Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Biden's War at Home Over Afghanistan Is Just Beginning

| Apr. 16, 2021

After making the right call on withdrawal, the U.S. president better get ready for second-guessing.

Each of U.S. President Joe Biden's three predecessors—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—had to decide what to do about the United States' unsuccessful nation-building effort in Afghanistan. Each chose to kick the can down the road and prolong an unwinnable war. They did so either because they believed a bit more effort would turn the tide or because they were unwilling to challenge a foreign-policy establishment that did not know how to win the war yet insisted it be allowed to keep trying.

Biden has rejected this outdated advice and announced that U.S. combat forces will leave by Sept. 11. He recognized that pleas for a "conditions-based" withdrawal made little sense because the specified conditions were beyond the country's grasp and this policy would have kept U.S. forces there forever. Biden's decision was both courageous and correct, but he will now face endless second-guessing from hawkish critics convinced the war could somehow be won and by Republicans looking to exploit the issue. He should give these naysayers the attention they deserve—that is to say, none—and so should you.

Why is Biden's decision the right call? Because staying longer would not alter the outcome of the war. U.S officials and military commanders have repeatedly claimed to have "turned the corner" in Afghanistan and promised that new tactics, a temporary surge, better diplomacy, bigger bombs, anti-corruption programs, opium eradication, new elections, or some other ploy was finally going to swing momentum in their favor and put the Afghan government on solid footing. None of their upbeat assessments turned out to be correct; in fact, the U.S. Defense Department knew how badly the war was going but didn't tell the public. Even the recent Afghanistan Study Group report could not offer a confident forecast of eventual success or explain why staying longer would lead to significantly different results.

But make no mistake: Disengagement is not a panacea and not a moment for celebration. Bad things are going to happen after the United States leaves, and some of them may even happen to a handful of Americans. The Afghan government may collapse, the Taliban may regain control in Kabul and perhaps the whole country, human rights conditions will almost certainly worsen, and al Qaeda or the Islamic State could become somewhat more active in the region. One of these extremist groups might even manage to kill a few Americans, possibly here in the United States itself. If and when any events like this occur, you can bet that critics will be quick to denounce Biden and try to pin the blame on him.

Here's the rub: All these bad things were likely to happen no matter when the United States decided to leave. The good news—at least for Americans—is the consequences will not be severe and certainly not damaging enough to justify a semi-permanent U.S. effort to prop up a weak, corrupt, and unreliable ally....


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Biden's War at Home Over Afghanistan Is Just Beginning.” Foreign Policy, April 16, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt