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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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