It’s not often that President Donald Trump made life better for his successor. But Afghanistan may be the rare exception. After a twenty-year war, the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban offers the opportunity for removal of US troops. It’s a gift, and one the Biden administration should embrace. Ending the US presence in that country is long overdue.
Yet while a majority of Americans support withdrawal, there’s growing evidence that the Biden administration may not withdraw US troops by the May 1 deadline negotiated by the Trump administration. Much of Washington’s commentariat concurs; the Washington Post editorial board, for example, recently argued that the United States should not follow through, arguing that the United States should consider sending more troops and bargaining with Iran, Russia, and Pakistan. “Those difficult steps,” they argue, “are nevertheless preferable to abandoning Afghanistan.”
They are wrong. The Biden administration would be foolish — both politically and in terms of national security — to delay the removal of US troops. Trump’s deal offers a once-in-a-presidency opportunity to accomplish an end to our longest war.
THE PIPE DREAM
At the heart of the Afghanistan question is a simple fact: the war is lost. Despite this, a congressionally mandated Afghanistan study group concluded just this month that US troop presence continues to be vital, arguing that the goal should be, “an independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state” that combats terror groups, prevents threats including “illicit narcotics and mass migration,” exercises sovereignty over its borders, and governs in terms that reflect “the popular will, supports and protects minorities, women’s rights, the democratic character of the state, and a free press.”
This sounds wonderful. It’s also a pipe dream. Indeed, even those in favor of maintaining the US troop presence in Afghanistan typically acknowledge that there is no clear path to victory in Afghanistan, at least as it is currently — and expansively — defined. Instead, many frame their arguments in terms of sustainability, of a purportedly low-cost, persistent US military mission in the country.
The question about costs might be less pressing if there was a good strategic case for maintaining a troop presence in Afghanistan. The most persuasive such case is probably the notion that the country will once again become a haven for terrorists, as it was before 2001. Yet even it is deeply flawed.
Yet the security-based arguments for withdrawal have been compelling for a long time, while arguments about sustainability largely ignore the cost of the conflict. The war costs approximately $50 billion per year. Though that might seem small in the context of America’s vast federal budget, it’s roughly the same amount that we spend annually on food stamps ($60 billion), or the cost of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) marketplace subsidies ($56 billion). And then there are the human costs. Around twenty US service members die each year in Afghanistan; though certainly lower than the death tolls earlier in the conflict, it’s still hard to argue that this is “sustainable,” particularly when they are at best prolonging a stalemate.
The question about costs might be less pressing if there was a good strategic case for maintaining a troop presence in Afghanistan. The most persuasive such case is probably the notion that the country will once again become a haven for terrorists, as it was before 2001. Yet even it is deeply flawed. Certainly, the withdrawal of US troops will not end the violence in Afghanistan; it may even make it worse for a time.
But even in the absolute worst-case scenario in which the Afghan government collapses and the Taliban retakes the country, it’s still not likely that they will welcome back terrorist groups. They undoubtedly remember what happened the last time they did so. And if the Taliban were for some reason stupid enough to allow the country to once again become a terror haven, we could still send troops back into Afghanistan as needed. The security risks of withdrawal are surprisingly minimal.
Unfortunately, the Afghanistan question has become a political problem. No president wants to be the man who lost the war; successive administrations have been punting on Afghanistan for over a decade. Indeed, it increasingly resembles Vietnam, another military quagmire which multiple presidents feared to be seen as losing. In that case, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger arranged withdrawal while obfuscating to the public the question of who had “lost Vietnam.” As in Afghanistan, the war had been lost long before, yet the political incentives against withdrawal kept America trapped.
Luckily, when it comes to the political question, the Biden administration has an advantage: the deal negotiated by the Trump administration. It’s certainly not a perfect deal. It requires the removal of all foreign forces, in exchange for Taliban commitments not to allow terror groups to operate in its territory. Adherence to the ceasefire has been patchy. Yet it offers Biden the opportunity to exit this quagmire while washing his hands of the political question. To be blunt, this is the kind of gift few politicians receive: the opportunity to solve a problem while blaming any negative consequences squarely on your predecessor.
BIDEN’S OPPORTUNITY IN AFGHANISTAN
To avoid the blame game that dogged the Obama administration after its adherence to an Iraqi status of forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration, Biden should be clear up front that his hands are bound by the Trump-negotiated deal. And he should also make it clear that while the United States is hardly exiting Afghanistan in a blaze of glory, we nonetheless achieved our original objectives in that conflict: the Taliban was removed from power; much of its pre-2001 leadership is dead and gone; and al-Qaeda was crushed in Afghanistan, and is no longer free to operate globally.
In short, though we may not have achieved the most ambitious goals of the post-2002 mission creep phase of the war, we achieved our basic security goals, a point that should serve to emphasize to the Taliban the potential future costs of reneging on the deal after American withdrawal. In accepting this partial win, and following through on the Trump–Taliban deal, Biden can seize perhaps the best opportunity to overcome the political stalemate that has characterized American debates over withdrawal.
It is, however, an opportunity with a sell-by date. Biden must seize it before May 1, or risk being the president who kept us in Afghanistan for the next decade — or longer.
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Inkstick and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative.