On Afghanistan, An Anguishing Choice about Withdrawing Troops
Five factors will influence the U.S. role and the prospects for peace after two decades of war.
By Robin Wright
There’s a prophetic scene at the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the film that chronicles a flamboyant Texas congressman (played by Tom Hanks) and a rogue C.I.A. agent (Philip Seymour Hoffman) mobilizing what was then the largest U.S. covert intelligence operation in history. Operation Cyclone facilitated the training, arming, and empowering of the Afghan mujahideen—holy warriors—to fight the Soviet Union in the nineteen-eighties. America’s proxies prevailed, in the sense that the Soviets realized that their decade-long presence had become too costly—financially, politically, and militarily—and that they couldn’t achieve their goals. “What, are we going to sit there forever?” the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev reportedly told the Politburo in 1986. “Or should we be ending this war? Otherwise, we’ll disgrace ourselves in every respect.” In 1989, after losing more than fourteen thousand troops and spending at least fifty billion dollars, the Soviets withdrew. They just wanted out of an unpopular war. Afghanistan soon collapsed into a civil war that pitted rival warlords against one another, until the Taliban seized power, in 1996, imposed strict Islamic law, and welcomed other jihadis such as Al Qaeda. After Al Qaeda’s attacks in 2001, U.S. forces helped their Afghan allies to topple the Taliban. A new U.S.-backed government was ensconced in Kabul.
Two decades later, Joe Biden now faces an anguishing choice over whether to withdraw the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1st. The deadline is part of an agreement brokered by the Trump Administration with the Taliban a year ago. Like Gorbachev, Biden clearly wants to go—and has, for more than a decade. In 2010, when he was Vice-President, he promised a pullout. “We’re starting it in July of 2011, and we’re going to be totally out of there—come hell or high water—by 2014,” Biden vowed, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Last year, in an article in Foreign Affairs, he wrote, “It is past time to end the forever wars.” Recent polls indicate that Americans are largely ambivalent about or uninterested in Afghanistan; twenty to thirty per cent of respondents in recent surveys didn’t even bother to answer about a pullout. The national fury spurred by the trauma of the 9/11 attacks has evaporated.
Yet walking away isn’t so easy. Even after an investment of more than a trillion dollars, the U.S. hasn’t fully achieved the goals of its longest war, either. Navigating a way out—especially securing a comprehensive peace agreement—is proving to be messy and potentially deadly, too. In an interview with ABC News last week, Biden conceded that it may be “tough” to withdraw. He has no good choices; neither does the U.S. military, which has reduced troop levels from fifteen thousand when the U.S.-Taliban pact was signed a year ago to around three thousand today. If American troops withdraw, almost ten thousand nato troops from thirty-six nations and more than twenty-four thousand contractors who support the Afghan state and military are almost certain to leave, too.
On a rainy day in Kabul last week, the military headquarters of U.S. and nato troops in Afghanistan was a spooky place. You have to take a military helicopter from the airport to the nearby compound because driving is unsafe. The complex is surrounded by layers of concrete blast walls topped with barbed wire. Haunting murals adorn the barricades. One features a giant painting of a woman in uniform captioned, in black stencilled letters, “afghan female police a force for good.” Another advertises the Invictus Games, for wounded warriors. More than a hundred thousand Afghans, twenty-three hundred Americans, and hundreds of soldiers from nato countries have died in the twenty-year conflict; another twenty thousand Americans have been injured.
Biden’s decision will be influenced by five factors, according to current and former U.S. officials whom I interviewed in Afghanistan and the United States. The first is whether frantic last-ditch diplomacy will salvage peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As the U.S. deadline to withdraw approaches, the Administration is throwing spaghetti at the diplomatic wall to see if anything will stick. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote a blunt letter to the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, demanding that he “understand the urgency of my tone,” and calling for his “urgent leadership.” The peace talks, hosted by Qatar, have deadlocked since they started in September of last year as a sequel to the U.S. deal with the Taliban that February. In a new set of proposals, Blinken recommended creating an interim government in which the Taliban and current Afghan leaders share power. It sounded more like an ultimatum than a proposal.
Read on....History is at stake!