President Joe Biden has decided to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that caused America to plunge into this dreadful quagmire in the first place.
The deadline is artificial, chosen for its suggestion of closure, however incomplete. The agony of Afghanistan will go on, and America the embattled ally will relegate itself to the role of a participant-observer, watching from neighboring countries with special forces and drones to deploy as necessary to keep the Taliban and its al-Qaida colleagues in check. At least, that’s the idea, roughly.
Beyond the gloss of historical parallels, what the deadline is really about is buying time to work out a desperate deal. One last try at negotiating with fanatics who believe they have nothing to lose through terrorism and deceit, and who seem impervious to the war-weariness that works against decent, peace-loving people.
The Biden withdrawal deadline replaces the Trump administration’s May 1 deadline agreed with the Taliban last year. It is reportedly aimed at allowing U.S. diplomats an additional window of time in which to work out a deal with the Afghan allies and the Taliban that could conceivably secure a measure of stability in the post-U.S. era to come, or at least mitigate a catastrophe.
The odds against any such deal materializing are daunting, to say the least.
Biden’s predecessor committed to leaving the country in exchange for Taliban commitments to break with al-Qaida and discuss a political settlement with the Afghan government in Kabul.
Neither has happened. Al-Qaida remains, violence has only gotten worse. Today, the terrorists control more territory than at any time since U.S. forces entered Afghanistan, according to Foreign Policy magazine.
And, on April 12, just as President Biden was leaking his withdrawal statement to the press, the Taliban declared they will not attend a planned American-backed meeting in Turkey that would have discussed, among other things, a political settlement with Kabul.
Thus, the Taliban broke their commitments. As far as the new deadline, laid down unilaterally, is concerned, they haven’t made any commitments. Nevertheless, there is hope in Washington that the terrorists could be induced to negotiate some semblance of a peace process before the fateful day in September.
Before assessing the Biden policy and its chances of success, let us first state the obvious: Much like Vietnam, the consensus is that withdrawal is necessary; the question is only how to accomplish it with the least cost to all involved.
As a senior administration official explained to reporters Tuesday afternoon, “There is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process. And that means putting the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.”
It sounds so much like the end of American involvement in Vietnam: winding down an unwinnable war while seeking to negotiate “peace with honor.”
But anyone who lived through those ignominious days still carries the terrible images of a helicopter rescuing the last Americans and a handful of Vietnamese from the rooftop of the embassy building in Saigon while leaving their countrymen to the hands of the communists.
It was with that in mind that a U.S. official told reporters the other day: “We have told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that any attacks on U.S. troops as we undergo a safe and orderly withdrawal will be met with a forceful response,” the official said. The Taliban are likely as little frightened by that as the North Vietnamese were.
But history is not a copying machine, and it can be said that Afghanistan is different — in some ways worse, in some ways better.
Worse, in terms of the implications for the American homeland of a Taliban victory. Hanoi never threatened the homeland, either rhetorically or militarily. Even the “domino theory” — which envisioned all of Asia from Thailand to Indonesia and Australia falling to the communists if Saigon were to fall — did not occur.
The Taliban and al-Qaida, on the other hand, view the expulsion of foreign forces only as an intermediate step. They do have visions of imposing their version of Sunni beliefs on the rest of the world, especially the “Great Satan.” It was for the purpose of preventing them from using Afghanistan as a staging area for future 9/11s that U.S. forces were sent there. Thus, the talk of maintaining some residual force in the region to make sure that doesn’t happen.
On the other hand, as implacable as the Taliban are (in this respect unhappily comparable to the North Vietnamese), as South Asia expert Michael Kugelman writing in Foreign Policy this week, pointed out: This time Pakistan, China, Iran, and Russia could be prevailed upon to commit to a ceasefire once the U.S. troops have withdrawn.
After an exhaustive analysis of the situation, Kugelman returned to the obvious: “There are no good U.S. options in Afghanistan. Washington should cut its losses, withdraw its remaining forces, and use diplomacy and leverage to mitigate the risks associated with the least bad option.”
We hope the strategy works, for the sake of all concerned.