An Afghan soldier plays a guitar that was left behind after the American military departed Bagram air base in Afghanistan on July 5. Photo: AP
Sumit Ganguly
Sumit Ganguly

Why the US’ Afghanistan pull-out is the least bad choice

  • Critics of Biden’s decision are many, but when it comes to defining ‘victory’ and how it might be accomplished, they have no clear answer
  • The US has spent US$2 trillion on the war and lost about 2,500 personnel. Tens of thousands of Afghans have died. It is hard to justify a prolonged campaign
There has been no shortage of commentary in the United States media of late on President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan no later than September 1 and possibly even earlier.
At best, about 650 US military personnel will remain in Kabul to protect the US embassy. Meanwhile, Turkey, a Nato ally, has agreed to deploy an unspecified number of its forces to secure Kabul’s airport.

The criticism of Biden’s decision runs along a familiar set of lines. As US troops and ancillary personnel withdraw, the Afghan security forces will not benefit from American air support, the fledgling Afghan air force will soon lack the contractors to service its planes and, consequently, Taliban fighters will overwhelm Afghan ground troops.

In turn, province after province will fall to the Taliban and, before long, they will be on the outskirts of Kabul, placing the government of President Ashraf Ghani at risk.

Worse still, the critics argue that, as the Taliban wrap their tentacles around much of the countryside as well as the cities, they will wrest the hard-gotten gains of the past 20 years, undermining the rights of women and minorities and stifling any form of political dissent.


Thousands flee as Taliban surges in Afghanistan

Thousands flee as Taliban surges in Afghanistan

It is hardly beyond the realm of possibility that this dire scenario portrayed by critics may well come to pass. For all their protestations to the contrary, it is most unlikely that the Taliban have abandoned their retrograde ideology.

That said, what the critics have failed to address is quite straightforward: what is their definition of victory and how might it be accomplished? To this question, they have no clear-cut answer.

At best, they suggest that the US should have made better provisions for training the Afghans to service the military equipment being left behind, that the pace of withdrawal need not have been so precipitate, and that more specific guarantees of eventual power-sharing should have been extracted from the Taliban at the Doha talks.

Where are Australia’s liberal values when it comes to Afghanistan?

At worst, the critics, especially those on the right, simply call for a more extended American military presence.

The suggestion that the US should have made better preparations for the withdrawal, especially in terms of providing better training for military technicians and mechanics, is probably legitimate. However, the notion that such tutelage would have turned the military tide against the Taliban is all but a chimera.

It is far from clear that a more phased withdrawal, another preferred strategy, would have produced a vastly different outcome. After all, the US had been reducing forces anyway over the past several years. It is probably true that Donald Trump’s negotiators could have forged a better agreement in Doha.

However, those are the cards that Joe Biden inherited; he is hardly responsible for the hand he has been dealt.
Finally, the right-wing view, that the US should maintain a military presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, is little more than a fool’s errand: after two decades of war, why do its proponents still believe that continuing the military occupation would miraculously produce a different result?

The end of another imperial folly

The US has already expended much blood and treasure over the past two decades. Most estimates suggest it has spent close to US$2 trillion on the war and lost about 2,500 military personnel.

The toll exacted on the Afghan military is considerably worse: close to 70,000 Afghan government forces have died, along with over 47,000 Afghan civilians – men, women and children.

Given this material and human toll, it is hard to argue that a prolonged military campaign is truly justified. Instead, Biden’s decision to make a clean break, though seemingly callous, actually makes considerable sense.

The tasks now before the Biden administration are quite different. At the outset, it is wisely maintaining military assets in nearby Gulf states to carry out aerial counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan. It has also committed to providing economic assistance to the beleaguered Ghani government.


China tells its nationals to leave Afghanistan as violence spirals ahead of US withdrawal

China tells its nationals to leave Afghanistan as violence spirals ahead of US withdrawal
Beyond those provisions, it needs to ensure that Islamabad, which has long run with the hares and hunted with the hounds, does not continue to aid and abet the Taliban.

With the possible exception of the final days of the second Obama administration, and then during much of the Trump presidency, US officials had mollycoddled many a squalid regime in Pakistan. They had done so mostly because of the need to supply the American troop presence in Afghanistan.

With that necessity effectively at an end, the Biden administration can exert suitable pressure on America’s erstwhile, duplicitous ally to cut off its pipeline of support to the Taliban. Without Pakistan’s provision of sanctuaries for, and continued covert assistance to, the Taliban, their seemingly inexorable march towards Kabul will be considerably hobbled.

Given the legacy it was bequeathed after 20 years of strife, conflict and war, the Biden administration had few attractive choices before it. Prolonging a war that offered no end in sight was probably the worst option it was confronted with. Terminating the American military involvement, under the circumstances, is easily the least bad alternative.

Sumit Ganguly is a distinguished professor of political science and Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at Indiana University, Bloomington