Could America have avoided the tragedy in Afghanistan?

Much has changed in Afghanistan since the Biden administration withdrew US forces a year ago. A report by Human Rights Watch calls the situation there a “human rights nightmare”.

The group notes that “Taliban authorities have imposed severe restrictions on the rights of women and girls, repressed the media, and arbitrarily detained, tortured, and summarily executed critics and suspected opponents.” Over 90% of Afghans are now food insecure.

But the problems go beyond a humanitarian crisis. This month, a US drone strike killed notorious al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. His presence at a Taliban safehouse in Kabul has heightened longstanding concerns about the regime’s enduring ties to al-Qaeda.

Afghanistan was always going to be problematic. But did it have to be that bad?

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I have personally been concerned about the future of Afghanistan, and the US mission there, for some time. Years ago, I came to believe strongly in the conclusion of the US Director of National Intelligence in 2009: “No improvement in Afghanistan is possible without Pakistan gaining control of its border areas.

The US mission in Afghanistan has faced many daunting challenges: from flaws in US strategy to bickering among Afghan politicians, corruption and mismanagement. In terms of impact, however, these pale in comparison to the Taliban’s ace card. As long as Pakistan provides a safe haven for Taliban leaders and a conveyor belt of equipment and personnel for their soldiers, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan will remain hopelessly out of reach, regardless of progress on other fronts.

Yet nothing in the years that followed suggested that the US government was prepared to take the difficult but necessary steps to compel Pakistan to end this bloody charade. I became increasingly convinced that a “victory” in Afghanistan, as originally defined, was unattainable. “Either take Pakistan seriously or get out,” I argued fiercely in 2015. Unless “the United States is prepared to act as a global superpower and contain Pakistan, America’s goals will prove elusive and American troops will continue to make sacrifices on a battlefield where the deck is stacked against them.

As the United States’ commitment to Afghanistan began to dwindle dramatically – from a force of over 100,000 to a footprint of 2,500 – I became more open to the merits of a limited counterterrorism mission (CT). An Afghan CT mission would be comparatively larger and more expensive than the dozens of other CT missions the United States conducts around the world, but it would be close to a hotbed of some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. It would, however, require the United States to fundamentally redefine its goals and engage in a frank conversation with the Afghan government: “We can’t build this democracy for you, and we can’t protect every village in rural Afghanistan, but we can prevent a complete collapse as we target global terrorists and enemies of the United States”

In 2019, as US negotiations with the Taliban were underway in Doha, I co-authored a report making some basic recommendations: 1) A bad deal with the Taliban was worse than no deal; 2) a final decision on a complete withdrawal of the US military should depend on a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government; 3) any withdrawal of US troops must be done responsibly; and 4) the United States. should draw a red line around the presence of al-Qaeda.

We had no illusions that staying in Afghanistan was free of risks and costs. And we knew that public support for the mission in Afghanistan was, after twenty years of war, in decline in the United States. The challenge at the time was to cut through the politicized narratives of “eternal wars” and determine which of two paths to take – a complete withdrawal or the retention of a limited CT force – would be more costly.

The costs associated with a complete withdrawal seemed more certain and potentially more serious. We were far from the only ones to doubt that the Taliban were negotiating in good faith in Doha or to be wary of the Taliban’s commitment to severing ties with Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, there was a fairly broad consensus on what was likely to happen after a Taliban takeover: an empowered Haqqani network; the dramatic setbacks in political and human rights; economic collapse and the return of al-Qaeda. Indeed, the Biden administration’s own forecast seemed to recognize that a Taliban takeover would follow any US withdrawal. They just vastly overestimated how long the Afghan government would last. (Full disclosure: Me too.)

In hindsight, would it have been better to keep a contingent of 2,500 American soldiers in the country if it meant avoiding this catastrophe? Would have did he avoid this disaster?

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Critics argue that the rapid collapse of the Afghan government confirmed the failure of the US mission. They further argue that the only reason the US casualty count dropped dramatically is that the Taliban thought the US was leaving and wanted to speed up this process. If the United States changed course, they say, the Taliban would have resumed their attacks on American personnel and casualties would have increased again.

It is plausible. But it is highly unlikely that the Taliban marched on Kabul in a matter of weeks. And it is not a certainty that the American losses would have increased considerably. It was American air power, not ground forces, that had prevented the Taliban from capturing a single provincial capital for twenty years. It is entirely possible that the United States continued to have a disproportionate impact on the security environment, acting as a force multiplier and limiting exposure to special raids on high-value targets.

Would a limited but sustainable CT mission have been preferable to…this? For the Afghan people, the answer is clearly yes. What about the United States? It probably depends on what comes next.

We are beginning to understand the terrible economic and human costs of the Taliban takeover. What is not yet clear is its impact on international terrorism. Zawahiri’s presence in the capital and the empowerment of the Haqqani network – the most radical and murderous Taliban faction closest to al-Qaeda – have me sounding the alarm.

This piece originally appeared in National Interest

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