On Wednesday April 14th, President Joe Biden announced that he had set a firm, non-conditional deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. He made the announcement standing in the White House Treaty Room, which is where President George Bush stood and informed the nation of the start of the war back in October, 2001.
Biden’s deadline for leaving Afghanistan is September 11th, 2021, on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is something I’m sure he regards as “symbolic” or “poetic” but frankly strikes me as another terrible just-for-show decision. I highly doubt September 11th is the earliest we can leave, the date was just picked because it was meaningful, but that really worth extending our stay? Is it really worth risking the lives of more American servicemen and women? The answer is no, it really isn’t, but those who sit thousands of miles away from combat in the safety of their homes will find defending the idea of staying easier than those who have to deal with the consequences of war. But, just because it’s easy for them to make these arguments, doesn’t mean that the arguments themselves don’t hold some valid points… but we’ll get to that.
While Biden’s decision to leave, and the setting of a non-conditional date to do so, are admirable steps forward, he’ll doubtlessly face a lot of resistance from the American foreign policy establishment who would have to admit that the war is a failure and even from members of his own cabinet who have a financial interest in the war continuing forever.
The war in Afghanistan can only really be remembered as a tragic failure. Not just because of the 2,400 Americans we lost, the over 100,000 Afghans who lost their lives, or its $2 trillion price tag, but also because it served as a pretext for the expansion of the security state at the domestic level. These factors, a result of the incredibly confused and ever-changing American strategy for the war, have weighed on past administrations as calls from the public to end the war have become louder.
There hasn’t been much progress to show for the last 20 years of military engagement. America’s failure to have a clear plan and stick to it lead to a growing mission-scope, which only contributed to more violence in Afghanistan, incredible levels of corruption, and an active drug trade courtesy of the disastrous conditions in the world’s largest opium producer. The status quo has been terrible for everyone on the ground, except maybe for corrupt officials who have flooded their pockets with American money, but yet foreign forces have remained. While the excuses for being engaged on the ground have been many and they seem to switch every few years, the longest standing one is that to ensure the Taliban don’t topple the current Afghan government our troops must remain until the government is prepared enough to take care of itself and its people. That if the Taliban were to come back to power they would pose a renewed threat to America and her interests.
So, with the Taliban posing such an existential threat to the current government in Kabul and a possible threat to Americans, how is it even conceivable that the last 20 years of investment and preparation have not been enough to have some confidence the Afghan government will remain standing once we leave? Well, in part it’s because the higher-ups in charge of US strategy did a piss-poor job of achieving their objectives. They didn’t understand Afghanistan, let alone how to fix its problems. This is painfully obvious when reading through many of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) interviews with officials who were there and even with those who lead the war effort.
These interviews, and many other important documents, were finally made public in 2019 after a petition by the Washington Post, and through them we have a window into US-decision making when facing the conflict. As well as a clear view of how many of the problems that weighed down on America’s involvement were clear and obvious to those in charge but they just didn’t know how to solve them. Back in December of 2020, as the Trump administration came to a close, I went through these papers and wrote a brief history of the conflict and many of the issues that surfaced throughout US involvement, which you can find here.
Weren’t we already leaving?
Well, kind of. Back in February of 2020, the Donald Trump administration negotiated an agreement with the Taliban. In that agreement, the two parties (just two because the Afghan government was not included) committed to a number of promises. On the one hand, America committed to removing their troops by May 1st, 2021, while the Taliban promised to end attacks on foreign troops, commence talks with the Afghan government, and to make a commitment to stopping the operation of terrorist groups within their controlled territory. But just shortly after the deal was signed, the Taliban and Afghan government went back to attacking each other rather than entering talks.
As time has gone on, tensions have only continued rising, and the Taliban and Kabul are no closer to establishing peace. This means that the conditions of Trump’s deal haven’t been met by the Taliban, and therefore the US doesn’t need to leave as per the provisions of that agreement. This is why Biden’s declaration of a condition-less withdrawal is so important. It means there can’t be any excuses to continue fighting, as soon as the date rolls around, America leaves.
But there could still be a catch…
At the end of March, the Taliban threatened to attack foreign troops if they stayed in the country past the May 1st deadline, which is now a certainty considering what Joe Biden has announced. If the Taliban keep their word and decide to carry out these attacks, it could serve as ammo for those who oppose a withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The opposition to leaving
I said at the start that we’d get to the arguments in favor of staying, and so, here we are. There are many shady interests who wish the never-ending war continues, but not everyone who wants the US to stay is a bloodthirsty war-monger. So, let’s take a look at some of the problems and opposition that Biden may encounter on his path towards ending the war for good.
When Biden announced most of his cabinet picks, a lot of media outlets like Vogue happily announced “the adults are back”, in reference to the cumulative and individual experience of each of the members. But experience in what, exactly? There are three particularly interesting characters that may play against ending the war. These are Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.
Antony Blinken served as Deputy National Security Adviser and later Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama, during his time there Blinken helped craft Afghanistan and Ukraine policy and would also support the military intervention in Lybia, Syria and America’s assistance to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. After leaving public office, Blinken co-founded WestExec Advisors, a private consulting firm that describes itself using impossible-to-understand, meaningless corporate speak, but actually just works to try and ensure that private companies (and weapons-tech developers) can get nice and close to government entities and secure lucrative contracts. Funnily enough, if you visit WestExec’s website today you won’t find Blinken listed as a co-founder, but if you travel back in time to an archived version of it from 2018 you definitely will. Isn’t that odd?
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin served as the head of US Central Command under President Obama, where he helped form America’s strategy towards the conflict with ISIL and US operations in Syria. After retirement, Austin entered the private sector where he partnered Antony Blinken at Pine Island Capital Partners, an investment firm that just a few months ago went on a “buying spree of small military contractors”. But even more worrying than that, Austin served on the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies, one of the world’s biggest weapons manufacturers. In the world of the legal corruption that is the revolving door everyone knows that if you treat companies right you might just land yourself a profitable deal like the ones Austin managed to work his way into. Such closeness to the defense industry should worry anyone trying to stop a war.
Now, I know that the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) isn’t strictly a cabinet spot, but it’s in the upper echelon of government for sure. The current DNI, Avril Haines, is another interesting character. Some of Haines’ prior experience in government saw her working as the Deputy Director of the CIA, where she sure made a name for herself for some very interesting reasons. Under John Brennan, Haines would be in charge of redacting the Senate’s report on torture tactics employed by the CIA after the September, 2001 terrorist attacks. Haines cut the report from 6,700 pages to just 525. She would also be in charge of disciplining CIA agents who hacked into Senate computers during research for the report – where she decided that no action was necessary. And, of course, Haines famously worked on drafting the guidelines for the use of drones to target individuals suspected of terrorism. Avril Haines was also part of WestExec, which seems to be a sort of training ground for Biden’s team members at this point considering Jen Psaki and Ely Ratner also worked there.
But besides the clear financial interest and questionable interventionist tendencies these people have, there are also those who have legitimate reasons for wanting extended US presence in Afghanistan.
Some reasons to stay
The Taliban were in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 when they were toppled by the US-led military intervention. While Afghanistan faces many challenges today, be they economic, political or social in nature, it cannot be ignored that life under the Taliban was impressively oppressive, especially when it comes to the conditions women faced.
Under Taliban rule, women were not allowed to leave the home unless escorted by a male family member, women could not work outside of the home, women couldn’t attend school, and they obviously couldn’t hold public office. Back in 2020, Sirajjudin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban, published an op-ed in the New York Times where he argued that Afghans were tired of fighting and that once foreign forces left, the Taliban would work with all factions to achieve equal rights for everyone… and then he said that women would be granted all rights under Islam. All rights under Islam, not “equal rights”, just those that Islam affords to women. Which, as Heather Barr points out, is something the Taliban would say women already had back when they were in power.
The road ahead
The truth of things is that even peace, the goal of withdrawing foreign forces, may not be a sure thing for Afghans, considering that the Taliban keeps talking about their eventual return to power. Even so, this shouldn’t be an excuse to keep foreign forces stationed in the country any further. It’s been too long, what the coalition couldn’t achieve in 20 years will not be achieved in a few more. Some will argue that leaving Afghanistan is equal to abandoning our allies and all the people who don’t just have the choice to leave. While this is terribly unfortunate, what choice does the US really have? Why should it stay if 20 years have not been enough to help Afghanistan? Is America supposed to just remain in the country forever? Endless war? Should America do this anywhere people suffer? What next, Congo, Myanmar and Pakistan?
The answer to me is very clearly no, America shouldn’t be fighting wars away from home that only endanger its own people and the people of the targeted nation. And while it seems that this decision to leave by September 11 is a good one, it’ll face pushback from the inside. If Taliban forces keep their word and attack foreign troops past the May 1st deadline, then who knows what could happen. America needs to leave, and make sure that it doesn’t allow any excuses to go back.
It’s past time to come home.
Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (Caracas, Venezuela) currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.