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The Real Problem With Biden’s Afghanistan Withdrawal: It Came 10 Years Too Late

Expert: “To stay longer would have increased the number of U.S. casualties and delayed the inevitable.”

Marines
120322-M-PH863-005 U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Leobardo Nunez provides security during a census patrol through a village near Khan Neshin, Afghanistan, on March 22, 2012. Nunez is an infantry automatic rifleman assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. DoD photo by Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of America’s messy and chaotic withdrawal from the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Many observers are evaluating today whether President Joe Biden’s decision to end the war was the right one. While there is no question that America’s exit could have been handled better, the bigger question is whether Biden was right to leave. 

The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, he should have done so earlier.  

That view is not universal, however. Some of the most famous advocates of the two-decade war in Afghanistan have been just as outspoken in claiming Biden’s order to end it was a mistake. In The Atlantic, former U.S. commander, retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, wrote that the real problems were America’s lack of commitment and strategic resolve. 

John Nagl, who famously penned the military’s counterinsurgency strategy, claimed, “The failure to build a sufficient dedicated advisory force structure is among the most critical failures of the military” in Afghanistan and “contributed significantly to American defeat” in that war. 

Former Army Deputy Chief of Staff, retired Gen. Jack Keane, went so far as to blame the president’s withdrawal for the Taliban’s return to Kabul. Keane claims that American withdrawal put the Taliban in charge again, allowing them to provide sanctuary to al Qaeda. What we should have done, Keane says, is maintain an acceptable stalemate. 

What all of these men essentially argue is that the U.S. did not try hard enough, did not stay long enough, and did not provide enough support. 

Yet as I can personally attest from having served two combat tours in Afghanistan (the last during 2010-2011, at the height of Petraeus’s Afghan surge), these proponents of continued U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan are ignoring a whole herd of elephants in the room. 

The reality is that Petraeus, Keane, and Nagl were three leading voices among a broad cohort of foreign policy elite in the United States that constantly argued for more troops, more time, and more engagement. Any talk of ending the war, of withdrawing, was summarily rejected. The rejections were always accompanied by stark warnings of unspecific threats that would materialize if the U.S. military left. 

But over the final 13 years of the war, there were a handful of highly qualified voices that tried to inject reality into the conversation.  Matthew Hoh was the first.

In September 2009, Hoh was a senior civilian officer for the State Department, working in Afghanistan’s Zabul province. A former Marine who led a combat engineer company during the Iraq war, he resigned his post in protest. The Afghan people who were fighting against the U.S. coalition, he told ABC News, weren’t doing so “for any ideological reasons, not because of any links to al Qaeda,” but simply “because we are occupying them.”

The Afghan government, Hoh wrote in his resignation letter, demonstrated a “glaring corruption and unabashed graft; a president whose confidants and chief advisors comprise drug lords and war crimes villains, who mock our own rule of law.” The regional officials were just as corrupt, he claimed. “Our support for this kind of government,” Hoh concluded, “coupled with a misunderstanding of the insurgency’s true nature, reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam.”

One of the most consistent and accurate voices warning that our war was failing throughout was Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a 2010 assessment, Cordesman wrote, “The lack of transparency, unity of effort, and effective (action) in each of the six areas (of President Obama’s Afghan war strategy) is now losing the war. No amount of spin, optimism, and wishful thinking can deal with any one of these challenges.

During my second combat deployment to Afghanistan, I found that nearly everything Hoh and Cordesman had written was accurate, and in some cases understated. I lamented in a 2012 Armed Forces Journal essay that senior U.S. civilian and military leaders were systematically deceiving the American public about the war, claiming progress where there was none. 

“How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding,” I rhetorically asked. The most responsible action then-President Obama could have taken would been to have ended the war in 2012, not let five more years of pointless war and sacrifice pass before handing the morass off to his successor. Trump could have ended the war during his Administration, but at least he established an end date for the war before he left office.

Afghanistan Hearings

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander, U.S. Central Command, provide testimony at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on ending the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., Sept. 29, 2021. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

Despite the warnings shared by many who had direct knowledge of the failures of the war, the pro-war advocates won out for another full decade after I wrote the above. During that time, thousands more Americans were killed and wounded – hundreds of thousands would eventually suffer traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder – for a war that was militarily unwinnable. 

Biden was right to end the war and stop the bleeding. Without question, the withdrawal could have been executed better, but the truth is that the rot of two full decades spent trying to cover military failure could no longer be hidden, resulting in the complete collapse of the Afghan state in mere months. To stay longer would have increased the number of U.S. casualties and delayed the inevitable.

Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. David Chang

    August 29, 2022 at 8:40 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    The reason why our military failed in Afghan, like in Vietnam,
    all strategies are not based on right constitutional thought.

    Even if we should prevent socialism parties for occupying Vietnam and Afghan, U.S. should declare war first, get early victory, then withdraw.

    Doing so will make many people angry, but compared with generals, soldiers can see constitutional problems in socialism war.

    Because people in Vietnam and Afghan don’t talk about constitution thought of which America people talk in 1776. People don’t trust God, but worship government, so people don’t take their lives to build a nation under God. People want to depend on America soldiers, but America soldiers cannot be their president or judge.

    If politicians make wrong promises to them, soldiers stationed there will pay for it. There is the same strategy difficulty with small unit tactics.

    God bless America.

  2. Yrral

    August 30, 2022 at 8:41 am

    Why are Republicans crying over spill milk,they could care less about people of Afghanistan,only concerned about the people,that look like them and think like them

  3. pagar

    August 30, 2022 at 9:30 am

    US invasion of afghanistan over 20 years ago was a feint. Real target was iraq. US has waged nearly 400 wars since 1676.

  4. Jim

    August 30, 2022 at 9:49 am

    No surprise the biggest proponents of the war wanted to keep it going.

    One way to avoid responsibility for losing a war is to never end the war.

    Petraeus, Keane, and Nagl, had different involvements, but in the end they promoted a failed policy.

    We need to “fire” the foreign policy set who repeatedly fail to meet their own metrics and make a fundamental change of direction.

    A huge start is to recognize America must work in a multi-polar geo-political world.

    It can’t be, “my way or the highway”, any longer.

    Those days are gone and the sooner we realize that the better off we will be.

    Imperial over-stretch, thy name is America.

    Failure to acknowledge this new situation will lead to disaster.

  5. Froike

    August 30, 2022 at 12:44 pm

    Whether leaving Afghanistan was a mistake or not, is not the issue. It’s how we left. Billions of Dollars of US Weaponry was abandoned, as were our Allies and American Citizens.

  6. Ghost Tomahawk

    August 30, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    If the Afghanistan withdrawl happened 10 years ago and was executed like THAT, the problem wasnt timing. It was a cluster fluck from “go”. None of it was done right including the denial aout people being left behind and the abandonment of those pople to Taliban monsters who used them as ransom later on. Bidne and the entire lot deserve prison or worse and so would have Trump if that happened under his watch.

    So no it wasnt that it was 10 years too late. It was a bloody disaster and a national disgrace that really begs to question why is Biden and his military cabinet still in office. They shouldve resigned in disgrace.

  7. HAT451

    August 30, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    The real issue in both Iraq and Afghanistan was scope creep of the mission. There was no definition of success. In lieu of that, operational victories were replaced with “democracy, nation building” projects, something for which an end state was was never defined.

    The job of the military is to “kick a$$” under the laws of war, and to do it so hard and decisively that peace is secured for America and Americans. A great example such an operations as April 15, 1986, when the US stuck Libya, in such a way, that caused Qadhafi to dramatically curtail his sponsorship of terrorism out of fear or reprisals.

    For democracy or republicanism to function, there needs to be respect for principles that are enshrined in the US Constitution. In countries which have no historical experience with democracy / republicanism nation building can be accomplished, but not in 10 or 20 years, but maybe in 10 generations.

  8. Dienne

    August 31, 2022 at 12:42 pm

    Why 10 years ago? Why not 20? Why did we invade Afghanistan when nearly all the hijackers were Saudi? Because bin Laden was in Afghanistan? The Taliban offered to hand him over. We wanted war instead, and then we even abandoned the pretense of bin Laden as soon as we started on Iraq. The war has been a sick joke (that’s not funny) from the beginning.

  9. Eric-ji

    August 31, 2022 at 2:59 pm

    What was accomplished by the wars of the past 20 years? Dienne is correct, it was a sick joke. The immediate reason was the “we must do something” attitude after 9/11/2001. The US needed to strike out. It was stupid action with a tragic human cost all around.

    What if we’d have left Afghanistan & Iraq alone, beefed up our domestic security, and left all those unhappy people in the Middle East to stew in their own entropy? I doubt the result in 2022 would have been any worse, and probably would have been much better.

    The one thing we’d miss out on though is an experienced military. Perhaps that was the real rational for our actions. We need to keep the ‘spear’ sharp, upgraded.

  10. OIF Combat Vet

    September 1, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    Afghanistan was Biden’s amateur hour, stop apologizing for his debacle.

  11. Len Mullen

    September 1, 2022 at 5:42 pm

    The problem is that we should never had gone in. Time to End the Endless Wars.

  12. Al

    September 1, 2022 at 11:07 pm

    I was in college when 9/11 happened. I recall that we were going into Afghanistan because we were going after Osama bin Laden. In 2011, he was killed, and I thought, “great the objective has been achieved”. “The nation building and peace keeping can be handed over to the UN”
    My memory is foggy after that. Why did we stay?

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