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Leave Afghanistan, But Don’t Abandon the Afghans

Withdrawing from the lost cause is long overdue, but prudent diplomacy remains necessary.

The American war in Afghanistan is ending in failure, with the basic goals cited to justify nearly two decades of costly exertions unmet. However, failure does not relieve the United States of responsibility for the war’s consequences. Nor does it erase America’s real (if modest) interests in that distant land.

As the last U.S. troops depart Afghanistan, the war there will enter a new phase. Although ceasing to be a formal belligerent, the United States will remain party to whatever ensues. It becomes incumbent upon the Biden administration, therefore, to fashion a “postwar” U.S. policy toward a country still very much engulfed in war. The time to do so is now.

Washington’s ability to influence the course of events in Afghanistan is limited, a point driven home by the disappointing outcome of efforts to create a legitimate Afghan state and effective Afghan security forces. So any surviving U.S. objectives in Afghanistan should themselves be limited.

Those objectives fall into two sequential categories: first, if possible, avert the worst; second, should the worst occur, keep the negative consequences within bounds.

To avert the worst, the United States should do what it can to sustain the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). This means providing the wherewithal to enable the Afghan government to recruit, equip, and pay those who serve in the ranks of the army and police. It also means arranging for civilian contractors to perform specialized support tasks such as aircraft maintenance.

Currently, the United States spends $3 billion annually to keep the ANSF in the fight. Even after U.S. forces withdraw, these expenditures should continue—not as cynical gesture to underwrite some semblance of a “decent interval,” but to ensure that those we once classified as partners and friends still have a fighting chance.

Yet, as U.S. troops have learned through bitter experience, providing others with the means to fight does not necessarily translate into imparting motive. Only Afghans can decide if the creation of a modernizing, unitary state governed from Kabul qualifies as a cause worth dying for. On that score, the outlook is not promising. All publicly available evidence suggests that the tide of battle has swung strongly in favor of the Taliban. While the war may not be definitively lost, the ANSF is pretty clearly losing.

No doubt Pentagon planners are assessing when the U.S. should withhold any further support to Afghan forces. The disintegration of major ANSF formations or Taliban seizure of multiple provincial capitals—or, worse still, both together—will indicate that the time has come for the United States to pull the plug. At that point, damage control will necessarily become the primary U.S. objective. This will require urgent U.S. action on multiple fronts.

First, minimizing threats to its own security will oblige the United States to deploy robust over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities while maintaining comprehensive overwatch of Afghanistan proper. A system of satellite and electronic surveillance along with long-range or carrier-based strike capabilities cannot guarantee that Afghanistan will never again host anti-American terrorists, but it can sharply reduce that possibility. Reminding Taliban leaders of the punishment they suffered when they last allowed Afghanistan to serve as a base for planning attacks against the United States will further ensure against a repetition of what occurred in September 2001.

Second, to limit the turmoil stemming from the overthrow of the existing political order, the United States should promote a dialogue among nearby nations sharing a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from descending into outright chaos. These nations include Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and not least of all, Iran. An Afghanistan in turmoil may well create temptations to exploit the situation for short-term advantage. Relying on suasion and threats, the Biden administration should act to suppress such inclinations.

Third, given the likelihood of the Afghan regime’s collapse triggering a large-scale humanitarian disaster, the United States should prepare for just such a contingency. At a minimum, that means expanding the special visa program allowing Afghans who have assisted U.S. forces to take up residence in the United States. Existing legislation caps the number of Afghans at 26,500, a number that is grossly inadequate. The Biden administration should press U.S. coalition partners—most of them members of NATO—to do likewise.

More broadly, U.S. authorities should quietly confer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and international relief agencies to plan for the likelihood of a possible Taliban victory triggering a massive refugee crisis. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s prompted over five million Afghans to flee their country, with most spending years in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Nothing that the United States can do will prevent such an exodus, but it can take the lead in lessening its consequences and thereby salvaging some modicum of moral decency. To do otherwise would be the height of irresponsibility.

President Biden’s decision to terminate U.S. military involvement in the Afghanistan War was necessary, appropriate, and long overdue. Nothing was to be gained by prolonging an undertaking that has definitively failed. Yet ending America’s longest war does not absolve the United States of responsibility for what may happen next. In Afghanistan, America still has work to do.

Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer-at-large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed is recently out.

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