Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How Not to Leave Afghanistan

| Feb. 23, 2021

Congress has issued a report on the longest war in U.S. history. Here's hoping Biden ignores it.

Joe Biden is the fourth U.S. president to face the question of what to do about a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. After sending more troops there in 2017, the Trump administration eventually agreed to remove all U.S. forces by May 1, as part of a broader process intended to end the civil war there. Biden has to decide if he's going to honor that commitment, back away from it entirely, or kick the can down the road a little further.

To guide his thinking, he could rely on a recent report from the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group, co-directed by former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, and Nancy Lindborg, the former president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. The bipartisan group's 15 members are all familiar figures from the foreign-policy elite, including Michèle Flournoy, James Dobbins, Stephen Hadley, and former British Foreign Minister David Miliband. (Full disclosure: Dunford and Meghan O’Sullivan, another member of the study group, are colleagues of mine at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.) The study group also relied on insights from 26 senior advisors and the work of a staff of professional assistants.

Having now read the report, I hope Biden studies it carefully and then declines to follow its advice.

What do they recommend? They advise Biden to extend the May 1 deadline (ideally with the Taliban's concurrence but even if that is not forthcoming) and maintain a U.S. military presence and economic support package until U.S. objectives are met. All told, this mission currently costs more than $50 billion per year. To achieve its goals, they say, the United States must clarify its commitment to Kabul, get the Afghan government to shape up, and develop a broad diplomatic strategy that encourages "stakeholders to play a neutral or constructive role" and lays the foundation for the "long-term integration of Afghanistan into the region." The report briefly considers three alternative pathways—a "recommittal to the state," a "calculated military withdrawal," or a "washing of hands"—and concludes that none "would allow the United States to meet its interests as defined by the Group."

These recommendations are unsurprising, insofar as the study group's members did not include anyone who was likely to argue for a more rapid U.S. withdrawal. To its credit, the report itself is soberly worded, avoids hyperbole, and contains useful information about conditions inside the country. It describes the many challenges facing Afghanistan after decades of conflict with admirable candor. It acknowledges (some) past errors in the U.S. approach, recognizes that a lasting solution can only by achieved through negotiation, and correctly emphasizes the need for a diplomatic effort to get buy-in from India, Pakistan, Iran, and other regional players....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“How Not to Leave Afghanistan.” Foreign Policy, February 23, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt