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Joe Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal Is Looking Like a Disaster

Afghanistan Withdrawal
A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress assigned to the 2nd Bomb Wing departs after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, during a multi-day Bomber Task Force mission over Southwest Asia, Dec. 10th, 2020. The B-52 is a long-range bomber with a range of approximately 8,800 miles, enabling rapid support of BTF missions or deployments and reinforcing global security and stability. (U.S Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride)

Over the Summer we’ve seen the debate over the tactics of withdrawal from Afghanistan ebb and flow as headlines announce more bad news. Those debates are interspersed with biting Weekend Section-length paeans to the failure of U.S. policy, meant to serve as retrospectives both for our effort there and our place in the world.

But what we’ve also seen is a second failure, the abrupt and significant absence of a necessary debate over how and if the United States should respond to the ongoing crisis and civil war in Afghanistan. Our representatives in Washington, most supportive of withdrawal and many very recently elected, saw their policy aim implemented, and they now own the risk that follows. To borrow a phrase from earlier this century, what happens now is “on their watch.”

Our interest in turning away prevented us – the politicians and the people – from considering even the basic elements of a withdrawal plan that does justice to our twenty-year effort. Unladen from all the domestic baggage – the neocons versus the isolationists, Republicans versus Democrats, Obama or Trump versus the reluctant generals – there’s a massive conflict brewing in a country where the implications tend not to remain local.

A majority of Americans support withdrawal, but most Americans probably presumed there was at least some coherent strategy for protecting their safety. There is not. The Biden administration withdrew without basic details worked out in advance. The two identifiable tactics as it relates to supporting the Afghan government are ad hoc airstrikes against the Taliban, and a round of utterly humiliating hashtag diplomacy as U.S. leaders are forced to pretend the peace process has any relevance of credibility. This week the administration even threatened that any government taking power in Afghanistan absent the Doha peace process would be internationally isolated. You might have sensed that will not deter the Taliban.

Not once has the administration provided a clear rationale for when they’ll intervene via air support, leaving both the American people and our own Afghan allies guessing as to when we’ll intervene. Nor are there clear answers – in press conference after press conference – as to the scope or duration of, or authority for, our air support in the current civil war. Further, nor have we squared how U.S. air support to the Afghan government – dependent on Pakistani grant of overflight rights – will be sustainable in the face of Pakistan’s eventual support for the formalization and recognition of a complete Taliban takeover. The most likely explanation is that the administration hopes to use the remaining weeks of their announced timeline to slow the advance of the Taliban, preventing the collapse of the Afghan government until after we depart. At that departure date, we’ll likely cease all air support as well.

The defense and counterterrorism strategy relies on a Drone-First approach. What’s referred to as an ‘over-the-horizon’ plan depends on an ever-harder to sustain intelligence presence sufficient to detect and disrupt terrorist attack planning. To execute that strategy, we fly from bases in the Middle East through the only place to admit us overflight rights so far, Pakistan, a country we suspect tipped off allied militants and terrorists in past strikes.

Not once has the administration provided a clear threshold for CT intervention. It’s unclear what maturity of threat planning they’ll respond to, what degree of overall terrorist activity in Afghanistan poses a threat to the homeland, or how they’ll monitor the threat as our allies are killed and the intelligence picture fades in the wake of sweeping Taliban advances.

For now, the Taliban are poised for an even greater stranglehold over Afghanistan than they had for much of the nineties, with the international supporters of their opponents cowed and Russians, Pakistanis, and Iranians ascendant sponsors of the Taliban or other militias suitable to their regional interests. Taliban control over the country may even include the areas that had been traditional redoubts of resistance and relative safety for ethnic Tajiks and others. Territory matters, both for the ability to extract tribute and weapons from conquered enemies, but also because the Taliban can expand the drug trade it’s already ramping up to include not just heroin but also methamphetamine.

We could be on track for not only a more powerful and defiant Taliban than in the 1990’s but a terrorist safe haven more robust than in the years leading up to 9/11.

Jason Killmeyer is a counterterrorism and foreign policy expert specializing in emerging technology applications. For more than ten years, Jason worked in national security, including as Chief of Staff of Global Defense, Security & Justice at Deloitte Consulting LLP. Jason has a Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies with an M.A. thesis on post-invasion Iraqi politics.
Written By

Jason Killmeyer is a counterterrorism and foreign policy expert specializing in emerging technology applications. For more than ten years, Jason worked in national security, including as Chief of Staff of Global Defense, Security & Justice at Deloitte Consulting LLP. Jason has a Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies with an M.A. thesis on post-invasion Iraqi politics.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Ben Leucking

    August 11, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    The DOD and State Department spent twenty years meticulously planning out and providing all of the bullets jet fuel, spare tires and paper clips needed to prosecute a war against insurgents who have been at it for generations prior to 2001. And yet, they couldn’t plan an orderly withdrawal that provided a reasonable chance of survival of a congenitally corrupt government that we propped up for the last two decades, or for the Afghans who genuinely supported US policy.

    We started out with an honorable mission, then allowed mission creep to subvert the reason for being there in the first place. I would challenge anyone to define what our objective has been for the last ten or twelve years. The top brass in the military has been lying to the American public for at least that long.

  2. Michael P. McManus

    August 12, 2021 at 9:12 am

    What did you expect? we only fought this war as a “level of effort”, not to win. the only reason we stayed for so long was that so many American companies were making money from providing “beans bandages and bullets”, to the war effort. I recently read an excellent story of the war (Freaks of a Feather/Tellessen/Latah Books). He said that my first deployment was to a war zone but the second tour was not! this comment parallels my experience in RVN! another “level of effort” disaster.

  3. Chris Cha

    August 12, 2021 at 9:14 am

    We should have leveled Afghanistan 20 years ago, installed a governor, built a few military bases, and mined rare earth metals from the country. We wouldn’t have spent a trillion dollars, we’d have some military bases on China’s western border, and wouldn’t be dependent on China for rare ear metals. We’d still be there, but at least we’d have something to show for it.

  4. Gregory Power

    August 12, 2021 at 11:44 am

    Saying “it’s up to the Afghans now to protect themselves” is a horrible strategy that Biden will own. Yes, we wanted to leave, but not if the collapse is inevitable. We stayed in South Korea and are STILL there; no wars, peace prevails despite the always present threat from the North. Biden is abandoning Afghanistan just like the Vietnam war where the war was a political failure—the United States had failed to keep South Vietnam independent and noncommunist and North Vietnam took over in 1975, 2 years after our departure. Look for the same prediction for Afghanistan as we abandon them to the Taliban and eventually Al Qaeda totally reconstituted.

  5. P H

    August 12, 2021 at 1:09 pm

    The Bush administration walked away from and sacrificed success in Afghanistan for an ill-advised, ill-conceived, and poorly conducted misadventure in Iraq. To compound that the equally confusing misadventures in Afghanistan proceeded with no clear achievable goal. All this orchestrated by political leaders with little knowledge or understanding of what they were about. I am always amazed by the apparent shocking lack of knowledge and understanding of any culture other than Western on the part of our self proclaimed leaders regardless of political party. Anyone who believed that the Taliban were to be trusted clearly falls in that category. The administrations, one and all, since 9/11 have created for us a modern La Brea Tar Pit in which we will wallow for the foreseeable future.

  6. glenn edward davis

    August 12, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    56,000 dead by the time we fled from Viet Nam. This cost us more money but less lives. The real sorry legacy that we add to is collateral damage of the indigenous population that put their trust in us. The refrain that runs through my mind is—when will they ever learn.

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