Edited by Max Kaplan
In March, SAIS hosted a panel of speakers for an event called Afghanistan: The War & The Aftermath. During this event, we viewed heart-wrenching clips from recent documentaries and heard from individuals well-positioned to tell the story of the U.S.-led coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the collapse of the Afghan government, and the return of Taliban control. While I appreciated the thought-provoking discussion, it offered a particularly one-sided narrative of events. Specifically, panelists were critical of the U.S. decision to retrograde but failed to offer context for that difficult choice. There is more to the story.
Throughout the discussion, Afghan senior leaders Lt. Gen. Sami Sadat and Lt. Gen. Khoshal Sadat criticized the U.S. decision to retrograde. They detailed ways the U.S. could have maintained an enduring presence in Afghanistan, along with reasons why that would have been wise. They explained how the so-called “Doha Agreement” between the U.S. and the Taliban betrayed the Afghan government. They also appealed to arguments of fairness, citing ongoing U.S. support to Ukraine. The generals’ message was simple: it was a mistake for the U.S. military to leave Afghanistan. Their frustrations and feelings of abandonment are understandable, but before weighing a judgment we should account for the U.S. rationale.
First, concluding the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan was justifiable, even if maintaining an enduring presence was possible. The justification is attributable to the nature of the conflict and its growing disconnect from U.S. national interests. The government of Afghanistan faced numerous existential threats—the Taliban most significantly—but those threats were largely internal and no longer posed an acute threat to the United States. Violent extremist organizations capable of exporting terror (i.e., Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, and affiliates) were the main driver of U.S. interest in Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan never ceased to be a terrorist haven, the threat was mitigated by dismantling terrorist leadership and establishing unilateral and combined monitoring, as well as intervention mechanisms. With this accomplished, objectives for maintaining U.S. forces in-country became unclear. The violence in Afghanistan was horrific, but that by itself did not justify continued U.S. intervention.
Second, while the Doha Agreement was unsuccessful at bringing peace to Afghanistan, the process was far from a betrayal. These allegations stem from bilateral U.S-Taliban aspects of the negotiations, but it was the inability of Afghan negotiators to make progress that forced the United States to deal with parties separately. U.S. diplomats made reasonable, good-faith efforts to promote peace between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban during and after the Doha talks. The U.S. risked its own negotiating position on multiple occasions to force intra-Afghan dialogue, but squabbling over prisoner exchanges and posturing ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election derailed the process, and neither side was willing to save it. Further, any belief that the United States should have suspended the agreement once Taliban violence against the Afghan government resumed ignores the fact that this would have returned the U.S. to its untenable, pre-Doha position. As described above, the United States was right to conclude its military mission in Afghanistan, and the Doha Agreement acknowledged that diplomacy and dialogue—not war—offered the best prospects for internal reconciliation. Where some saw betrayal, the Afghan government leaders should have seen empowerment through an Afghan-led process, recognized that the U.S. was nearing the exit, and taken responsibility for their future.
Lastly, let us consider the similarities and differences between U.S. support to Afghanistan versus Ukraine, as referenced by Lt. Gen. K. Sadat. Both relationships are similarly characterized by close military partnerships, not alliances. This distinction means intervention is based on mutual interests, not legal obligations. The models for support are also similar. Ukraine is receiving economic, diplomatic, and indirect military assistance in a package that closely mirrors the support planned for Afghanistan following U.S. retrograde. That said, the genesis of war in Ukraine, a war of conquest, is far more egregious, and intervention is more aligned with the U.S. national interests—specifically, reinforcing a rules-based international order. Additionally, the enemy Ukraine faces, Russian battalion tactical groups, comprise a far more sophisticated adversary than the Taliban. A comparison of U.S. support to Afghanistan and Ukraine does not lead me to conclude that the U.S. is unfair in supporting Ukraine over Afghanistan; on the contrary, it shows that both were likely to receive similar support, even with the war in Ukraine presenting a more pressing security interest.
Despite my disagreement with how panelists portrayed the U.S. retrograde decision, they brought up many valid points that I will cosign. The humanitarian crisis and gross backsliding of human rights in Afghanistan are abhorrent; we should continue to support NGOs and international efforts to mitigate these catastrophes. Additionally, the processing time for Special Immigrant Visas is unreasonably slow and the United States should prioritize improvements to that system. Most importantly, Afghan civilian and military partners were critical to U.S. and coalition efforts in Afghanistan. We can never forget the combined sacrifices of so many in pursuit of such noble objectives. None of these points, however, sum to a rational argument for continuing the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.