Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the U.S. should not be concerned if the Taliban take over Afghanistan. You can find a counterpoint here, where Ilan Berman argues that if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban, the country could once again be a haven for terrorist groups.
The United States is finally going to end its war in Afghanistan. President Joe Biden made that quite clear in his remarks last week, declaring that we will officially complete our withdrawal by August 31, bringing the longest war in our history to a close after nearly 20 years of fighting.
The commanding officer for American forces in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, and almost all other U.S. troops have already departed. So the war is basically over – for the U.S. at least.
Of course, Afghanistan will still be locked in a war that has been ongoing for over four decades. Indeed, the situation in Afghanistan will be quite messy going forward and most of us who have argued for U.S. withdrawal — including Biden — have factored that sad truth into our thinking. But the purpose of American power is not charity or social engineering but protecting our interests – and our interests in Afghanistan don’t demand a permanent troop presence in the midst of a costly civil war.
It would be easy to say our withdrawal was inevitable, with the rise of China dictating more of a focus on Asia and the myriad of domestic challenges facing the United States. Moreover, after nearly two decades of struggle, death, and burning through over a trillion taxpayer dollars with little to show for it, over two-thirds of the American people have come to support a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But given the entrenched orthodoxies of the foreign policy establishment, a full withdrawal from Afghanistan was far from inevitable.
President Donald Trump’s attempts to get us out of Afghanistan were undercut and hamstrung continuously within his own administration. Biden faced immense pressure not to faithfully implement the Doha agreement signed under Trump that mandated a full American withdrawal and to return to the status quo ante.
Ultimately, the political and policy arguments for withdrawal prevailed. This was in part due to the left-right coalition that came together to pressure President Biden to honor the Doha agreement and fully withdraw. It also became a choice between Trump’s withdrawal and Biden’s War – and the president wisely chose not to sink the U.S. back into a quagmire that would only lead to more American deaths, more resources wasted in the money pit of Kabul, and continued resistance to U.S. and Afghan government goals.
Critics of withdrawal will undoubtedly argue that the messy scenes we will see in Afghanistan over the coming months and years, including a possible Taliban takeover, are the consequence of U.S. abandonment of the war. But this would be a misdiagnosis. The reality is that there was violence and systemic social problems in Afghanistan before the American withdrawal and they will remain after the withdrawal. Indeed, while we saw minor improvements in some issues due to our presence, our efforts also unintentionally fueled some of the worst aspects of Afghan life, especially political corruption that only deepened hostility towards us and the government we supported. Moreover, our troops wouldn’t be wrong to ask whether any of those improvements really mattered for our security or would even survive without buy-in from the majority of the Afghan people – which never really materialized.
The lesson for the future is that even if we must rush into conflict like we did after 9/11 to decimate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, we shouldn’t – and don’t need to – linger to try to fulfill the problematic hypothesis that countries need to be reshaped in our image for us to be safe from threats emanating from their territory. Such a task was well-beyond the capabilities of our brave troops, especially when faced with the realities of Afghanistan as it is and has been for centuries.
One real possibility is that the Taliban will prevail in their fight against the current government of Afghanistan and that they will dominate large parts of the country like they did prior to 2001. Critics will say that this will pose a significant strategic threat to the U.S. that has been overlooked.
This isn’t a desirable outcome. But it is something the United States can live with and handle.
The Taliban were punished severely by the American military and our coalition partners. They have strong incentives not to allow Afghanistan to be a staging area for terrorists who intend to harm the United States or the West. Thus, we should clearly signal what it would mean should they again be complicit in an attack against us.
We should also leverage our military capabilities as needed at any point to carry out over-the-horizon strikes or even raids to defend ourselves from any terrorist organizations in Afghanistan with the intent and capability to harm us.
We should remember that the last 20 years have shown we have the ability to pressure jihadists where we need to, keeping them on the defensive without occupying every nation where they could operate. Thus we could manage the challenge even if the Taliban failed to appreciate their own interest.
We should also recognize that the Taliban will want international aid dollars to continue flowing. Their leadership have an interest in avoiding the pariah status they had achieved the last time they ruled large parts of Afghanistan. While we should not expect them to act like saints or embrace liberal values, the Taliban have incentives in being more careful in how they approach social issues and Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.
But even if the Taliban re-imposes a draconian social order on Afghanistan, we need to remember that this is not America’s fight. American safety and prosperity do not depend on the nature of Afghan society, including Afghanistan being a bastion of liberalism. And that goal certainly is not worth the cost of more American lives and a ceaseless waste of billions with no clear path to success.
Presidents Trump and Biden were correct. It is time to leave Afghanistan. And like with other problematic countries around the world where terrorists could roam, we do not need a permanent troop presence or a kinder, gentler government in place for us to meet our defense needs.
Dr. William Ruger is the Vice President of Policy and Research at the Charles Koch Institute. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and was President Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Afghanistan.