|By Daniel Silverberg
August 16, 2021In 2017, I arrived at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport as part of a congressional staff delegation. Even though the U.S. embassy stood a mere four miles away, safety concerns necessitated our helicoptering from a recently constructed multimillion-dollar transit facility instead of traveling by road. As we flew over Kabul, I realized that the Afghan security forces, backed by thousands of U.S. personnel, could not even secure the heart of Afghanistan’s capital.
Kabul was not lost yesterday; the United States and our Afghan partners never truly had control of the country, nor of its capital. Once the Taliban had secured an agreement that the United States would be pulling out and that forces would be reduced to minimal numbers before Joe Biden’s presidency began, they merely had to wait.
The dozens of congressional briefings I attended over 14 years of working on Capitol Hill underscored this dynamic. The intelligence community would commence each briefing with a stark assessment regarding the fragility of conditions in Afghanistan. Senior defense leaders would then provide a far more optimistic view, one that often gave a sense of progress, despite the Herculean challenge with which they had been tasked.
Various critics of President Biden are engaging in fantasies amid Kabul’s collapse: if only we’d used more force, demonstrated more will, stayed a few months longer, then the Taliban would have adopted a different strategy.
These criticisms ignore the developments of the past decade and downplay the impact of last May’s announcement. Even the Biden administration’s harshest detractors mostly concede that the United States would eventually have had to withdraw from Afghanistan. According to the U.S. military, the Taliban was stronger this year than it had been since 2001, while the Afghan defense forces were suffering from high rates of attrition. At some point, the attack on the Afghan government would have come, and U.S. troops would have been caught in the middle—leaving the U.S. to decide between surging thousands of troops or withdrawal.
Some critics also argue that the United States should have preserved a residual force in Afghanistan, much as we have in South Korea. There are any number of ungoverned spaces today, however, which pose as great a threat, if not greater, to U.S. security as Afghanistan, and few are calling for U.S. deployments to those areas. There is a cost—financial and military—to tying forces down in a project that was ultimately doomed to fail.
The United States had multiple opportunities over the past 20 years to pursue an end to its involvement in Afghanistan. Shortly after the initial invasion, the U.S. rejected a reported offer of surrender. In 2011, peace negotiations were suffocated in their infancy by political opponents and a wary Pentagon. President Biden has demonstrated courage in finding a path forward where others merely fought to preserve the status quo.
Biden faced a set of bad options. He ultimately made the difficult but necessary choice to preserve American lives.
Biden did not decide to withdraw so much as he chose to acknowledge a long-festering reality, one accelerated by the previous administration’s withdrawal announcement.