By Ian Teunissen van Manen
North America Analyst
When the US completed the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan on August 30th, 2021, it officially ended the US’ “longest war” (Parkin & Williams, 2021). However, this was not something that was entirely deserving of celebration- the withdrawal was messy, chaotic, and ultimately was not successful in getting all US citizens and Afghan allies out of Kabul (Parkin & Williams, 2021). In addition, as the US withdrew, the Taliban were able to seize control and declare that they had won the war against the US, and could now celebrate Afghanistan’s independence as a “free and sovereign nation” (Parkin & Williams, 2021). Thus, despite President Biden’s deliverance of his promise to end the US involvement in Afghanistan, there is certainly room for criticism, and Republican members of Congress have not minced words. They have called the situation an “unmitigated disaster” and a “strategic failure” (Stewart & Zengerle, 2021). However, let us not lose sight of the fact that this ill-advised war spanned two decades, four presidential administrations, and resulted in the loss of thousands upon thousands of lives. The fact is: the War in Afghanistan was a devastating, 20 year-long failure for the US. This article will explore why the War in Afghanistan was such a catastrophic failure for the US from a foreign policy standpoint, and what impact this failure could have in the future.
From the beginning, the War in Afghanistan was an ill-conceived “retaliation” for the 9/11 Attacks in 2001 (Malkasian, 2020). Nevertheless, in the first months of the war, the US invasion was relatively successful in its goals- the Taliban had been deposed and had fled, al-Qaeda was driven out of the country, and Bin Laden was on the run (Malkasian, 2020). What followed was a relatively peaceful four years and political “progression”, including a new constitution and parliamentary elections (Malkasian, 2020). These developments ultimately lulled the US into a false sense of security which the Taliban, who had been rebuilding in Pakistan for much of those four years, was able to expose in February 2006. In the next three years, the Taliban had recaptured large swaths of land in the south and east of Afghanistan. Thus, by the end of President Bush’s second term in office, the Taliban once again had footing in the country, billions of dollars had been spent, and the war was not close to being “won” (Malkasian, 2020).
When President Obama arrived in office, he inherited two ill-advised wars: one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He and his administration believed that there was a greater chance of victory in War in Afghanistan than the Iraq war, and thus he moved to end the Iraq war as soon as possible while increasing the US military presence in Afghanistan. In the following three years, the US military made objective gains in their agenda: they had stabalised the more volatile regions and districts, “vitalised” the Afghan forces, gathered support for the new government, and Bin Laden had been killed by US special operations forces. However, the ends did not justify the means, and President Obama saw the war as unsustainable and far too costly (Malkasian, 2020). Between 2010 and 2014, President Obama laid plans to remove all US military forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, however, these plans were thwarted by a combination of underprepared Afghani forces and a series of decisive attacks in the Kunduz province. By the end of 2016, the Taliban had control of more land than at any other time since 2001, the Afghan government was extremely weak, and President Obama was forced to abandon the withdrawal plans (Malkasian, 2020).
Although President Trump initially increased the number of troops in Afghanistan, he was looking for a way to end the war (Malkasian, 2020). He appeared to have found that in February of 2020, when he struck a deal with the Taliban that would see the US military presence in Afghanistan end in May 2021, provided the Taliban worked to prevent attacks on US and coalition forces by groups such as al-Qaeda (BBC, 2021). As part of the agreement, there was meant to be peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government, but this never materialised (Al Jazeera, 2021). When President Biden took over in January of 2021, he went ahead with the agreement (amending the date to August 2021), despite the lack of peace negotiations between the two sides (Al Jazeera, 2021).
At first glance, the fact that President Biden went ahead with the withdrawal despite the lack of peace negotiations seems to be the reason that the withdrawal was such a devastating failure. However, this decision is indicative of a US policy attitude that was pervasive throughout the entirety of the war: a continuous underestimation of the Taliban, coupled with the naive and problematic belief that the US could erect a functioning democratic government that the population viewed as legitimate via military invasion and occupation. Simply put: it just did not work.
When one looks at each of the moments that the US could have possibly withdrawn but ultimately did not, there is a theme that can be traced through: in each instance it was either a resurgence of the Taliban, a weakening of the Afghan government, or a combination. This speaks to the aforementioned US policy failure. Then, after 20 years and multiple failed withdrawal attempts, the US withdrew its troops along with 123,000 civilians in a chaotic and messy 18-day airlift that was broadcasted all over the world (Parkin & Williams, 2021). This was done despite many US military higher ups, including Head of US Central Command General Frank McKenzie, knowing that with a full withdrawal, “the collapse of the government in Kabul would be inevitable ‘and that the military would follow’” (Al Jazeera, 2021).
Critics of the Biden Administration, namely members of the Republican party and individuals who were in the Trump Administration (Kertzer, 2021; Stewart & Zengerle, 2021) claim that Biden’s credibility, as well as the US’ foreign policy credibility is “shot” (Kertzer, 2021). However, it is unlikely to be that drastic.
Undoubtedly, the US’ competence and commitment will be called into question by the international community in the wake of the messy withdrawal, and rightfully so. However, it does not seem likely that other states, allies or potential allies, would refuse to coordinate and cooperate with the US in foreign policy arenas as a direct result of the botched withdrawal. Nor, in all likelihood, will the US’ military power be called into question. However, the US’ reputation in the Middle East has surely taken a(nother) hit. The US’ continuous presence in the region has sewn the seeds of distrust, which, coupled with the crumbling of the Iran Nuclear Deal and drone strikes on civilian populations, has left an opening for other superpowers, namely China and Russia, to make inroads in the region (Fenton-Harvey, 2021). As a result, possibly the most problematic outcome of the situation in Afghanistan for the US will be that they will have to face increased competition in the region from Russia and China, which would complicate their diplomatic efforts. Even more troubling for the US is the potential that states and other actors in the Middle East will reach out to Russia or China for assistance and turn away from the US entirely. And after 20 years of fighting, thousands of military and civilian lives lost, trillions of dollars spent, and few things to show for it, who can blame them?
The US’ War in Afghanistan was a failure in a variety of ways. Not only was it misguided in its conception, but other than killing Osama Bin Laden, it failed to achieve its fundamental goals. Although the US’ status as the world’s military superpower will not be called into question as a result of this decades long failure, its reputation in the Middle East has been damaged. This damage to the US’ reputation, concurrent with increasing Chinese and Russian influence in the region could create an even more precarious situation in the coming years.
“Afghanistan: Who Originally Supported Trump’s Deal with the Taliban?” BBC News. BBC, August 19, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/58271943.
Al Jazeera. “US General Says Afghanistan Collapse Rooted in Trump-Taliban Deal.” Taliban News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, September 30, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/30/us-generals-say-afghanistan-collapse-rooted-in-trump-taliban-deal.
Fenton-Harvey, Jonathan. “After Afghanistan Withdrawal, US Faces Distrust from Its Allies.” Middle East Monitor, September 15, 2021. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210915-after-afghanistan-withdrawal-us-faces-distrust-from-its-allies/.
Kertzer, Joshua D. “American Credibility after Afghanistan.” Foreign Affairs, September 9, 2021. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2021-09-02/american-credibility-after-afghanistan.
Malkasian, Carter. “How the Good War Went Bad: America’s Slow-Motion Failure in Afghanistan.” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 2 (March 2020): 77–91.
Parkin, Benjamin, and Aime Williams. “US Withdraws from Afghanistan, Bringing an End to 20-Year War.” Financial Times. Financial Times, August 31, 2021. https://www.ft.com/content/b2ba76a1-694b-47f9-b077-d48ad88a8cb5.
Stewart, Phil, and Patricia Zengerle. “’Unmitigated Disaster’: Republicans Attack Biden’s Defense of Afghan Pullout.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, September 29, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/us/unmitigated-disaster-republicans-pick-bidens-defense-afghan-pullout-2021-09-29/.