The twentieth anniversary of the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is only six months away, and it is still uncertain whether the Biden administration will withdraw the last remaining American troops from America’s longest war. Last month, President Biden seemed to pour cold water on the possibility of leaving by the agreed-upon May 1 deadline, but also added that "we are not staying a long time." Given how long the war has dragged on and how intense the resistance to withdrawal is in Washington, it is hard to believe that US forces will finally exit Afghanistan this year. The administration’s apparent unwillingness to remove the remaining troops on time is a bad sign that they will find some pretext to keep thousands of Americans in harm’s way in a war that the US lost long ago.
If Biden fails to pull out by the May 1 deadline, he will take ownership of the war and US forces will come under attack again. There is no good excuse for putting US troops at risk for another six months, and nothing will change between now and November that makes withdrawal then any "safer" or more "orderly" than it would be if the withdrawal happened in a few weeks. Allowing a delay in the withdrawal will encourage hawks to agitate for more delay and to urge Biden to send more troops to support the troops that are coming under fire. The president says that it will be "tough" to exit Afghanistan by May 1, but he bears the blame for that because of his own foot-dragging. Had the Biden administration acted swiftly to honor the Doha Agreement, the withdrawal could have already been underway by now, but thanks to redundant consultations and reviews the time needed to complete the withdrawal has been all but frittered away.
Previous presidents have refused to make the necessary decision to withdraw because they have not wanted to be accused of "losing" Afghanistan, but Biden needs to recognize and publicly acknowledge that the war could not be won once the US set such unrealistic goals for itself. The US was never going to have the political will to outlast the Taliban, because sooner or later the US was going to leave and they aren’t going anywhere. The public has no appetite for escalation, and a large majority of Americans wants US troops out. Support for withdrawal is strongest among veterans and their families, who have borne the burden of this war and have the largest stake in it. Ignoring majority opinion to continue an unwinnable war is a perfect example of the lack of democratic accountability in our foreign policy. Biden has an opportunity to put himself on the right side of public opinion and to do what is in the best interests of the country, but he must be willing to ignore the carping from foreign policy establishment figures and hawkish pundits.
Opponents of withdrawal warn that the departure of US and allied forces would lead to the Taliban’s defeat of the Afghan government’s forces. That is true, and it speaks volumes about the failure of the effort to train and equip these forces. Instead of trying to make the Afghan military self-sufficient, the US has kept it heavily dependent on our forces throughout the war. As Jeff Schogol concludes in a recent report, "Despite two decades and billions of dollars of support, Afghan security forces cannot survive without outside assistance." If the Afghan government cannot defend itself after twenty years of US support, it will always be too weak to survive without US military backing. Far from being a reason to stay in Afghanistan, the weakness of the government is proof that the war cannot be won. Keeping Afghanistan as a permanent protectorate is not a serious option. Propping up a corrupt government in Kabul has nothing to do with the security of the United States.
Our political and military leaders are allergic to admitting failure no matter how overwhelming the evidence of that failure may be. An entire generation of politicians and officers has been involved in selling the war with misleading and false claims of progress. The perverse incentives of our political culture have made perpetuating failed policies much easier and more rewarding than ending them. That is how withdrawing from a lost war has become more politically risky than prolonging the conflict.
The persistence of the nonsensical "safe haven" myth has meant that many Americans imagine that war in Afghanistan still has something to do with preventing terrorism on US soil two decades after the original attacks, but it does not. Keeping troops deployed in war zones is not a safeguard against terrorism. If anything, maintaining a military presence in countries where our forces are not wanted is more likely to provoke more attacks in the future. Regardless, the reality is that the US is exceptionally secure from physical threats and terrorism is a relatively minor threat that does not require us to wage decades-long wars. Withdrawing from Afghanistan should force our political leaders and analysts to recognize that the larger "war on terror" has also been a costly waste. Our heavily militarized response to terrorism has served only to cause more death and destruction across two continents. It is time to end the US war in Afghanistan, and then our government needs to shut down the rest of the endless wars that it has been fighting since 2001.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.