Home / Articles / Finding Convergence in the Afghanistan Withdrawal Debate
As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan came to a close, Americans saw Taliban violence increase as the group took over the country. Was removing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan the correct policy? Did withdrawing from a vulnerable country unconditionally and leaving its citizens in the hands of militants fall in line with American values? Was the evacuation in line with U.S. interests?
As scholars debated the answers to these questions, those arguing for withdrawal and those arguing for the need to maintain a troop presence appeared diametrically opposed. One might fear that similar policy debates in the future will experience similar deadlock. However, some important areas of convergence exist, and policymakers should look to build upon them as they face similar situations elsewhere in the Middle East.
Agreeing to Disagree
The arguments for American forces remaining in Afghanistan were not new. The United States initially went into Afghanistan with the aim of making America safer and ensuring that South Asia could not be used to plot transnational attacks against the United States and its allies. In 2017, General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, reported to the Senate in his confirmation hearing that al-Qaeda “maintain[s] a long-term aspirational goal to attack the West and the United States in particular. What keeps them from being able to do that is the direct pressure that is maintained on them every day by the counterterrorism forces in the region, assisted by the eco system that is part of the Afghan army and Afghan government.” That situation and those interests have not changed.
Along those lines, some scholars argued that it was feasible for the United States to stay in Afghanistan and that the American withdrawal increased the threat to both Americans and Afghanis. For example, Tim Kane of the Hoover Institution made a powerful case that 2021 was not the right time to leave Afghanistan and that the American mission on the ground there—much like in other countries around the world—was succeeding. Ironically, American troops were providing security on the ground there while the American public was fetishizing getting troops out of Afghanistan and ending the “forever war.” To counter the notion of a “forever war,” Kane argued that there are no such things as “forever wars,” and Afghanistan, much like other countries in which the U.S. has presence, is a nonbinary spectrum of global conflict. Kane wrote,
There are guerilla wars, proxy wars, stalemates, and in this case: cease-fires that require enforcement. If you’re buying the fiction that Afghanistan was a forever ‘war,’ why have there been no American casualties since February 2020? [See figure below]. There’s never been an American war where so few troops were doing so much good. But the skeptics of Afghanistan engagement refuse to do an honest cost-benefit analysis. Instead they retreat into a ‘no benefits and exaggerated costs’ fallacy, based on an immovable belief that there are trillions of dollars of sunk costs in Afghanistan.
Kane joined other prominent commentators who argued that pulling out of Afghanistan would result in dire consequences. For example, Madiha Afzal and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution argued that leaving Afghanistan “would be very ugly, including ethnic cleansing, mass slaughter and the ultimate dismemberment of the country.”
On the opposite side of the debate were commentators typified by Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group, who argued that leaving Afghanistan was the right call. He was joined by 73 percent of registered voters who supported troops leaving Afghanistan. Bremmer noted that “listening to the American people was the surest way to deliver on Biden’s promise of a ‘foreign policy for the middle class.’” Bremmer homed in on the notion that putting more soldiers and money towards “a cause the country neither believes in nor can win will do nothing to bring back the lives lost and dollars wasted.”
Despite the sometimes-heated arguments about whether staying in Afghanistan was worthwhile, one can find some overlap between proponents of both sides of this debate. At least among what might be called the American foreign policy establishment, even those who supported withdrawal did not argue that American operations in Afghanistan had no positive effects over the last 20 years.
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel argued that President Biden made the right decision to withdraw while noting that there were gains made for Afghan women and children in terms of human rights and education: “We did some good but we also made mistake after mistake along the way.” As such, at least some of the disagreement was less about whether the American troop presence was doing good and more about whether it was worth the cost. Yet, public debates over leaving Afghanistan rarely wrestled with what the cost the American public would be willing to pay and whether there was a way to right-size the mission so that the costs did not exceed its value. Instead, the debate was simply over staying or leaving. As such, the U.S. government lost public support for remaining in Afghanistan.
Additionally, proponents of both sides of the debate agreed that the Biden administration made a major tactical error when announcing the new withdrawal timeline. Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution argued that it was right for the United States to leave, but the exit should have been managed differently:
Although correct in its basic strategic decision, the Biden administration nonetheless made a major tactical error: In announcing the new withdrawal timeline just a few days before a planned Istanbul conference on Afghanistan, it undercut peace diplomacy. The conference — which sought an interim peace agreement between the Ashraf Ghani government and the Taliban, against the two sides’ preferences — had been a major diplomatic stretch. Managed differently, the conference could have generated a new negotiating process, complementing the moribund Doha peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This U.S. tactical error is costly for future American and international diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan.
The US government made catastrophic mistakes by undercutting both evacuation effort timelines and not expanding the airport perimeter to have more protection from attacks and allow more access points to the airport. The aggregate of this miscalculation, and many others, resulted in the deaths of US service members, the creation of effective Taliban checkpoints, an inability to retrieve US persons throughout Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan, and a humanitarian disaster at the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Experts on either side of the withdrawal debate agreed that a different exit strategy may have produced results which preserved some of the good that American forces achieved over the past 20 years.
A more nuanced look at debates shows a nascent convergence in the varying opinions. As American policymakers look toward other countries where the United States has invested years, sometimes decades, to preserve the peace, policymakers should not view their options as a binary between go or stay. Rather, they should attempt to build policies on the areas of convergence within American politics to preserve U.S. interests and values. The debates about the Afghan withdrawal can help to identify those point where wide agreement exists.
Policymakers and analysts should begin to think seriously about establishing a sustainable metric to use before retreating to a “no benefits and exaggerated costs” fallacy and withdraw troops. On some level, elements of the Biden administration already understand this reasoning. In the Interim National Security Guidance, Biden states that in the Middle East, “We will right-size our military presence to the level required to disrupt international terrorist networks, deter Iranian aggression, and protect other vital U.S. interests.” However, it is still unclear what the Biden administration’s metric was for balancing the costs and benefits of staying in Afghanistan. Therefore, it does not seem that the administration was able to follow its own guidance. When it comes to establishing a metric on evaluating troop presence on the ground in a country, the United States has to determine to what extent its presence will improve the lives of the citizens of that country and ultimately will protect the safety of American citizens.
Policymakers must also determine what it would mean for an American presence to be sustainable over time. Looking at Syria, for example, there were only a few thousand troops on the ground during the height of combat operations, with tens of thousands of troops providing direct and indirect support, while not physically there. While there were certainly detractors who felt American forces should withdraw from Syria, successive administrations have been able to maintain the mission because the U.S. military was able to balance the perceptions of cost versus value more effectively. Building on this approach may appeal to the American public.
Such an approach requires better communication and public relations strategies. As Afzal and O’Hanlon argued, clearer communications to the U.S. public is critical. If the public is more aware of how a U.S. presence is limiting mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing, then there may be a shift public opinion, which would ultimately relieve the pressure on presidential administrations to withdraw troops.
If a cost-benefit analysis determines that there is no need for combat operations, then the United States can alter the role of the troop presence in the country. Iraq provides a good example of this change in force structure. The United States agreed to not engage in combat operations, while still leaving a military presence in the country to maintain the peace and avoid the country falling into the hands of terrorist groups. If this was done in Afghanistan, the United States would have been able to better manage the relationship between American politics and the realities of what was happening on the ground.
Most importantly, the United States needs to have a well-prepared exit strategy when withdrawing troops from countries in the future. Along with what Kane and others argued above, if a mission is succeeding, then withdrawing troops may leave the country worse off than intended.
America went into Afghanistan as a response to the 9/11 attacks and to dismantle al Qaeda by removing the Taliban from power. In response, the Taliban waged an insurgency against the United States for two decades. Multiple presidential administrations understood that the key to combatting an insurgency was winning over the Afghani people and supporting their government. Initially, the United States had long-term strategic plans on how it was going to provide Afghanistan with physical and economic security that would provide citizens a better future, the essentials of their community life, and concrete plans to reduce government corruption. However, the United States failed to have a long-term, sustainable strategy for its troop presence. It was entirely possible for the American military to stay in Afghanistan while protecting its interests and protecting the liberties and safety of Afghani citizens.
To have stayed or not to have stayed will be the topic of debate for scholars in the next few decades, and as we welcome and digest those varying opinions, we must also find convergence between them and incorporate them into a sustainable U.S. foreign policy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author 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.