Debate: Should the US have withdrawn from Afghanistan?

Annie Pforzheimer of CSIS and Michael Kugelman of The Wilson Center debate President Biden's decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan.
Image via Defense.gov

Was US Withdrawal The Biggest Foreign Policy Mistake Of Our Generation?

By Annie Pforzheimer and Michael Kugelman. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.


Washington’s Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Wrong in Execution, Right in Principle

By Michael Kugelman – Deputy Director, Asia Program, The Wilson Center

The Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan has been roundly condemned, and rightly so. It was mismanaged, chaotic, and deadly. The poor execution of the pullout, however, should not distract from the fact that there were very sound and prudent reasons to leave Afghanistan. That the last few weeks of the withdrawal went so horribly wrong does not make the decision to leave any less right.

The basic argument of U.S. withdrawal opponents is that remaining in Afghanistan would entail a manageable and even negligible cost for America and that staying the course would bring a modicum of stability to Afghanistan — especially in terms of lessening the threat of terrorism.

This argument is flawed for several reasons.

The Impossible Fix: Preventing the Afghan Breakdown

First, staying in Afghanistan would have entailed a major — and likely deadly — cost for the United States. From February 2020 to August 2021, when ISIS terrorists staged a horrific attack near the Kabul airport, no Americans were killed in Afghanistan. Withdrawal opponents have seized on this long gap to argue that staying on would have posed little risk to the lives of U.S troops. 

In reality, however, it was the U.S. decision to withdraw that ensured no U.S. troops were killed over that period. In February 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban that pledged to remove all troops in 2021 —  and for the Taliban not to attack them anymore. Had the Biden administration reneged on this agreement and pledged to stay on, the Taliban likely would have resumed attacks on U.S. forces.

Second, the U.S. military presence was not wholly stabilizing. To be sure, its training and advising mission strengthened the battlefield capacities of Afghan security forces, and U.S. surveillance and airstrikes kept terrorist threats in check. And yet, consider what has happened in Afghanistan over the last few years. The Taliban seized unprecedented amounts of territory and the war intensified in a big way. Afghanistan broke records for security forces and civilian fatalities. According to the UN, there have even been periods when U.S. forces and allied groups caused more civilian casualties than the Taliban. A U.S. drone strike in August that killed 10 civilians was only the latest tragic reminder of the civilian damage caused by U.S. firepower. Additionally, ISIS emerged in Afghanistan. 

These destabilizing developments — including an increasingly brutal war and the emergence of a new terrorist threat — all happened with U.S. boots on the ground. Additionally, the factors that led to the Taliban takeover and the chaos of the last two weeks of the U.S. military presence had been in place for several years. America would not have been in a position to do much about them, even if it opted to stay.

The Collapse of Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

What went wrong during the waning days of the U.S.-led war? The simple answer is that Washington failed to anticipate that the Taliban would seize total power so quickly — and with U.S. forces still on the ground, to boot. Consequently, panicked Afghans and foreign nationals alike desperately sought to get out. The rest — the chaos at the airport, the images of Afghans clinging to departing U.S. aircraft, the opportunistic terrorists that took advantage of large, vulnerable crowds outside the airport — is history. Had there been, after Biden announced the withdrawal in April, better U.S. contingency planning for the seemingly least likely but most dangerous scenario of a Taliban takeover pre-withdrawal, the withdrawal would have been better executed.

Why did the U.S. fail to anticipate the Taliban would seize power so quickly? Because it spent many years either denying or shrugging off the significance of the deep-seated, structural weaknesses of the Afghan state, and especially its troubled military — deficiencies happily exploited by the Taliban. Foot soldiers struggled with insufficient equipment and often were not paid or properly fed. Afghan Special Forces — the most effective branch of the military — were overused and exhausted. Corruption soared and morale sank. Afghan troops did not receive support from the civilian leadership, which never developed an effective counterinsurgency strategy. 

This helps explain why the Afghan military lost the will to fight and instead melted away amid Taliban offensives. Surrenders and negotiated handovers enabled the Taliban to waltz into Kabul and to be given the keys to the city without firing a single bullet.

Such was the scale of these challenges that there was little Washington could have done to address them. Corruption, morale crises, failures of command and control, little leadership from civilian officials — these were not the kinds of problems America could fix. And if they could not be fixed for nearly 20 years, they certainly would not be fixed by extending the U.S. mission in Afghanistan for a few months — or even a few years.

A Difficult Dilemma

Make no mistake, there are good reasons for U.S. troops to have stayed. It is easier to wage counterterrorism activities with boots on the ground than from faraway U.S. bases in the Middle East. Continued U.S. airpower could have helped repel Taliban fighters from advancing into cities. And the mere presence of U.S. soldiers would have been a psychological boost for beleaguered Afghan forces. 

This is why the Biden administration had no good options. Staying and leaving were both fraught with risk. But keep in mind that had U.S. forces remained in Afghanistan, their mission would have become more difficult because the Taliban would have renewed their war on them. Also, there would have been nothing U.S. forces could have done to prevent the slow collapse of the Afghan military. In effect, by staying on in Afghanistan, the United States would have simply been delaying the inevitable.

America Must Not Abandon the Afghan People

All this said, one cannot overstate how perilous Afghanistan has become since the U.S departure. The Taliban takeover may have ended the war, but the country now faces a terrible humanitarian crisis. International assistance to Afghanistan, a country dependent on Western aid for 80 percent of its government budget before the Taliban takeover, has fallen dramatically. New Western sanctions have frozen $10 billion in Afghan foreign reserves. Recent UN figures tell a shocking story: A whopping 90 percent of Afghanistan’s healthcare facilities have shut down due to insufficient funds. One million children are on the brink of starvation. Thousands of kids under five could soon die each month.

America may have left Afghanistan, but it must not abandon the Afghan people. Its biggest policy priority — aside from working to evacuate any remaining U.S. citizens that want to leave — should be delivering humanitarian assistance. The Treasury Department has already issued the necessary licenses that authorize Washington to convey aid to Afghanistan in ways that circumvent a government that it has not recognized. The Biden administration should lead efforts — in coordination with its NATO allies, key regional players, and the U.N. — to develop a collective humanitarian response.

Such efforts would achieve a middle ground position between staying and withdrawing: Support for Afghans would continue, albeit without boots on the ground. Such a U.S.-led approach would also help restore American global leadership — a top Biden administration foreign policy goal — and recoup some of the global credibility that it lost because of the botched execution of its withdrawal.


The Predictable and Predicted Withdrawal from Afghanistan

By Annie Pforzheimer – Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

In order to answer this policy question, it must be divided into two parts.  Whether the U.S. should have enacted an eventual full-troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is one concept, and even those who favored a future security cooperation relationship generally saw this as the goal. However, policymakers should have done everything to avoid  a withdrawal of our entire diplomatic and development presence, the inevitable outcome of a hastily organized, unconditional troop pullout with a set and public deadline. That version of a “U.S. withdrawal” is one of the biggest U.S. foreign policy errors of our time for which vulnerable Afghans are paying the highest costs.

The second question of whether this withdrawal decision could have “gone better” is illogical. Any military withdrawal with a hard deadline and without conditionality placed on the adversary is going to go badly. Better contingency plans couldn’t have been executed without compounding the problem. For example, if the priority had been to withdraw Special Immigrant Visa families in time, that public rush for the exits would have brought on the military endgame months earlier. Or, if the priority had been to evacuate all U.S. affiliated human rights defenders and civil society, the sheer numbers would have overwhelmed the effort for which no adequate U.S. legal architecture exists. In each case, inevitably, people would be left behind, now well-identified and even more at risk.

Advancing U.S. National Interests

The true “third way” that Mr. Kugelman references should have been based on advancing the totality of U.S. national interests. Certainly, one of these national interests is preserving the lives of our service members, but we have troops and diplomats around the world in harm’s way – I have served in conflict zones such as Colombia and El Salvador as well as Afghanistan – and we don’t withdraw them all to achieve perfect safety. I disagree with the argument that had we kept some troops on the ground we would have gone back to losing scores of soldiers. During 2018, while I was Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul and the Taliban was actively targeting our military, the total number of soldiers’ lives lost in action there was 15 (with 918 “non-war related deaths” of servicemen worldwide in the same year.) 

To name a few of our other national interests, we should care about our security allies in other parts of the world, now wary due to our abandonment of Afghan military and civil society. We should care about the human rights and democracy goals that are so seemingly important that the Biden administration is calling an international summit to extol them. We should avoid empowering China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia, all of whom are surging their influence within Afghanistan. We should consider our economic interests in an energy and rare mineral-rich corner of the world. We should be prepared to fight terrorism, the security interest which brought us to Afghanistan in the first place, but now are utterly hobbled by our lack of ground assets.  

The American desire to end our military engagement in Afghanistan made the decision politically easy. What about our legally-enshrined national policies of Women, Peace, and Security, addressing potential atrocities, and shoring up fragile states? Those policies are based on the principle of prevention, which is less expensive and disruptive than fixing the aftermath of a war, and avoids the intergenerational trauma of human displacement. These precepts were sacrificed along with the Biden administration’s conceptual theories of working collaboratively with allies and promoting democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Hypocritically, the nation of Afghanistan was just excised from the Summit for Democracy invitation list.  

“Twenty Years Is Enough” Standard

When the U.S. has strategic patience and a wider appreciation of its interests, it has fought to preserve them even under difficult circumstances and over multiple decades. Had we applied the “twenty years is enough” standard we would have left Germany in 1965, Korea in 1973, and consigned NATO to the Soviet Union one year after the “Prague Spring.”  But we did not. Our interests should have kept this exit patiently conditions-based, to get the endgame right, and forestall the humanitarian and security crisis we see today.  

This crisis was predictable and predicted. The distinguished, Congressionally-established, bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group, advised the new Biden administration in February 2021 that “withdrawing troops irresponsibly” would likely lead to civil war and reconstitution of terror groups. It also reported that the  all-important peace talks “will not succeed as long as the United States declares itself willing to withdraw its forces regardless of how much or how little progress is made during the negotiations.” 

The Responsibility of the Biden Administration

By rejecting this advice, the Biden administration owns the disastrous outcome. Understandably, it and those who encouraged this move, have advanced a variety of narratives, many of which are both overly convenient and factually suspect. One of these is the idea that they were “bound” by the Trump  administration’s February 2020 agreement to withdraw. There are two simple rebuttals to this often-used talking point. First, the agreement was conditions-based. Since the Taliban had not complied with their side of the agreement, such as breaking ties to Al-Qaeda, we were not bound by ours. Secondly, it’s clear that the current administration was utterly capable of reversing other Trump administration policies when it chose to.  

A second narrative was that Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) “refused to fight.” There were grave failures on the part of senior Afghan military and civilian officials and with our built-in dependency approach to training and equipping of the ANDSF. The final days of the conflict were not only a reflection of ANDSF readiness and willingness, but they also demonstrated the self-fulfilling prophecy of one side of a proxy conflict publicly disavowing its ally while the other side gave limitless support. For years, Afghan soldiers were dying in extraordinary numbers, but at the end, they rejected mass martyrdom.  

A third narrative was that this entire engagement was doomed and this result would have occurred sooner or later, so the precipitous deadline didn’t matter. To this unprovable assertion, I could just as easily argue that there were plenty of reasons to see optimism. Afghanistan has a well-educated under 35 generation and it had an innovative, and open-minded government, civil society, and private sector leaders. There was a growth in its nascent mineral, export, and service economies. There was the potential success of a well-managed peace process, given that the region wanted a stable outcome.  

Even accepting that narrative, delaying the “inevitable” would have been worthwhile and morally correct if it could have helped better prepare for the currently brewing refugee and humanitarian crisis. What is unfolding now will have profoundly negative effects on the culture, security, and economy of a region which matters to the United States, and potential refugee surges in Turkey and Western Europe that could destabilize close allies. Seldom has a policy question been this easy to answer.



This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

Michael Kugelman
Deputy Director, Asia Program, The Wilson Center | Website | + posts

Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, is a leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan and their relations with the United States. The editor or co-editor of 11 books, he has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and other publications, covering topics ranging from U.S. policy in Afghanistan to terrorism to water, energy, and food security in the region.

Annie Pforzheimer
Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) | Website | + posts

A retired career diplomat, Annie Pforzheimer is a Senior Non-Resident Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an Adjunct Professor of political science at the City University of New York, and a public commentator on foreign policy.  Her thirty-year diplomatic career focused on security, rule of law, and human rights.  She was the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Afghanistan and Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul; Director of the $700 million security assistance program in Mexico; human rights officer in Turkey and South Africa; and Director for Central America migration issues at the National Security Council.  Ms. Pforzheimer is a graduate of Harvard University and the National Defense University, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.  

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