Since President Biden’s announcement that we would be removing the rest of our troops from that Afghanistan, I’ve been thinking about the war that we’ve been prosecuting there for over 19 years. There are a number of questions that we must attempt to answer as we move forward.
First, what were our goals when we invaded the country?
Second, did we achieve those goals?
Third, if we do not remove our troops now, then when?
Fourth, does it make sense to leave a residual force?
First, our goals were initially quite clear: eliminate the presence of al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban-led government.
Second, we did achieve the first goal, but we blundered when it came to the second goal. We lost the war against the Taliban and for Afghanistan in 2002. Secretary Rumsfeld wanted to win the war on the cheap (much as we did Iraq) with too little planning for the post-war period. Moreover, we handed too much responsibility, and thus abdicated ours, for prosecuting the war to “allies”, i.e. Pakistan and warlords. This ultimately meant that the Taliban were never defeated, and that they would be able to return (they have).
That takes us to the third question. We are clearly not going to defeat the Taliban in a traditional sense, and therefore we are not going to prevent the Taliban from returning to power. We gave the Taliban an out when we made Pakistan responsible for preventing their flight early in the war — a strategic error. Our faith in warlords and foreign exiles ensured the return of corruption, lack of faith in the new government, and the inability of said government to stand without our support. Consequently, we accomplished the narrowest goal and lost on the broader and more long-term goal.
Finally, given that we will not station enough forces to prevent the Taliban from taking power, there is no need to retain any force structure in Afghanistan. We would be attempting to prevent the fall of a failed government (which we can’t), and we’ll simply make ourselves a target of the Taliban. If we are concerned about the return of al-Qaeda to Afghanistan, which I think is a misplaced concern, we can do that from a distance and not make our troops on the ground vulnerable.
The long-term consequences for Afghanistan are horrendous, especially for women and girls. Any advance made over the last two decades will more than likely be erased. The Taliban have not necessarily mellowed, but they have become wiser about who they let in.
Thus, I can’t help but conclude that Afghanistan in five years will look much as it did 20 years ago, just without al-Qaeda. And to all of those who had hope in our presence there, they can tell it farewell, along with the rest of our troops.
Timothy J. Schorn, J.D., LL.M,. Ph.D. is an associate professor of Political Science and director of the International Studies Program at the University of South Dakota.