Home / Articles / No Exit: The Illusion of Leaving Afghanistan
For the youngest U.S. soldiers, America is about apple pie, Abe Lincoln, and Afghanistan. They have never known a United States that wasn’t at war in Central Asia. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, America has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and suffered thousands of deaths, with precious little to show for it. Finally, however, Washington has signaled that America is leaving. In October, President Donald Trump tweeted that all U.S. soldiers should depart Afghanistan “by Christmas.” The Pentagon announced that troop levels would fall from around 4,500 to 2,500 by early 2021. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said, “Americans need to come home.” Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller wrote, “We are not a people of perpetual war—it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end.” The yearning to return home is a bipartisan impulse. During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.”
But as with many conflicts in history, the idea that the war will be over by Christmas is an illusion. And by Christmas, I mean Christmas 2025. The United States is not really leaving Afghanistan anytime soon.
Americans traditionally see war and peace as opposites. Peacetime is the norm, and wartime is distinct and exceptional. In the national imagination, a conflict starts when the cruel enemy attacks the United States. U.S. citizens reluctantly take up arms, America wins a decisive victory, the adversary surrenders, and everyone goes home—with the archetype being World War II. However, the United States will find it difficult or impossible to close the book on the Afghanistan War.
If Washington seeks to come home from Afghanistan, it must first work out how many U.S. soldiers are deployed there—and this is less obvious than you might think. In November, Jim Golby, a former special advisor to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Mike Pence, put the number of troops at “roughly 5,500.” In October, O’Brien said, “As of today, there are under 5,000.” The New York Times reported the current deployment was 4,500. The figure is slippery because it depends on whether you count covert units and personnel temporarily stationed in the country. Another problem is that official guidance isn’t always accurate. In 2017, the Pentagon revealed that the troop level in Afghanistan was not 8,400—as it had previously claimed—but actually 11,000. Accounting tricks had been used to create the appearance of a smaller force and sidestep administration constraints. Similarly, Jim Jeffrey, the former special envoy for Syria and the fight against the Islamic State, admitted that he deceived Trump about the real number of U.S. soldiers in Syria to maintain a greater force than the White House wanted. “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.” Jeffrey concluded, “What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal.”
Let’s say we get an accurate handle on the troop levels—it’s still not clear when the final cohort of American soldiers will actually depart. Under the terms of a February 2020 deal between the Taliban and the United States, Washington is supposed to withdraw its forces by May 2021. But this is conditional on the Taliban living up to its promises, including to prevent terrorist attacks from being launched from Afghan soil and to enter talks with the Afghan government. Using benchmarks to guide an exit inherently means a longer commitment. There’s grave doubt about whether the Taliban is genuinely committed to the peace process or is simply trying to get the Americans out as a stepping-stone to victory. In September, the Afghan government and the Taliban finally began talks, but progress has been extremely slow, and even in a best-case scenario, it could take years to hammer out an agreement.
If the United States does decide to remove its remaining ground troops, the physical process of withdrawing—known in the military as retrograde—will be complex and time consuming. Packing up the weaponry, air conditioners, and TGI Fridays for even a few thousand troops can take weeks or months, especially in a country like Afghanistan, where there’s no port nearby and the soldiers may be dodging bullets as they leave.
In any case, we’re much too focused on the headline troop figure, which is only one part of the overall American presence. This figure doesn’t include U.S. intelligence operatives who likely number in the hundreds and work with local Afghan militias to hunt for ISIS and al Qaeda. Even a complete withdrawal is not really complete. At a minimum, Washington will maintain a security force to protect the U.S. embassy and others strategic sites.
Afghanistan will likely stay under the shadow of the drone—the signature weapon of the forever war. George W. Bush launched 57 known drone strikes; Barack Obama increased the number of attacks tenfold, to 563. Indeed, if U.S. soldiers depart, air strikes in Afghanistan could cause even greater Afghan civilian deaths because fewer troops mean less intelligence about targets and less capacity to take prisoners (and therefore greater incentive to pull the trigger).
The Biden campaign promised to “bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS.” But that’s not the same as leaving, and a limited mission will still require significant resources. Biden can maintain an indefinite presence in Afghanistan because there’s no real public or congressional pressure to end the war. A late 2019 Brookings Institution survey found that a plurality of Americans favored keeping troops at current levels, rather than increasing or decreasing the number. Americans are certainly weary of the struggle, from the traditional anti-war left to the Trump base, but there’s little organized opposition. Many people are neither hawks nor doves, but more like ostriches who prefer to bury their heads in the sand and not think about Afghanistan at all. One poll this fall asked people whether the United States had achieved its goals in Afghanistan: 41 percent had “no opinion.”
The United States is not leaving Afghanistan in the sense of ceasing its influence in the country. In Afghanistan, foreign aid has long been the key for regime survival. After Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989, few people gave the government in Kabul much hope. But Moscow continued to provide massive assistance to the regime, which ended up lasting longer than the Soviet Union itself—and only collapsed in 1992 when Moscow finally turned off the spigot of assistance. Today, the government in Kabul is still dependent on billions of dollars in aid. The real value of U.S. soldiers for Kabul is not on the battlefield: a few thousand American troops can’t decide the course of a war fought between 300,000 regime forces and 150,000 Taliban forces. The real value of U.S. soldiers is that their presence ensures that Congress keeps signing the foreign aid checks.
Of course, when Americans talk about leaving Afghanistan, they mean Americans leaving. But U.S. intervention is part of a broader NATO and allied mission. Around 7,000 international troops are currently engaged in Afghanistan, mainly training regime forces, and it’s not clear how many will stay if U.S. soldiers head for the exit.
And it’s possible that U.S. troops may leave Afghanistan and then go back. In 2003, Bush was eager to topple Saddam Hussein and then leave as quickly as possible, but he ended up sending reinforcements to Iraq as part of the “surge” strategy. Similarly, Obama withdrew U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 2011, before sending soldiers back following the rise of ISIS. Biden could also escalate involvement in Afghanistan, if the alternative was the fall of Kabul and images of people being rescued by helicopter.
In the end, America may leave Afghanistan, but Afghanistan won’t leave America. The soldiers bring the war home. The United States must live with the legacies of conflict for decades, from wounded veterans to Pentagon equipment being handed off to American police forces.
In Afghanistan, America fights without hope of victory. It fights for a lesser loss rather than a greater loss. And yet the answer is not simply to cut and run. Winding down a failing campaign is one of the great trials of leadership. It requires a cool-headed focus on safeguarding core interests and keeping costs manageable. The United States has real—if limited—interests at stake in Afghanistan, such as combatting extremist groups; keeping a lid on the great game of regional competition by India, Pakistan, and other countries; protecting Afghan institutions and the hard-won rights of Afghan women; and aiding the 2.7 million Afghan refugees (a displaced population that is second only to that of Syria). These interests justify a modest continued U.S. investment, including a long-term commitment of aid and a central role in peace talks to ensure that key regional actors have a seat at the table.
Fighting a war to lose less badly is a grim business. Next time America contemplates seizing the sword, Washington should create a strategy that doesn’t end in a quagmire, or alternatively, just say no.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.