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Policy Implications: Assessing American Withdrawal from Afghanistan

September 19, 2021 2:24 PM | Danielle Dougall

Policy Implications: Assessing American Withdrawal from Afghanistan

On August 30, President Biden followed through on his promise to end twenty years of American occupation in Afghanistan. Media coverage of Kabul’s quick fall and frightened Afghans clinging to departing planes at Kabul International Airport left the world, Americans scrambling to assess the situation and blame the incumbent administration. It is easy to forget that the seeds of the Afghanistan crisis were planted decades ago. Stasis or a resolute victory were unrealistic outcomes at this stage in the conflict. The United States only had two clear options - continue the withdrawal from Afghanistan that the Trump administration had started or hope to stave off a resurgent Taliban. 

One question scholars debate is whether the withdrawal could have been handled better? The answer is clear. What was intended to be a slow and deliberate withdrawal of American presence quickly escalated into an emergency evacuation of more than 120,000 people in one of the biggest airlifts in American history. Nearly three weeks after the evacuation, 100 American citizens are still trapped in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, as well as thousands of Afghans who worked or cooperated with the United States for the past two decades. 

The Afghanistan episode is one of many failed American attempts at regime change in the twentieth century. A few weeks into the war, the Taliban requested to make a deal with the U.S. However, the Bush administration refused to negotiate with them. Instead, they pushed for a complete military victory to install democratic leaders in Afghanistan’s government. Twenty years later, the Biden administration faced a crumbling Afghani infrastructure, deep government corruption, and growing hostility from underground Taliban networks to the American presence. Nearly 250,000 Afghan lives have been lost in the conflict, 6,000 American lives were taken, and the war cost the U.S. $2 trillion.

A strong argument for U.S. withdrawal was that it would free up American resources. However, the hasty exit may have increased burdens on our allies and military. The ability to address terrorism without boots on the ground places undue stress on flight and bomber fleets. It leaves the Biden administration in a difficult position to try and retain influence in the region. 

Over the lengthy U.S. occupation, the American government trained approximately 300,000 Afghan military forces. But when American troops withdrew from Kabul and the Taliban poured in, the Afghani government did not fight. Afghanistan’s crumbling government Adding to the confusion, many citizens of war-torn villages in rural Afghanistan welcomed the Taliban’s reappearance as a broker of new peace. Afghanistan’s government faced problems of internal corruption and a refusal of leaders to unite politically. The Biden administration asked officials to meet with the Taliban and negotiate a diplomatic settlement during U.S. withdrawal, and they refused. 

The hasty American exit demonstrates an alarming approach to U.S. foreign policy making due to great power competition. The spillover of the crisis has broader implications for stability for Afghanistan’s Middle Eastern and Asian neighbors. Geopolitically, Afghanistan sits on the hinge between the Middle East and South Asia. Perhaps the most apparent impact of the Taliban takeover is its effect on Pakistan. The Taliban has a long history of ties with Pakistani military intelligence (ISI). Some foreign policy analysts suspect that the swiftness of the Taliban takeover indicates the ISI may have helped coordinate and fund it. Pakistan has its own Taliban problem dedicated to overthrowing the government, and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is in poor relations with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Scholars anticipate a net gain for Pakistan and a corresponding loss for India. 

Looking West, the primary question is how the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban success will impact the Persian Gulf tension among Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies. During the 1990s, the Saudi government and some Arab Gulf States were associated with the Taliban, and Iran was its enemy. Today, relations are even more challenging to decipher. The U.S. disengagement signals Russia’s longstanding claim as a peacemaker in the region may receive more attention and agreement from parts of the international community. Russian talks with the Taliban trace back to 2007 and Putin’s narrative of fighting terrorism abroad, particularly in Syria. Putin has a zero-sum outlook on foreign policy; any American loss is fundamentally Russia’s gain.

Building partner capacity programs (BPCs) is often used as a tactic for the U.S. to curtail its military presence in extended wars. BPCs are particularly common in scenarios where the U.S. has engaged military forces but now faces itself with little incentives to stay and finite resources. Often, the American government has fallen back on the strategy of training and equipping host forces - in this case, Afghanistan’s government and military - as they prepare to withdraw. The American mentality is that foreign governments and local parties must be prepared to take over once American presence is removed. However, this mindset overlooks the misapplication of American military intervention as a tool to combat threats instead of intervention for democracy building. 

What are the long-term policy implications and consequences for America’s relationship with Afghanistan? Scholars are currently describing the Trump and Biden administration’s decision to withdraw as part of a larger process of strategic re-prioritization. The past decade has reshaped American interest from a preoccupation with fighting terrorism to containment as China becomes a top priority in U.S. foreign policy. While Afghanistan seems to be one element of a larger pivot in America's international engagement, the crisis demonstrates the need for a revised approach to our international engagement and the problems interventionism often leaves in its wake. 

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