FOR GENERAL GEORGE MARSHALL, when army chief of staff, the swift defeat of Nazism was essential because a “democracy cannot fight a seven years’ war”. The fact that America has been at war in Afghanistan for almost three times as long does not disprove that. It points to how unaware of the conflict most Americans are.
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The 80,000 servicemen and women who have served in Afghanistan represent 0.25% of a general population that has never been less connected to its armed forces. America’s 2,448 victims of bombs and accidents in Afghanistan pale against the 58,000 it lost in Vietnam. The war’s $2trn cost has been deferred to future generations. Joe Biden’s decision to pull out America’s remaining troops is a withdrawal of choice, therefore, not of political necessity.
It is debatable how many Americans would even have noticed had he decided, as his immediate two predecessors ultimately did, to hang in there for a bit rather than risk the Taliban retaking Kabul. Explaining his alternative rationale, Mr Biden said America could not “continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal”. As the last word on America’s Afghan misadventure, that seemed appropriately muddle-headed.
Mr Biden was certainly right to characterise America’s record in Afghanistan as a triumph of wishfulness over prudence. The campaign’s spiralling cost was long fuelled by an assumption that well-resourced American soldiers and diplomats could deliver a stable, democratic Afghanistan. This was a delusion based much less on Afghan reality than American politics, an overestimation of American military force and a desire to maintain the brief moment of post-9/11 national unity.
America’s shifting objectives were a clue to those competing impulses. The Bush administration’s counter-terrorism mission broadened into a state-building one in response to bad press over the Iraq war and pressure from allies. Barack Obama doubled down on counter-insurgency because, having talked up Afghanistan over Iraq, he felt he must. Donald Trump upped the tempo of strikes against the Taliban because Mr Obama had slowed it. He then launched talks with the insurgents that might have got somewhere had they been less obviously intended as an exit strategy.
Your columnist, a regular visitor to Afghanistan for a decade, saw most of these shifts unfold. It was striking how little America’s latest plan seemed to be informed by the failure of its previous one, let alone by Afghan history or circumstances.
Just a few facts are enough to explain the inevitability of those costly failures. American forces were superb at war-fighting, but often inept at peacekeeping. The insurgency, being based in Pakistan, was undefeatable. The government, stocked with incompetents and criminals, was incapable of reassuring civilians caught between the two sides. Afghanistan had no history of effective government even before decades of war erased its monarchical state. Few of its 20th-century leaders left office peacefully; most were murdered or deposed.
It did have a record of violent Islamist nationalism. And, sure enough, the combination of increased NATO violence and execrable government fuelled an inexhaustible supply of Taliban recruits, no matter how many thousands America and its allies killed. America still had good reasons to be in Afghanistan. In addition to its security concerns, it accrued a moral responsibility for the Afghans it made promises to and a reputational interest in avoiding defeat. It also maintained local support for its presence. But its objectives were often self-defeating: an exercise in making pursuit of dramatic, unachievable progress the enemy of a more modest, open-ended and sustainable effort.
Because almost everyone—Democrats and Republicans, soldiers, aid-workers and journalists—had supported the war from the start, there was long a reluctance to point this out. America’s failures were ascribed to specific errors: its initial refusal to parley with the Taliban, its slowness to develop Afghan forces, its bombing of wedding parties. But there is no reason to believe that even a flawless American strategy could have delivered much more stability. Post-conflict, pre-modern Muslim societies with lousy neighbours are not transformable.
It follows that Mr Biden is also right to predict that perfect conditions for a withdrawal will not emerge soon. Yet this would be a reason to withdraw only if perfection were still America’s objective in Afghanistan. It is not. After his brief burst of military enthusiasm, Mr Trump withdrew most of the remaining troops, and no one expected Mr Biden to send them back. His choice was therefore to leave them be, at minimal cost, while the peace talks Mr Trump launched ran their course; or to complete a withdrawal that is likely to end the talks and, in the view of America’s intelligence agencies, risks returning Afghanistan to civil war.
He has offered two other reasons for his decision to pull the plug. Neither is convincing. He suggests, first, that America’s interests in Afghanistan no longer warrant even its shrunken commitment. It can now police ungoverned spaces remotely. Yet his agencies, which warn that the withdrawal will make counter-terrorism harder, seem to disagree.
Mr Biden also points to America’s growing focus on competition with China as a reason to shake Afghanistan loose. That would seem more compelling if it were not adjacent to China and already subject to its overtures. It also takes too little account of what China and the world will read into America’s capitulation.
Along the Silk Road
Afghanistan was not only, or mainly, a test of American military power. It was a test of its decision-making and ability to take the long view, including by sticking with a troublesome ally. The Biden administration speaks of the China challenge requiring the same qualities. It has just ducked a chance to display them. ■
Joe Biden is wrong to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan (Apr 2021)
Joe Biden calls time on America’s longest-ever war (Apr 2021)
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Retreat from Kabul”