As the U.S. continues a trajectory towards withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a growing policy debate about the timing of the withdrawal and the future of the country. Recently, President Biden expressed his own doubts about whether a May 1 deadline to remove troops, agreed-to by the Trump administration, is realistic. At the core of the issue, is the realization that there are no good-policy options for the U.S. in Afghanistan, and the acceptance of defeat.
The peace talks, while necessary and appropriate, have failed to produce an enforceable agreement that meets U.S. goals in the country or creates favorable conditions of withdrawal. Despite pledges, the Taliban has not reduced its violence. In fact, while Taliban violence was down overall in 2020, it actually increased its attacks in conjunction with the peace talks with the Afghan government. The agreement signed with the Taliban serves only to provide a political cover to save face in an unceremonious withdrawal from a war the United States is no longer interested in fighting. After the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban is likely to make a major push to seize power, in much the same way that North Vietnam militarily defeated the South despite the treaty “ending” the Vietnam War in 1973.
The reality in Afghanistan is stark. Despite nearly 2 decades of U.S. involvement, there are no indications that victory is possible and the Taliban control more than half of the country. Attacks in Kabul and other Afghan government-controlled areas are routine. The Taliban believe they have basically won the war. Faced with this reality, and the understanding that no level of involvement that the U.S. is able to commit will bring about a change of this situation, remaining fully committed isn’t an effective use of U.S. resources. The war isn’t accomplishing its objectives. Therefore, the remaining choice is to leave.
Leaving isn’t without its own downsides, as the problems and U.S. interests in Afghanistan do not simply disappear after leaving. There will be significant consequences of withdrawal which the U.S. and its NATO partners in the country must be prepared to deal with.
The slaughter of America’s allies in-country
Major consequences will be felt by the Afghans that have partnered with America over the past 20 years. Whether representatives of the current Afghan government, or translators, or other people who have built the civil society the American invasion laid the groundwork for, the Taliban is likely to increase its systematic targeting, assassination, or otherwise elimination of these people.
The Increased oppression of women
In the run-up to the war, America and the world were made keenly aware of the oppression of and violence against women in Afghanistan. Enormous strides have been made towards women’s rights in the country. For example, constitutionally, 27% of seats in Afghanistan’s lower parliamentary house are held for women. Under a Taliban influenced-or controlled government, there are major concerns that women will lose the rights they have held under the current constitution.
An increased terrorism threat
The reason for the war in Afghanistan is sometimes forgotten. In 2001, the Taliban government running Afghanistan harbored al Qaeda, and after 9/11 refused to hand over Bin Laden and other al Qaeda operatives to the United States. The Taliban has never renounced its ties to al Qaeda and appears to remain active in Afghanistan, raising the very real possibility that the terror group will be able to significantly reconstitute and plan for terror operations outside the region. The U.S. will likely need to work with neighboring countries to host a rapid-reaction force capable of responding to threats still operating in Afghanistan.
Another refugee crisis
Wars bring refugees. So do defeats. The end of the Vietnam War and fall of Saigon in 1975 resulted in an exodus lasting 20 years. Just as happened then, we are likely to see hundreds of thousands if not millions of Afghans fleeing the return of Taliban rule. The many refugee crises around the world are a massive humanitarian disaster, and the scale of these crises may make the problem seem insurmountable. However, in the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. will bear a special responsibility to take care of those fleeing the country in which it was so deeply involved. It should be prepared to help process and resettle those seeking safety.
Damage to America’s credibility
Remaining in Afghanistan without making progress is damaging to U.S. credibility. Leaving will also damage credibility, further illustrating that there are no good choices. First, there will be less hesitancy to challenge the United States militarily. The Taliban, despite lacking the equipment, training, budget, and organization of the U.S. military and its partners, has remained a significant force on the battlefield despite nearly 20 years of conflict. This can and will inspire the future determination of other would-be combatants, as winning a war against the United States and its allies is demonstrably possible. Secondly, indigenous partners in future conflicts may become more hesitant to side with U.S. forces, seeing the very real limits to American commitment. As these partners are left without the benefit of American protection, they are more likely to be targeted and murdered by the Taliban after a U.S. departure.
While these are serious problems, the United States has ample warning to prepare for the consequences of these issues. Part of the problem with the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has been that it has ignored the predictability of the situation. For example, based on the history of war in the country, it was predictable that a major military operation was unlikely to produce the desired result. It was also predictable that addressing the problem in Afghanistan would take decades, if not generations of commitment. What was surprising, was the speed at which the Taliban government fell—an event that lightened American expectations in terms of the potential cost of the war. The costs of withdrawal are predictable—and should be planned for.