Cipher Brief expert Tim Willasey-Wilsey served over 27 years at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he focused on South and Northeast Asia, as well as on the issues of terrorism, organized crime, insurrection and conflict resolution. He is visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London.
EXPERT PERSPECTIVE – The misleading narrative of “endless wars” undermined Western resolve. In fact, since the end of direct involvement in combat missions, the cost of the war in Afghanistan was relatively low, it allowed the counter-terrorism mission to continue, it prevented the return of the brutal Taliban to Kabul and (until last week) it had not. done. added to NATO’s damaging string of failures.
However, President Joe Biden’s announcement that the United States will leave Afghanistan before the 20thth the anniversary of 9/11 was hardly a surprise. In many ways it is a relief after 20 years of turmoil. There are six compelling reasons for making the decision to leave.
- There is little point in having troops deployed in danger when there is no coherent global strategy towards a political solution in Afghanistan and no visible end date.
- The Afghan government is stubbornly resistant to change and has suffered from a damaged legitimacy since the flawed election of Hamid Karzai in 2009. His mandate is no longer valid in much of the country.
- Rampant corruption in Afghanistan, originally fueled by the opium industry, has worsened since 2001 and taking advantage of the huge amounts of cash aid received from global donors.
- Although the regional and concerned countries all wish to see a stable Afghanistan, at least three of them (China, Russia and Iran) are not in the mood to help the US come out with a successfully negotiated solution.
- Despite its public relations efforts, there is little evidence that the Taliban has improved since its appalling period in power between 1996 and 2001. Indeed, its campaign of targeted assassinations after the Doha agreement suggests it is still the same oppressive organization it was when it was founded in 1994.
- Despite repeatedly insinuating the contrary, it is clear that Pakistan would still prefer to have the Taliban in power in Kabul rather than a government friendly to India and suspected of providing shelter to terrorist groups operating against Pakistan.
Yet despite these seemingly conclusive arguments, the US withdrawal is a bad decision. While it’s true that it was a 20-year war, there were three distinct phases in which combat conditions dropped.
- The first phase from 2001 to 2006 was a remarkable success. Al Qaeda has been expelled from Afghanistan and decimated by (mainly) US counter-terrorism (CT) actions often coordinated with Pakistan. 212 US soldiers have been killed in those 5 years – an average of 42 per year.
- The second phase, from 2006 to 2014, was the most costly period in which NATO forces were directly involved in the fight against the Taliban. This period included the Obama surge as troop numbers (and associated costs) peaked. 2,045 US soldiers have died during these nine years – 227 each year.
- The third (and now we know the last) chapter was from 2015 to 2021, when NATO forces played a largely advisory role for the Afghan National Army. 99 US military and women have died (to date) in these 6 years; 16.5 per year.
For the United Kingdom, the comparison of the three phases is even more striking; 5 deaths in the first 5 years; 448 in the central 9 years during the Helmand campaign and 4 in the last six years. Thus, we can see that the only truly painful and costly period for NATO was during the spell of direct combat activity.
Since the end of the combat involvement, the NATO presence has been very successful. The CT mission continued against both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). NATO has been an important material and psychological support for the Afghan army. It has made it possible to largely preserve important achievements of civil society. For as long as NATO remained in Afghanistan, there remained the possibility of negotiating a broader agreement with Pakistan and neighboring countries through which the Taliban could have been introduced into civil society in carefully regulated phases and possibly have the opportunity to effectively govern a southern province before being allowed any role in a broad-based government in Kabul.
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It would be wrong to blame the Biden administration for the decision to leave Afghanistan. Former US President Donald Trump had held direct talks with the Taliban without Kabul’s involvement and had repeatedly ignored the Taliban’s violations of the Doha agreement. Kabul was forced to release dangerous prisoners against unreliable US assurances that they would be prevented from returning to the front lines. Finally, Trump reduced troop levels to an unsustainable level, meaning Biden would have the politically difficult task of increasing the number at a time when the “endless wars” narrative was gaining domestic currency. Biden’s only mistake was to support Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s plan, who tried to attack Kabul on a coalition with a Taliban movement that is clearly not fit for political office.
The Afghan government may be able to hold power for a few years as the Najibullah administration survived after the soviets left. However, there is a danger of a sudden breakdown of trust with senior officials and politicians leaving in droves and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing west through Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian republics. As the Taliban return to Kabul, we have witnessed disturbing scenes of punishment and, over time, the return of Al Qaeda figures from their hiding places in the tribal borderlands in Pakistan. Only then will people re-examine this decision and recognize that the Afghan sides since 2014 have not been that burdensome.
There is a final point. By turning a difficult mission into another failure, the United States signals to potential adversaries that the West lacks resolve and resistance. China will be pleased to see the United States move away from the western border, and Putin, with his hitherto successful record of tactical interventions – providing him with regional influence with no clear results – will note that NATO cannot handle it. ambiguity and is willing to grant regional influence. Important allies, particularly India, will make a mental note not to rely too much on the United States and the West at a time when Biden hopes to strengthen alliances to counter Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London and a former senior British diplomat. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of any institution.
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