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America, Don't Give Up on Afghanistan

This war is still winnable

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In May, President Barack Obama announced that U.S. forces would withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. “Our military will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component,” he explained, “just as we’ve done in Iraq.” The administration’s recent decision to expand the kinds of missions U.S. troops can engage in after this year did not change the deadline for complete withdrawal and is limited by the small number of troops—just 9,800—that will be left. The U.S. will have next to no leverage in Afghanistan in a matter of weeks.

The U.S. deployment to Afghanistan will have lasted just over 15 years—one of the longest continuous military operations in U.S. history, which makes it hard for some observers to take seriously the argument that it hasn’t lasted quite long enough. What could the United States achieve in the sixteenth or seventeenth year that it has not already achieved? What conceivable national interest is at stake in the remote and inaccessible Hindu Kush that demands the continued investment of American blood and treasure?

The answer to the second question, at least, is increasingly obvious. Iraq could hardly be a clearer cautionary tale: if the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan before Afghan security forces are fully prepared to lead the fight against the Taliban and deny safe haven to Al Qaeda, militants are almost certain to regain some degree of safe haven there, much as the Islamic State (IS) has gained ground since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011—especially since the withdrawal of U.S. troops almost certainly would mean the end of the alleged drone program in South Asia. The U.S. should reverse course and keep troops in Afghanistan, consistent with the 2012 Strategic Partnership Agreement, for the next decade or longer. Afghan security forces are unlikely to have the logistics, air support, intelligence, and transportation capabilities they need to sustain their fight against the Taliban, defend their borders, or deny safe haven to Al Qaeda within the next two years. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their many affiliates and allies in the region have not been defeated and, as illustrated by recent developments in Iraq, are likely to grow stronger in the power vacuum left in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal.

Obama was right when he said, in March 2009, “The world cannot afford the price that will come due if Afghanistan slides back into chaos or Al Qaeda operates unchecked. We have a shared responsibility to act—not because we seek to project power for its own sake, but because our own peace and security depends on it.” Five years later, the mission in Afghanistan remains important, just, and winnable. Here's why America should stay there until the job is done.

What Went Wrong

Few observers would argue that the Afghans are prepared to go it alone. The Department of Defense judged in April that Afghan security forces’ “logistics and sustainment capabilities remained underdeveloped.” Despite being in the lead for most operations, Afghan forces continue to rely on international military forces for air support, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, among other needs. That is why the department identified “the size and structure of the post-2014 U.S. and NATO presence” as one of the key factors affecting the sustainability of the Afghans’ progress. Plainly, the Afghans will continue to need international assistance, including training and advising, for longer than envisioned by the president’s withdrawal plan.

But considering the duration of the war in Afghanistan, the burden of proof is on those who insist it deserves still more time and investment to show results. Almost no one will argue that the international community devoted adequate attention or resources to Afghanistan for the first five or six years of the effort there, when it was under-resourced and overshadowed by the war in Iraq. According to wide-ranging studies by the RAND Corporation of reconstruction and stabilization operations undertaken by the United States and the United Nations, the initial military deployment to Afghanistan was one of the smallest of its kind in terms of absolute numbers, the ratio of soldiers to the local population, and the ratio of soldiers to the land mass of the country. Comparable missions in Bosnia or Kosovo had far greater resources. There were only 2,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2001 and less than 10,000 by the end of 2003, when the country was regularly wracked by factional clashes between warlords and coming under the sway of criminal gangs and drug traffickers. Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously told Congress in 2007, “In Afghanistan we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” When the top military official in the United States essentially admits that the United States did not devote to Afghanistan the resources required to accomplish the mission, there are no plausible grounds for arguing—at least as of 2007—that the United States did everything it could, and therefore no grounds for arguing that there is no point to further investment.

Partly in recognition of that fact, President Barack Obama accelerated the surge of troops, money, and attention to Afghanistan that President George W. Bush started in his last two years in office. But Obama undermined his own surge with two countervailing policies. The first—the decision to announce a fixed date for withdrawal of U.S. troops—was an obvious strategic error. While the administration intended the announcement as a bit of coercive diplomacy against the corrupt and intransigent Afghan government, critics rightly argued that it would embolden the Taliban, incentivize a wait-and-see posture by friends and foes alike, and create uncertainty in Afghanistan and the region. Now, the Taliban is resurgent but the Afghan government has not notably cleaned up its act: the deadline has incurred the costs critics feared without accomplishing the goals its advocates intended.

The second mistake was the Obama administration’s neglect and mistrust of its own policy. Even as the president ordered a surge of more troops in 2009, according to The New York Times, he “also began to reassess whether emerging victorious in Afghanistan was as necessary as he had once proclaimed.” The president escalated the war while simultaneously doubting whether it was very important or even winnable. He came to believe that “progress was possible—but not on the kind of timeline that [he] thought economically or politically affordable.” A year later, he solidified the withdrawal deadline without even consulting his military advisors. In addition, throughout his presidency Obama has been remarkably reticent to talk about the war—the longest and most significant U.S. military deployment under his command and a centerpiece of his foreign policy during his initial campaign in 2008. Obama has exuded uncertain, even disinterested, wartime leadership.

On top of these errors are a host of others—including poor coordination and management of the whole endeavor; European allies’ reluctance to employ hard power; and some Afghans’ abuse of international aid to line their own pockets. But historians are likely to conclude that the most significant failings were that Bush gave Afghanistan too few troops and not enough money; and that Obama gave it too little time and not enough faith. Together, despite the remarkably enduring bipartisan agreement that Afghanistan was important, the effort there has never been given the resources, attention, time, and leadership needed for success. The U.S. did not start a serious effort to train and equip Afghan security forces until 2007, and it did not mount a credible counterinsurgency campaign until 2009. The argument for withdrawal—that we’ve given it our best, and it wasn’t good enough, so let’s cut our losses and come home—falls apart when it becomes apparent that the United States never did give it its best.

Afghanistan Isn't Iraq

But even assuming the U.S. can secure its goals in Afghanistan, should it? Advocates for an enduring presence in Afghanistan sometimes invoke the analogy of U.S. troops stationed in postwar Germany or Japan. U.S. troops in those countries helped stabilize Europe and East Asia and reassure allies while enabling the U.S. to project power, exercise influence, and maintain global leadership. In this view, overseas deployments are almost always good; wherever America can find willing hosts, it should send troops. And the post-World War II deployments have lasted for close to 70 years: Why not in Afghanistan?

The analogy has obvious problems: There was no insurgency in those countries, U.S. troops were not dying from hostile fire, and the host nations helped defray some of the costs of U.S. deployments. More importantly, the U.S. faced an external threat in the Soviet Union so overwhelming that it was relatively easier for American policymakers to make the case for an enduring presence abroad to the American people. If the United States keeps a long-term military presence in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to look like the peacetime deployments to Germany or elsewhere for many years, if ever. An enduring presence in Afghanistan should have to meet a higher standard of justification.

Two other historical analogies may be more appropriate and help explain what is at stake in Afghanistan: Vietnam and Iraq. In both of those cases, as in Afghanistan, the United States fought long, difficult, and unsatisfying counterinsurgencies on behalf of corrupt and incompetent local governments. In both previous cases, some U.S. policymakers argued for sustaining American military involvement for as long as it took to accomplish its objectives. In both cases, the United States withdrew its troops according to a fixed timetable rather than waiting to achieve sustainable progress against insurgents or in training partner security forces. Less than two and a half years separated the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Vietnam, in January 1973, and the fall of Saigon, in April 1975: in a similar time frame the Islamic State had seized control of Mosul and Fallujah and threatened Kirkuk. Premature withdrawal is an admission of defeat. If the wars were worth fighting in the first place (a premise scholars still dispute), they were worth winning.

Many Americans and some historians talk of the losses in Vietnam and Iraq with an air of fatalism, as if these events were inevitably doomed to play out as they did like a Greek tragedy. In truth, nothing is inevitable in history. U.S. failures in both countries were the product of poor policy choices, false beliefs, and human error. Withdrawing prematurely was the last in a long line of errors in both countries, but was the most damaging because, unlike other mistakes, could not be undone and foreclosed the opportunity to correct for past errors. Tens of thousands of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and over a million Vietnamese died because U.S. policymakers made the wrong choices.

The analogy with Iraq, in particular, is almost irresistible. There is some irony in this: the two countries have been unjustly lumped together since 2003, almost never with any good consequence for them. As U.S. policymakers grappled with the complexities of two wars in two foreign countries, they too often assumed the challenges of managing an American army in one Muslim country must be applicable to doing the same in another. The unsubtlety of this approach overlooked the vast differences in geography, culture, ethnicity, and history between them. American policymakers even fabricated something called the “Greater Middle East,” which ostensibly stretches from north Africa through the Khyber Pass and which completely subsumes and ignores the reality and distinctiveness of South Asia (and proves that Edward Said’s Orientalism is alive and well in some corners of American thinking).

But even a broken watch is right twice a day, and the analogy between Iraq and Afghanistan finally has something to teach us. In Iraq the surge of U.S. troops, combined with the Anbar Awakening, succeeded in blunting and reversing the insurgency by the end of 2008. A Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) provided for the continuing presence of U.S. forces through the end of 2011. Both Iraqi and American policymakers expressed interest in renewing and extending the SOFA, but their collective failure to agree on details led to a breakdown in talks and the complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops outside of normal embassy operations. Following their withdrawal, the insurgents recouped, recovered, and renewed their assault. They made rapid gains because Iraqi security forces were incapable—and, sometimes, unwilling—to stand up to them; and because many Sunnis had come to believe (perhaps rightly) the government in Baghdad would never treat them fairly. Without an American presence to provide combat support or stiffen their resolve, Iraqi forces turned out to be far less reliable or capable than expected. A residual U.S. troop presence would not have solved Iraq’s political problems but almost certainly would have blunted IS’s growth.

The parallels with Afghanistan are striking. In Afghanistan, the insurgency gained ground from 2006 to 2009 and threatened to balloon into full-scale civil war, as in Iraq in 2006-7. A surge of U.S. troops in 2010-11 halted insurgents’ momentum and, albeit less dramatically than in Iraq, began to reverse their gains. U.S. policymakers took advantage of their success to plan for transition to indigenous leadership, despite that the insurgents had not yet been defeated. This time, however, the agreements for a stay-behind force of U.S. troops—a Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2012 and accompanying Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) agreed to in 2013 and signed this September—were framed as a decade-long arrangement, in contrast to the three-year timespan of the Iraqi SOFA. The pieces seemed to be in place for an enduring U.S. presence and partnership with local security forces.

Obama’s announcement of a complete pullout by the end of 2016 changed the outlook for Afghanistan dramatically, and makes it more likely that something like a replay of events in Iraq could take place. If U.S. forces withdraw completely, as under the current plan, Afghan forces may turn out to be as unprepared as their Iraqi counterparts to face a renewed insurgent offensive alone. While they are unlikely to collapse immediately, as some pessimistic observers have predicted, they may withdraw from some districts and provinces in the south and east to minimize casualties and focus on securing major cities and roadways. Such redeployments would be efficient and make military sense, but they would also amount to a tacit cease-fire with local Taliban forces and enable the Taliban (and, thus, Al Qaeda) to control some Afghan territory—as the Islamic State has done in Iraq and Syria. The Taliban would then gain further strength and momentum through their control of the drug trade, as the Islamic State benefits from the oil industry. Their operational freedom would be further strengthened by the end of the alleged U.S. drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan—which requires at least some personnel on the ground for airfield security, logistics, and maintenance. Militants’ control of territory would lend them an air of legitimacy and strength with locals and even win some degree of support—whether through loyalty or fear—again, just as in Iraq and Syria. Finally, if political wrangling in the capital convinces Afghans that their government cannot meet their needs or protect them, as Sunnis seem to have concluded about Baghdad, they are likely to be more receptive to local solutions, even if they come with the Taliban’s imprimatur.

The U.S.’s re-engagement with Iraq was the right policy but it has been more costly than it needed to be. There are costs in time, money, initiative, planning, equipment and infrastructure associated with the withdrawal of troops in 2011, and with their reintroduction in 2014. The U.S. can save those costs by retaining a stay-behind force in Afghanistan. A robust stay-behind deployment of U.S. troops would not only continue to train Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism raids, but could also support the Afghan forces’ rural counterinsurgency efforts, like the Afghan Local Police (ALP) initiative that has shown significant promise in recent years.

In July 2011 Leon Panetta, then the U.S. secretary of defense, claimed “we’re within reach of strategically defeating Al Qaeda.” He was almost certainly wrong, but it is important to note that he was actually arguing for renewed, aggressive action against the group. “Now is the moment,” he said, after the death of Osama bin Laden, “to put maximum pressure on them, because I do believe that if we continue this effort that we can really cripple Al Qaeda as a threat to this country.” Panetta was right, for the wrong reasons: the moment calls for renewed momentum against America’s enemies in South Asia, not because they are near defeat but because, without renewed U.S. commitment, they will be on the road to victory.

A Humanitarian Catastrophe Looms

A resurgent Taliban and renewed safe haven for Al Qaeda would be threats to U.S. national security. But they are also likely to instigate one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the decade. The stories coming out of Iraq in 2014, including mass summary executions and beheadings, have been ghastly. A similar fate does not have to befall Afghanistan—but it could, if the U.S. withdraws prematurely. If the Taliban continue their resurgence in the wake of the international withdrawal, they are likely to engage in reprisal killings against Afghans who allied with the Karzai government or international forces—including whole tribes who worked en masse with U.S. forces over the years. The ethnic Hazara, whom the Taliban targeted for ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, will face the same fate as the Iraqi Yazidis. The Hazara will be joined by women, Tajiks, Christians, Shia, and the Popalzai and Barakzai tribes.

President Obama has been sensitive to such atrocities in the past. In his Nobel lecture in 2009, he said, “I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.” Two years later, he justified the international intervention in Libya is similar terms. The U.S. intervened to stop “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world... We struck regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it,” he said. Similarly, Obama was prompted to action in Iraq in 2014 partly out of concern for the Yazidis and Kurds under threat of massacre by surging IS forces.

The United States bears more responsibility for preventing mass atrocities in Afghanistan than in Libya. The United States has repeatedly and publicly promised to stand by the Afghans and help them secure their country—in the Strategic Partnership Agreements, the 2012 designation of Afghanistan as a Major Non-NATO Ally, and the BSA—promises the United States never made to the Libyans. The Afghans are betting their future on American promises. In addition, many Afghans have risked their lives to fight America’s enemies. Countless Afghans soldiers, policemen, and intelligence agents have fought on the frontlines, and far more of them have been killed than U.S. troops. Their service to America creates an obligation to help protect them. No such relationship ever existed with Libyan forces.

Finally, the United States has a specific and unique opportunity to invest in Afghanistan and act preventively, before atrocities occur, that rarely exists in other countries facing state failure or mass atrocities. In many cases—the Congo, Somalia, or North Korea, for example—the United States has virtually no presence, no resources, or no platform from which to base resources; or the political environment is an obstacle to the introduction of U.S. forces. The United States can’t stop every atrocity in the world, nor should it try. But the U.S. has a robust infrastructure in place in Afghanistan. It has thousands of troops already there. It has a partner in the Afghan government that wants U.S. troops to stay. None of these things were true in Libya; there are not true in Iraq anymore; they are not true in Syria. If there any single place in the world where the United States is most well postured to prevent atrocities where they are likely to occur, it is Afghanistan. 

America's Honor Is at Stake 

The United States’ initial intervention in Afghanistan was triggered by justifiable fear in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2001. A range of other legitimate self-interests have become implicated in the war since then. The United States has ample reason, whether motivated by fear, interest, or humanitarian concern to remain engaged in South Asia. But Americans should be neither surprised nor embarrassed to note another reason: upholding America’s honor.

Today most scholars and policymakers use the language of America’s “credibility,” or its “resolve.” They warn that another defeat will hurt America’s ability to exercise world leadership. Scholars write that the U.S. failures might impose “reputational costs” and damage allies’ perceptions of American reliability. These are unnecessarily complicated ways of saying that America’s honor is on the line. The United States dishonored itself by allowing Saigon to fall, allowing millions of Vietnamese allies to die, flee, or fall under dictatorship. It is close to dishonor again in Iraq--and the president’s decision to re-engage may suggest that he, the military, and the American people have learned from history and are aware of the steep and irreparable cost they would pay if Baghdad suffered the same fate as Saigon.

It is true that some commentators, especially conservatives, are fond of raising the specter of America losing its credibility every time an administration does something they dislike. Such critics cannot always be right or the United States would have lost the ability to lead decades ago. American honor is not at stake in every crisis in every region of the world, and the United States does not have to “do something” whenever Americans read unpleasant headlines. But such critics cannot always be wrong, either. Like the boy crying wolf, there is, eventually, a wolf.

American honor is deeply implicated in Afghanistan. The war has lasted longer than the one in Iraq, America persevered in it with far more united commitment, and the United States has been even more explicit in its repeated assurances to the Afghan people. Bush said in April 2002, “We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations.” In the 2005 Strategic Partnership Agreement, the United States pledged to support “democratic good governance” and a “thriving private sector,” and to continue to “organize, train, equip, and sustain Afghan security forces.” In 2009 Obama said, “We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and our allies, and the people of Afghanistan,” and pledged that “we will seek lasting partnerships with Afghanistan and Pakistan that promise a new day for their people.” The 2012 Strategic Partnership Agreement pledged American help “so that Afghanistan can independently secure and defend itself against internal and external threats, and help ensure that terrorists never again encroach on Afghan soil and threaten Afghanistan, the region, and the world.” If these bipartisan, consistent, and repeated words of promise to the Afghans mean nothing, it is unclear why anyone should give credence to American promises in the future.

Honor matters. As Obama has said in the past, words must mean something. After World War II, the United States invested its military power, its financial resources, and its reputation—its honor—in constructing a different kind of world: a world of liberal norms and functioning international institutions, a world of peaceful democracies and open economies. But the liberal world order is not invincible and there is nothing inevitable about its survival. If the United States continues to suffer damage to its credibility like that in Iraq and Syria (and Ukraine), eventually allies, rival, and enemies would not be irrational to look at America’s behavior and conclude that it is foolish, even dangerous, to take America very seriously. The liberal world order will then only be held together by American arms and money—which will be neither attractive to its allies nor popular at home. Opponents will take steps to construct a different kind of world.

American credibility is already badly frayed by the war in Iraq and its aftermath. Forsaking Afghanistan need not be the final or fatal blow to American honor for the American people to want to avoid it; it will be bad enough if it is yet another deeply destructive development to world order. In any case, it will be impossible to identify beforehand which blow might be the final undoing of American leadership. Wise statesmen will treat every choice as if the world depended on it.