No Black And White About Exit Strategy In Afghanistan


If you listen to the angry politicians who take to the airwaves and pontificate over Afghanistan a listener might be falsely led to believe that there are absolutes at play in the end to the nation’s 20-year war in that nation. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.

Over the past weeks, I have very much limited my intake of the reactionary Republicans on Capitol Hill who consider a dialogue on par with a fourth grader to be the extent needed when conversing on this topic. Making only inflammatory remarks when an international crisis flares are not my definition of leadership.

In addition, it is not possible to have the sureness the Republicans are pushing without the context of how we arrived at this point in time. That of course does not stop them from talking, nor those who listen from gobbling up the pablum.

I have found the best path to facts and analysis about Afghanistan are the same sources I use continuously. The Economist, Foreign Affairs, The New Yorker, NPR, and BBC.

And of course, The New York Times.

I want a broad-based and intelligent perspective on what is taking place.

Sunday the NYT ran a superb news analysis article written by Peter Baker. If Baker writes it there is no way one should miss it. He is one of our essential reporters in America today.

Baker certainty questions the approach taken by President Biden, but also places the exit from Afghanistan in the larger arena of events.

Under the four-page deal signed in February 2020, Mr. Trump agreed to withdraw all American troops by May 1, 2021, lift sanctions and compel the release of 5,000 prisoners held by the Afghan government, which was cut out of the negotiations. The Taliban committed to not attacking American troops on the way out or letting terrorist groups use Afghanistan as a base to attack the United States.

While the Taliban agreed to talk with the Afghan government, nothing in the publicly released part of the deal prevented it from taking over the country by force as it ultimately did and reimposing its repressive regime of torture, murder and subjugation of women. It was such a one-sided bargain that even Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster called it a “surrender agreement.”

Following the deal, Mr. Trump reduced American forces in Afghanistan to 4,500 from 13,000. Eager to be the president to end the warhe signed a memo to the Pentagon instructing it to pull out all remaining forces by Jan. 15 before leaving office, but was talked out of it by advisers. Instead, he ordered the force drawn down to 2,500 troops in his final days, although about 3,500 actually remained.

For Mr. Biden, inheriting such a small force in Afghanistan meant that commanders were already left with too few troops to respond to a renewed Taliban offensive against American forces, which he deemed certain to come if he jettisoned Mr. Trump’s agreement, requiring him to send thousands more troops back in, officials said.

The Biden team considered other options, including keeping a small presence of troops for counterterrorism operations or to support Afghan security forces, but reasoned that was just “magical thinking” and would take more troops than was sustainable. They discussed whether to renegotiate the Trump agreement to extract more concessions but the Taliban made clear it would not return to the bargaining table and considered the Trump deal binding.

Mr. Biden’s advisers also considered extending the withdrawal deadline until the winter, after the traditional fighting season was over, to make the transition less dangerous for the Afghan government. The Afghanistan Study Group, a bipartisan congressionally chartered panel that was led by Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a retired Joint Chiefs chairman and that included Ms. O’Sullivan, in February recommended extending the May 1 deadline and seeking better conditions before pulling out.

But Mr. Biden was warned by security specialists that the longer it took to withdraw after a decision was announced, the more dangerous it would become, aides said, so he extended it only until Aug. 31.

Particularly influential on Mr. Biden, aides said, were a series of intelligence assessments he requested about Afghanistan’s neighbors and near neighbors, which found that Russia and China wanted the United States to remain bogged down in Afghanistan.

“Biden basically faced the same issue that Trump faced,” said Vali Nasr, who was a senior adviser to Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama’s special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, “and his answer was the same — we’re not going to go back in, we have to get out.”

Republican criticism now, he added, was brazenly hypocritical. “They’re the ones who released all these Taliban commanders, they’re the ones who signed this deal,” he said.

Mark T. Esper, a defense secretary under Mr. Trump, agreed that the deal was flawed and in fact argued against drawing down further in the final months of the last administration before being fired in November. In recent days, he said, “there were more options available to President Biden” than simply continuing Mr. Trump’s withdrawal.

“He could have tried to go back to the table with the Taliban and renegotiate,” Mr. Esper said on CNN. “He could have demanded, as I argued, that they agree to the conditions they established or they agreed to in the agreement and that we use military power to compel them to do that.”

How we arrived at this stage of the Afghanistan war must be viewed from the start of the mission. Republicans will not tell their constituents that , but Foreign Affairs presses the point continuously.

‘’In the aftermath of 9/11, intervention in Afghanistan took on enormous importance for the Bush administration, which was determined to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil. But the administration had no desire to garrison Afghanistan indefinitely, so it chose to help build a successor regime to the Taliban that could presumably govern the country on its own one day—and ensure that it didn’t again become a safe haven for terrorists. The invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban went surprisingly smoothly, producing a quick, low-cost victory. In the flush of this initial success, the Bush administration was led to believe that the follow-up nation-building mission could be similarly easy.

The Bush administration’s first mistake was a failure to fully appreciate the geographic obstacles in the way of an Afghan reconstruction effort. Afghanistan is on the other side of the world from the United States, and in addition to being landlocked and inaccessible, it is surrounded by several powerful and predatory neighbors, including Iran, Pakistan, and nearby Russia. The only way the United States could get most of its forces and their supplies into or out of Afghanistan was through or over Pakistan—a country that did not share American objectives there and actively sought to subvert them.

Moreover, the population of Afghanistan was considerably larger than that of any other country involved in a post–World War II U.S. intervention: in 2001, Afghanistan had almost twice as many people as wartime South Vietnam. Typically, the troop-to-population ratio is an important determinant of the success of a stabilization operation. Two years before the invasion of Afghanistan, in 1999, the United States and its NATO allies had deployed 50,000 troops to stabilize Kosovo, a country of 1.9 million. Afghanistan’s population in 2001 was 21.6 million—yet by the end of 2002, there were only around 8,000 U.S. troops in a country that was more than ten times Kosovo’s size and had no army or police force of its own. There simply weren’t enough U.S. boots on the ground to secure the country the United States had captured.

One reason for the relatively small deployment was that the Bush administration did not intend for U.S. forces to assume peacekeeping or public security responsibilities—rather, they focused exclusively on tracking down residual al Qaeda elements, at the expense of the foundational security required to build a functioning state. The Bush administration also neglected to commit the necessary financial resources to the Afghan stabilization effort. In Bosnia, the United States and other donors had provided economic assistance amounting to $1,600 per inhabitant per year for the first several years after that war. The comparable figure in Afghanistan amounted to $50 per person—a paltry sum.’’