Defining US success after 20 years in Afghanistan
President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that the US would begin the final withdrawal of all its forces from Afghanistan on May 1. This will bring an end to America’s 20-year military involvement in the country, which began after the terrorist attacks against the US on Sept. 11, 2001.
Biden’s decision is not surprising. He has never favored a large US military presence in Afghanistan. Back in 2009, when his former boss President Barack Obama was developing his Afghan strategy, then-Vice President Biden was the leading advocate for shifting the mission there from a troop-heavy counterinsurgency one to a leaner counterterrorism operation. But he was overruled and the Obama administration surged tens of thousands of US troops to the country. So the fact that President Biden has turned out to be the commander-in-chief who has pulled the plug on the US troop presence in Afghanistan is not all that surprising.
The war in Afghanistan is often described as America's “longest war.” Even Biden used this term in his latest speech. But this is highly misleading. The military presence in Afghanistan today is nothing like it was in 2001, when the US intervened to overthrow the Taliban. It is also nothing like the US military presence in 2009, when Obama surged troops to the country, bringing the total number to 100,000. Between 2001 and 2015, the US was leading day-to-day combat operations.
However, since 2015, the Afghans have been leading combat operations, with the US and its international partners supporting them. Furthermore, each year since 2015, fewer US troops have remained in Afghanistan. For the past several months, there have been less than 5,000 American service members in the country. In December of last year, this number was cut in half to 2,500. In the past 12 months, not a single US troop has been killed in action there.
There is also a major difference in America’s financial commitment. At the peak of the US involvement in 2011, Washington was spending $120 billion a year. However, in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, the Department of Defense “identified $18.6 billion in direct war costs” in Afghanistan. That is less than two months of spending at 2011 levels.
The US military footprint in Afghanistan today is like what can be found in other places around the world. The 2,500 troops in Afghanistan are conducting two parallel missions: Training the Afghan military and conducting counterterrorism operations. There are probably a half-dozen countries around the world where the US does similar.
The irony of Biden’s decision is that the current US military presence in Afghanistan is probably the correct one that is needed. And in terms of the number of US troops deployed, the number of US casualties taken and the cost to the US taxpayer, the current military footprint is acceptable and tolerable. But when American politicians, including at least two presidents, continue to describe the presence in Afghanistan as the “longest war,” it is not surprising that, after 20 years, people want out.
Haji Hekmat, allegedly a Taliban “shadow” mayor in Balkh district, told the BBC this week, “we have won the war and America has lost.” Of course, this sort of propaganda will be flooding the airwaves in the coming weeks, but an objective analysis of the facts shows a different picture.
The Taliban today is nothing like the group it was in the mid-1990s, when it was seizing major cities like Kandahar and Kabul with tanks and aircraft. On Sept. 10, 2001, outside a small rump of territory run by the Northern Alliance in northeastern Afghanistan, the Taliban controlled 90 percent of the country. At this time, the Taliban controlled every major population center, including the capital city, and all major road networks.
After being ousted from power in December 2001, the Taliban has never genuinely threatened Kabul. The group has also never held a provincial capital and has been relegated to the countryside. The situation in Afghanistan is often described as a “stalemate.” But a stalemate means gridlock — it does not mean parity.
There has also been no successful terrorist attack against the US that has originated or been planned in Afghanistan since 2001. While the campaign over the past two decades has not gone perfectly for America, it is hard to see how the Taliban has “won” or the US has “lost.” The reality is somewhere in between.
The irony of Biden’s decision is that the current US military presence is probably the correct one that is needed.
For the US, “success” in Afghanistan was never going to be when 100 percent of its districts were under the complete control of the Afghan government or when there are no more suicide bombings. Nor is success in Afghanistan achieved when every road is paved, every girl goes to school or everyone gets the right to vote. These things are very important in themselves, and the international community should aspire to them, but they are neither the reasons why the US went to Afghanistan nor why it should remain there.
The American “success” is achieved when there is a stable enough Afghanistan to manage its own internal security well enough to resist the establishment of terror bases — nothing more and nothing less. So has the US been successful in Afghanistan? This remains to be seen.
As a young Winston Churchill said in 1897, when he was a soldier-journalist on what is the modern-day Afghan-Pakistan border: “There are no general actions on a great scale, no brilliant successes, no important surrenders, no chance for a coup de theatre. It is just a rough, hard job, which must be carried through. The war is one of small incidents. The victory must be looked for in the results.”
Some things never change. What was true in 1897 is just as true in 2021.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey