for a slightly longer timeline with some extra troops, even if in theory that goes against the peace deal, shouldn’t have been difficult for the administration to accept to permit an orderly, safer withdrawal.
The additional financial cost of waiting until early 2022 to complete the retreat would have been bearable with a slightly different budgetary prioritisation. (The Senate just approved a trillion dollar infrastructure bill and passed a $3.5 trillion budget plan.)
And then there are the optics of an American retreat. Biden has repeatedly emphasised the importance of getting US forces out the door, because he was tied to the peace deal and lest US soldiers come under Taliban attack. Is this really the type of fearful, defeatist message a global leader should be sending out to the world?
Amid the chaos, there is an important lesson to be learnt: Whether announced by tweet or speech, decisions made without concrete plans or robust implementation strategies are wrong — regardless of which president or party spearheads them.
Afghans are paying the price of Biden’s decision today as the Taliban seizes control.The United States will likely also continue to pay for its actions in Afghanistan. There’s a real danger that militant groups will reconstitute themselves and once again pose a significant threat to the American homeland. With America’s allies left in the lurch, prospective partners will think twice before offering up their support in future conflicts.
They know that this is not how a global leader acts. And most important, so do we.
Frederick W. Kagan is an American columnist and professor of military history
The New York Times