Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Graham ‘Very Pleased’ With Biden Plan to Stay in Afghanistan

What sort of “conditions” might have to be met in Afghanistan in order for Biden to withdraw? They're not likely to ever be met, experts say.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, long-time proponent of boots on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria said on Sunday that he is “very pleased” with the Biden administration’s proposal for leaving troops in Afghanistan past May. Trump cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 and had scheduled a complete withdrawal for May. Speaking on Face the Nation, the South Carolina Republican said the U.S. is “going to keep troops there on a conditions-based approach” past the May deadline that the Trump administration had called for.

“I think we’re not going to leave in May. We’re going to leave when the conditions are right,” said Graham. He added, “I like what Secretary Blinken and the Biden Administration is doing.” It’s not completely clear how the Biden administration plans to handle Afghanistan, or what sort of “conditions” might have to be met in Afghanistan in order for Biden to withdraw.

The agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in Doha last February included a promise that the Taliban would reduce violence, cut ties with al-Qaeda and sit down with Afghan leaders to create a political solution. The Taliban also pledged to not use the areas of the country they control as bases for militant groups that would attack the U.S. and its allies. In exchange, the U.S. would finally bring its troops home from its longest war.

The Taliban hasn’t ended its violence, however, and Biden is receiving significant pushback from within the Pentagon because the Taliban has not upheld their deal. NATO sources say foreign troops may stay on in the country after May 1.

Graham mentioned that the administration is “reevaluating our presence in Afghanistan to keep the footprint low, but not to walk away and lose all the gains we’ve achieved. If we leave too soon without a conditions-based withdrawal, ISIS and al-Qaeda will come roaring back. Women will suffer greatly.” These are the sort of open-ended conditions and ill-defined notions of victory that led to an indefinite U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in the first place.

When the U.S. originally invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, it had a clearly defined goal of ousting the Taliban harboring Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the 19-plus years since, U.S. goals in Afghanistan have shifted and expanded to include providing a stable, democratic government to Afghans, ensuring women access to education, and eliminating the Taliban.

Nearly 2,400 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001. From October 2001 until September 2019, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan cost U.S. taxpayers $778 billion, according to DOD figures. The State Department, USAID, and other government agencies spent an additional $44 billion on reconstruction projects during that time.

Over those years, the civil war between Afghan troops and the Taliban waged on, with the Taliban increasingly ascendant. They took control of nearly half the country. Civilian casualties continued to climb to higher and higher levels, and experts say the civil war in Afghanistan is likely to continue, whether U.S. forces stay or leave.

Even if Biden decides to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past the May deadline, experts agree that a political solution is needed if there is any chance of halting the ongoing, bloody civil war. The small number of U.S. forces that remain will be sitting ducks if talks fall apart, as the Taliban will return to killing American soldiers if Washington keeps forces in the country after the May withdrawal deadline. Should the Taliban turn its weapons on U.S. soldiers in May, the U.S. will have to respond by either sending in more soldiers as reinforcements, or actually pulling out of Afghanistan, once and for all.

“We need to reject the comforting, now decades long illusion that if we stay just a little longer, we can leave under better, cleaner circumstances,” veterans and former Afghanistan advisers Gil Barndollar and Sam Long wrote  in the Wall Street Journal. “The opposite is closer to the truth: Each passing month increases the odds that the small U.S. force remaining in Afghanistan eventually departs in real haste, either as a result of the collapse of the Afghan state or a dramatic Taliban military breakthrough.”

Should Afghanistan become a launching pad for some future Osama bin Laden years down the road, the U.S. could far more easily and cheaply deploy an effective force into Afghanistan than continue its current, fruitless, $40-billion per year deployment there, Barndollar told The American Conservative.

For Biden, there’s a domestic political challenge too: Support for the war in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular with veterans, nearly three-quarters of whom support a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Concerned Veterans for America, with Koch funding, launched a seven-figure digital ad campaign this week to put pressure on Biden to pull all remaining U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by May.

“We have to hold [the Biden administration] accountable. . . . The president will talk about ending the war there, but then keep a counterterrorism force—and that’s a contradiction. And I think that contradiction needs to be remembered by the public,” Will Ruger, vice president of foreign policy for Stand Together, a Koch Network organization, told Axios. (Disclosure: Will Ruger sits on the board of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC.)

It’s important to remember that the enemy also gets a say: If the U.S. doesn’t withdraw as promised in May, the Taliban has promised to resume its violence and attack American soldiers there directly.

The U.S. “unilaterally blowing past” the withdrawal deadline will result in “a collapse of the peace process,” writes Jonathan Schroden, senior advisor to the Afghanistan Study Group. This means that the “likely outcome” of the Afghanistan Study Group’s “recommendations is actually the report’s Policy Pathway 2: collapse of peace talks & the US recommitting to Afghanistan’s government.” The Afghan government is riddled with “massive and pervasive corruption” which the U.S. “barely put a dent” in, even during the surge, points out Schroden. This corruption emboldens and empowers the Taliban, while the U.S. materially supports a corrupt Afghan government.

One of the advantages of the Trump administration’s approach to a peace settlement in Afghanistan was that it had “been more realistic about what” could “be achieved,” said Asfandyar Mir, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, in an interview with The American Conservative. It had “calibrated its coercive tools and positive inducement much better than previous administrations.”

Biden has said he wants to get out of Afghanistan. Although leaders in the Pentagon and Congress are loath to say it, the “right time” to leave Afghanistan will never come because the U.S. is unable to reform the corrupt Afghan government or eliminate the Taliban’s violence. The U.S. made a deal, and if it reneges on the deal, there will be more American deaths.