President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops stationed in Afghanistan was ill-advised. Why? Because the departure of American and NATO troops would clear the ground for the Taliban to grow into a superior force in the strife-torn country. With little effort, it might also subdue the US-backed government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani which is itself mired in internal disagreements and contradictions. If it does, the position of women under Taliban rule would be least enviable and a return to the depraved days from 1996 to 2001 cannot be ruled out. The prospect of a full-fledged civil war cannot be dismissed either. Worse still, Taliban might provide safe haven to global Islamist terrorists, particularly the al-Qaeda, who would then plot attacks against the West, in general, and America in particular, from the comfort of their sanctuary in the mountains of Afghanistan.
The spectres of a bloody civil war or a Taliban-led Afghanistan and a reinvigorated al-Qaeda are all very frightening indeed. But these plausible predictions do not adequately explain why American and NATO troops should continue to stay in the country. Paradoxically, President Biden’s announcement to withdraw all military deployments in Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 (the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that brought America there) seems to be a wise and bold move. This article will explain why it is a wise move and debunks the arguments made in opposition to it including the ones that have been listed above.
Those who oppose a US military drawdown sometimes argue that America has not yet accomplished what it set out to when it invaded Afghanistan. In other words, its “commitment” to Afghanistan has not been “fulfilled.” This line of reasoning is untenable because it fails to take into account America’s endeavour to “win” the war in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. What is usually meant by the word “commitment” is decimation of the Taliban, strengthening of the Kabul government, restoration of human rights, peace and democracy followed by a constant military vigil to thwart a revival of the Taliban. All these sound like noble and well-meaning objectives to fight for. But it must be stressed that the chances of all this coming true are next to nothing. America has fought the Taliban for almost 20 years now and at one point had deployed as many as 100,000 troops in the country to defeat the group. However, the Taliban show no signs of going down quietly. They have proved a resilient fighting force that is here to stay. Therefore, to support the perpetuation of American military deployment in the hope of a triumph over the Taliban is a quixotic enterprise.
President George Bush’s administration ventured into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and root out the al-Qaeda terrorists hiding there. The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011 by a CIA operation while his organisation was already too weak to launch another attack on the scale of 9/11 against America. US policy in Afghanistan should then have been restricted to preventing global terrorist groups from gaining ground in the country through tactical diplomacy and logistical and security support to the Kabul government. Instead, America stepped up its military engagement in a futile attempt to defeat the Taliban. Afghanistan soon became the longest of America’s wars and loads of troops were brought into the country to fight for an extremely vague and elusive cause.
Another objection to the withdrawal springs from the fear that the Taliban might become a more powerful force and even topple the Kabul regime. That concern is certainly reasonable and well-founded. But again, it fails to explain why only military presence can prevent that from happening. Indeed, as noted before, numerous shellings, bombings, drone attacks over the past 20 years by the most powerful military in the world proved incapable of defeating the Taliban. There is no reason why the Taliban would not continue to grow in vigour, as it has in the previous two decades, if American military deployments continued. America’s aim to prevent the rise of the Taliban can be achieved by non-military means including improving coordination with Afghanistan’s neighbours such as Pakistan, India and other stakeholders.
The most important concern against military retrenchment is that Afghanistan would become a haven for Islamist groups like al-Qaeda. Whilst it may be true that terrorist groups might gain ground if the Taliban becomes a superior force, America’s vulnerability to their attacks is overblown. As some analysts have pointed out, terrorist attacks are more likely to emanate from hotbeds of extremism like some parts of the Sahel region of Africa, Somalia and the ISIS prisons in northern Syria. The brewing militancy in these areas pose a greater danger of terrorist outbreak than does an al-Qaeda resurrection in Afghanistan. Therefore, the argument that America has no other way to prevent a terrorist revival in Afghanistan than stationing its troops there, does not stand up to scrutiny.
Having dispelled the concerns regarding a drawdown of troops, it seems clear that continued military deployment would only prolong an already protracted war with no conceivable end in sight. Perpetuation of military deployment would increase casualties, frustrate America, radicalise the Taliban further, imperil the lives of civilians and squander valuable resources into a seemingly bottomless pit which could be better utilised elsewhere; but it will not end the war.
From America’s perspective, it is imperative that it gets out of Afghanistan and focus on other more important issues. For the next several years, tackling a rising China will be the dominant issue in American foreign policy. The US must focus its concentration and resources in finding a way to confront the single greatest threat to its global supremacy. At this stage, continuing to fight an exhausting and pointless war in the remote mountains of South Asia will deprive it of considerable resources and wear down its policy makers. Development of cyber capabilities, strengthening its ally-network in East and South-East Asia, envisioning and actualising a more efficient role for the Quad are what must occupy American attention in the upcoming years. Towards that end, President Biden’s decision to pull out all troops from Afghanistan is a right move in the right direction. Three previous US Presidents have kicked the can down the road with regards to American military engagement in Afghanistan. It is a favourable development that Biden has decided not to pass the baton to his successor.
The State Department has to devise a robust Afghanistan policy in order to prove that military deployment is not a sine qua non to protect US interests in the region. Firstly, America should continue to mediate the intra-Afghan talks between the Kabul-based government and the Taliban. If an amicable truce is negotiated between the two sides, America stands to benefit the most. Like some observers argue, it should continue to support the government whilst simultaneously offering carrots and occasionally wielding sticks against the Taliban to shape its behavior. At the same time, America must coordinate its Afghanistan policy with regional stakeholders including Pakistan, India and Iran. None of these countries desire an unstable Afghanistan. A calibrated approach that takes into account the interests of these countries would help in the attainment of a workable solution.
-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)
Picture Credits: USA Today