Our leaders chose the future playing out in Kabul. This is the worst – but crucial – element of the whole calamity. There was nothing inevitable about the withdrawal. It was not a retreat borne of overwhelming casualties, superior enemy firepower or strategy. The Afghans were abandoned not in accordance with a coherent foreign policy, but because of polling in the United States. The same rationale which possessed Trump now motivates Biden. Both believed that political kudos would be heaped on the man who brought the lengthy intervention to a close.
Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Korea and North-Eastern Europe. These are examples of places which are now relatively peaceful and prosperous thanks to troop presences lasting multiple decades. Cyprus continues to be patrolled by UN peacekeepers, and has been since 1964. NATO has maintained battlegroups in Germany for decades, and now the alliance’s enhanced forward presence guards the Baltic from Putin. There are still 26,000 American soldiers in South Korea, just in case.And yet, Trump and Biden have repeatedly insisted that Afghanistan’s status as America’s ‘longest war’ – or even (dictionary definitions be damned) a ‘forever war’ – is reason enough to finish up and fulfil that universally popular policy of ‘bringing the troops home’. But it is no reason at all.
Conflicts cannot be won on a timetable. Especially not an American schedule. Their firepower is awesome, but their patience is pitiful. And patience is the crucial ingredient in defeating an enemy like the Taliban. They have it in spades.
In the 2021 context, patience from Biden should not have been too much to ask. America’s Afghanistan deployment prior to the withdrawal was a small fraction of the commitment Obama maintained. Yet Biden loves to make out that he inherited a costly, bloody and ineffective American war. This is from his April remarks on Afghanistan:
“Section 60 [of Arlington National Cemetery] is where our recent war dead are buried, including many of the women and men who died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s no — there’s no comforting distance in history in Section 60. The grief is raw. It’s a visceral reminder of the living cost of war.
(…) We already have service members doing their duty in Afghanistan today whose parents served in the same war. We have service members who were not yet born when our nation was attacked on 9/11.”
This is clever politicking. Biden implies he is the commander of an endless and costly mission, whose scope has changed little in 20 years. Framing like this helps to justify the withdrawal. But he is being profoundly misleading.
It’s true that between 2008 and 2013 – encompassing the period during which Obama launched ‘the surge’ – the war was costing the US almost $100 billion a year. It’s also true that during those years, US monthly combat fatalities would often climb into dozens. At the height of US involvement, 110,000 American servicemen were deployed.
However, Biden inherited a completely different mission. By the time he was sworn in, American troops were barely fighting a war at all.
In 2014, the US mission changed from frontline warfighting (Operation ‘Enduring Freedom’), to a training, advisory, and air support role in support of the Afghan National Army (Operation ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’). This reduced mission was a fraction of the cost for the Americans and the coalition, in both money and lives. Here are the numbers.
2,461 American service personnel have died in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Just 109 of those deaths have been suffered since January 2015 (13 of which were sustained in the chaotic and bloodsoaked Kabul evacuation – for which Biden is also heavily responsible, more later).
Minus those 13 recent deaths, the remaining 96 fatalities were all incurred before August 2020 (for the record, you have to go back to 2015 for a British fatality in Afghanistan). Those US fatalities suffered in the Kabul airport attack were the first Afghan combat deaths of Biden’s presidency. Until then, not a single American soldier had died in Afghanistan during his tenure.
Further, the number of American soldiers deployed immediately prior to the start of the final withdrawal amounted to no more than 4,000 troops, compared to that peak commitment of 110,000. The financial cost of supporting the Afghan military remained significant, about $45 billion a year. Still, that’s less than half the annual cost of the war in 2011, when it approached $100 billion. With an annual defence budget exceeding $700 billion, the $45 billion figure equates to 6.4% of total US military spending. It is no small number, but a wise investment nonetheless.
With that in mind, Biden’s withdrawal is baffling. The international coalition pulled out at the point where its troops were safest. At the same time, the US’s reduced role had been crucial. The provision of battle-winning air power, training and VIP protection only became more important as the Taliban regrouped. But this was no longer large-scale warfighting by the Americans. The frontline work had been taken over by the Afghans themselves.
Upon this subject, Rory Stewart, former MP, soldier and Afghanistan expert, has been pre-eminently sagacious:
“It was a totally random, unnecessary act [the withdrawal]. The West had this very light, sustainable presence. The US/UK were not losing casualties (…) and really they could have stayed for the next 20, 30 years. So it’s very easy for him [Biden/Boris] to pretend that there was this enormous American and British troop presence, that we were haemorrhaging money and lives, and pretend that we were still living in 2009 (…) this is nonsense, we had almost nobody there! All we were doing was providing a bit of air support, and by doing that we were stopping the Taliban taking over the country.”
The fall of Kabul led some politicians to wonder if our leaders were let down by poor military intelligence. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with our spooks. Trump (who really kick-started withdrawal back in 2020), Biden and our own Prime Minister had been warned repeatedly by their respective intelligence services of the speed with which coalition withdrawal would precipitate the Afghan government’s collapse. Shamefully, they chose to press ahead.
Tony Blair has described Biden’s whole Afghan policy as ‘imbecilic’. That’s the perfect word. What is the point of the CIA if the commander in chief ignores their intelligence? Former regional CIA counter-terror chief Douglas London summarised it like this:
“The failure was not due to any lack of warning, but rather the hubris and political risk calculus of decision makers whose choices are too often made in their personal and political interest or with pre-committed policy choices, rather than influenced by (sometimes inconvenient) intelligence assessments and the full interests of the country.”
And what were those personal-political interests? The consistently high support given to ‘ending forever wars’ in domestic polling data. That this is the only way to explain an otherwise indefensible policy is outrageous. It is deeply cynical. It is cowardly in the extreme. It is no way to conduct foreign policy. It should go without saying: Just because a policy is popular, doesn’t make it right. The best leaders have the mettle to make difficult choices in defiance of the public will. Swinging with the polls ends in vacillation and impulsive, uncertain decision making.
Biden could have committed to a limited, long-term mission, with the aim of supporting the Afghan government against the Taliban. By doing so, he would have protected the substantial humanitarian progress made in the country, and helped suppress a brutal insurgency. Instead, he decided to honour Trump’s disastrous ‘peace deal’ with the Taliban, and fulfil his own policy priorities. In attempting to argue that the withdrawal was justified because it allowed US soldiers to return from a distant, foreign and fruitless war, Biden has chosen a path which is distinctly ‘America First’. Ultimately, this policy meant choosing to abandon America’s allies. It meant choosing defeat.
Biden assumed that if the true military situation – of a small, effective and sustainable deployment – was obfuscated sufficiently in the language of ‘forever wars’, then his electorate wouldn’t know better than to applaud the safe return of their brave boys and girls. Thankfully, the American people are better than the dupes their president takes them for. The chaos in Kabul has caused Biden’s approval ratings to drop to their lowest levels yet.
To make military decisions in defiance of the intelligence and in pursuit of a poll boost is a terrible betrayal of those who have taken the lead in fighting the Taliban for the last seven years: The Afghans themselves. It is they who will suffer the most, not those who walked away.