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Biden's Prudent Decision to Withdraw from Afghanistan
It doesn’t say much for our political culture that it takes far more political courage to end a pointless war than it does to start one.
Frederick Kagan predictably seizes on the news of rapid Taliban advances in Afghanistan to argue that U.S. forces should have stayed longer and in larger numbers:
Adopting a more judicious approach would have required Mr. Biden to accept two things in addition to a longer timeline: the temporary deployment of additional U.S. forces and the slightly increased risk of American casualties.
If Biden had done things Kagan’s way, it would have guaranteed more American casualties and the inevitable demands for escalation that would follow. What Kagan describes as a “responsible” withdrawal would have irresponsibly exposed American forces to renewed attacks on the off chance that keeping them there a little longer would have somehow prevented the wholesale collapse of the Afghan government’s forces later on. If the only thing that U.S. troops were doing there was delaying the inevitable, keeping them there until next year wouldn’t change anything.
Biden understood that the choice was between getting out or being stuck there with no end in sight, and he rightly judged that the former was better for the United States. The fact that the Afghan government has lost so much ground so quickly proves that the U.S. failed in building a functioning state that could fend for itself. Our government has been propping up this state for all these years at considerable expense, and it turns out that the structure was bound to collapse as soon as we left. Far from showing the folly of Biden’s decision, it confirms the wisdom of it. A state as rickety and incapable of protecting itself as this one would not have been saved by delaying withdrawal a few more months or even years. Under those circumstances, Biden’s withdrawal was not hasty. If anything, it took longer than it should have.
None of the hawks complaining about the withdrawal has good answers to a few basic questions. What vital interests are served by keeping troops in Afghanistan for a longer period of time? If the Afghan government isn’t even putting up a fight to defend itself, what difference would a few thousand more American troops for a few more months have made to the final outcome? Why should the U.S. assume any responsibility for defending a government when their own forces won’t fight for it?
And then there are the optics of an American retreat. Mr. Biden has repeatedly emphasized the importance of getting U.S. forces out the door, because he was tied to the peace deal and lest U.S. soldiers come under Taliban attack. Is this really the type of fearful, defeatist message a global leader should be sending out to the world?
Acknowledging reality is neither fearful not defeatist. Keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan any longer would have meant more dead Americans in a desultory war that should have ended many years earlier. Biden concluded that it was not worth the risk to the remaining U.S. troops to keep them there, and he was right. Ending our involvement in an unwinnable war is prudent statecraft. Of course, someone like Kagan wouldn’t know prudence if it were staring him in the face.
Biden deserves credit for doing it when he must have known that he would face endless caterwauling from the hawkish ideologues that created the failed policy that he is now terminating. It doesn’t say much for our political culture that it takes far more political courage to end a pointless war than it does to start one, but it is fortunate that Biden had the courage to make the right decision and not be cowed by the usual suspects in Washington.
A lot of Americans, myself included, wrongly believed that the war in Afghanistan was necessary for our security for a long time. That was a myth that the government cultivated and one that I and many others bought into for far too long. Once it becomes clear that the war is not necessary for U.S. security, the argument for keeping U.S. troops in harm’s way there falls apart. The U.S. set goals in Afghanistan that were too ambitious and the costs of pursuing those goals exceeded what the public was willing to support over the long term. The next time that the U.S. is tempted to try to build a new state in a country that it doesn’t understand very well, we should remember the utter failure of the war in Afghanistan and realize that we do not know how to do this and we never will.