Biden Was Right On Afghanistan

Jonathan Rauch argues that the decision to withdraw was hard but necessary.

This is the first in a two-part discussion about the Afghanistan withdrawal. A counter-argument by Madiha Afzal, Biden Was Wrong On Afghanistan, can be found here.

Was President Biden right to withdraw from Afghanistan? In this space three months ago, I said that anyone who thinks the answer is obvious isn’t thinking about the question seriously. I still believe that. It’s a hard call.

I also said, “I am resolutely agnostic about President Biden’s withdrawal decision.” But that is no longer true. The past two months have pushed me off the fence—in Biden’s direction.

Not because events on the ground have gone well; hardly that. By withdrawing all forces from Afghanistan abruptly and without adequate preparation, Biden handed the country to the Taliban, who immediately set about oppressing their subjects. His approval ratings sank below the waterline.

But I now think Biden made the right call. The reason has something to do with what he said, but more to do with what his critics didn’t say. They weren’t willing to level with themselves or the public about the true implications of the policy they favored. Which meant they had no real policy at all.

The best argument for remaining in Afghanistan is that stabilizing the country had become a relatively low-cost, light-footprint operation. Since 2014, annual U.S. fatalities in the theater have been in the double digits. The United States had edged its way to a supporting role and the Afghans did most of the work. As I said in August, the low U.S. casualties and seeming sustainability of the operation made Biden’s rush for the door seem puzzling, if not downright perverse. What the U.S. was doing was working, so why stop?

The problem with that position is that the enemy gets a vote. In the case of an insurgency that’s battle-hardened, motivated, and blessed with a safe harbor across the border in Pakistan, the enemy gets a lot of votes. In the past few years, the low U.S. casualties might have reflected less the effectiveness of the U.S. military strategy than the fact that the Taliban had little to gain by targeting U.S. forces, because they assumed we would leave. Meanwhile, they butchered Afghans and made steady territorial gains.

If the U.S. had stayed, “The Taliban, of course, would have started attacking the remaining troops,” writes my Brookings Institution colleague Vanda Felbab-Brown in Foreign Affairs. “Washington would be back to waging a full-scale war against the Taliban, with all the casualties that would entail, with no end in sight.” She adds that “there never was a realistic scenario in which a limited force of some 2,500 to 5,000 U.S. troops, even assuming an open-ended U.S. commitment, could have altered the basic deleterious dynamics of an Afghan government and military that were unwilling to reform and a Taliban that was on the rise.”

What about a larger, longer, more durable military presence? The U.S. has garrisoned Germany, Japan, and South Korea since the 1950s. It stations almost 30,000 troops in South Korea, about 35,000 in Germany, and over 50,000 in Japan. No one shouts for all those troops to come home (though President Trump grumbled about them).

That kind of commitment might indeed pacify Afghanistan, but it would be nothing like these uneventful—or in South Korea's case, relatively uneventful—Cold War deployments in Europe and Asia; in none of those countries did the U.S. face a decades-long civil war, a vigorous insurgency, and a corrupt and incompetent local government. If anything, the indefinite presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan seemed likely to provoke and sustain the very insurgency it was meant to suppress, as was already happening.

Even so, one could still make a smart, solid case for doubling down in Afghanistan. Maybe it’s just plain worth it. Gathering intelligence, fighting terrorism, and defending human rights are important U.S. priorities.

But here a question arises: Who will tell the American people? Honesty would require the president, if he pursued an open-ended (“conditions-based”) military campaign, to state candidly the ends he seeks and the means he employs. Given the realities in the theater, that would require preparing the public for a long, sometimes challenging deployment. Specifically, it would require making a speech that says something like this.

 “Folks, here’s the deal:

  • “American forces will be in Afghanistan for an indeterminate period. I don’t like it, you don’t like it, but we need to do it. We’ll stay until we either defeat the Taliban outright or stand up a sustainable and tolerable peace deal. Either outcome depends on developing an Afghan government that can fend for itself—and that’s not a result we can guarantee or control. Frankly, another 10 years is possible. Maybe longer.

  • “The cost may grow, in both fiscal and human terms. The Taliban will attack our forces, especially if they think they can drive us out. The fighting may grow nasty and expensive. We’ll do everything we can to keep our deployment and casualties light, but frankly, it could get hairy, and we all should be prepared for that. We can’t deter the Taliban or reform the Afghan government unless they see we’re truly committed.

  • “Accordingly, we’re putting the war on a quasi-permanent footing. Given the nature of the challenge ahead, we will seek durable commitments from Congress, the Afghans, and our allies. That may entail new basing arrangements, status-of-forces agreements, international partnerships, and standing appropriations. And my administration will no longer talk about the war as if it will end any day.”

I didn’t see many remainers who were willing to make that speech. Certainly, none of Biden’s predecessors was willing to make it. Instead, the past three administrations have equivocated, or worse. In May of 2003, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that U.S. forces had ended major combat operations in Afghanistan, a claim that he and his field commanders knew was false. In December of 2014, Barack Obama made a similar announcement, announcing that “our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending,” and “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.”

As Craig Whitlock, the author of “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War”, told an interviewer recently, “Of course, that wasn’t true, either. We still engaged in combat for years to come. Scores of Americans died in combat, and thousands of Afghans did. So there’s this deliberate attempt by different presidents and their administrations to reassure Americans that the war was in hand when it really wasn’t.” The same, he notes, was true of many of the U.S. commanders. “They weren’t telling the truth. They were exaggerating the good things and hiding the bad things.”

At bottom, most of this slipperiness traces back to three administrations’ failure to acknowledge that what they were trying to do was hard, if it was even possible. That pattern continued through the past several months. Remainers deplored the American withdrawal while equivocating about what staying might actually entail. More of the same, in other words.

From growing up in the Cold War, I learned that the United States can sustain a heroic commitment for decades—but that this requires making a compelling strategic case and building a consensus for it among the broad public.

From growing up in the Vietnam era, I learned that misleading yourself and the public, underestimating the challenge, fudging hard facts, and fighting a determined adversary while eyeing the exits does not end well.

From growing up around politics, I learned that if you can’t level with the public about your policy and defend it, you’ll lose the argument—and you’ll deserve to lose.

That’s why, for me, those who favor staying in Afghanistan lost the argument. They gave me no reason to think the pattern of denial and deception would end.

In justifying his decision to withdraw, Biden did his share of blame-shifting and spinning, which is not admirable. He will take painful lumps for his decision and its execution, and so will the country. But where the overall strategy is concerned, he was the guy who stopped countenancing self-deception and equivocation. After Trump, we should know how much that counts.

Jonathan Rauch is a columnist at Persuasion and the author of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.