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Joe Biden and the Weird Politics of Afghanistan

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I have complicated thoughts on Afghanistan that I haven’t quite yet made coherent, but here are some thoughts on the politics of withdrawal from Afghanistan…

The American political class achieved a quiet consensus on Afghanistan by about 2007 or so. The Taliban had not been eradicated and probably couldn’t be eradicated as long as it had strong state support from Pakistan. The institutions of the Afghan government were weak, and there was little indication that they could be substantially strengthened with the resources available. The surge in 2009 was the last serious effort to win the war, and while it made serious progress it did not create a stable political situation. Skepticism of the Kabul government and pessimism about its survival then became the less quiet US government consensus. The collapse of relations with Pakistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden further undercut the rationale for continued fighting.

The question then became one of responsibility for the presumed collapse of the Kabul government, and it’s this question that we’ve been grappling with for the past 9 years. Senior commanders in the US Army in particular did not want to accept responsibility for the defeat of the Kabul government, and this sentiment was shared with somewhat less enthusiasm across the rest of the Army and the rest of DoD. Important parts of the government dedicated to development and human rights also did not want to see the (however uneven) progress that they had made vanish in a puff of smoke.

If this seems like weak tea, we have to remember that while the military deployment in Afghanistan has not been popular for a while, it has also not been particularly expensive in either blood or treasure for a good long time. Very few American soldiers have died recently in Afghanistan, and most of those have succumbed to accidents or suicide. The war is expensive compared to a similar basing deployment in a less war-torn country, but overall it’s a rounding error for the defense budget. Fighting in Afghanistan doesn’t really take much away from anything else that DoD would like to do, and not very many voters care about Afghanistan with any degree of intensity.

This is a familiar story. Afghanistan is not the graveyard of empires. Empires turn Afghanistan into a graveyard and then leave because they don’t care very much about it. This has been the pattern with Imperial Russian, British, and even Soviet involvement in the country. As is the case with the United States, a clear-eyed strategic evaluation of the value of military engagement in Afghanistan takes a backseat to political and bureaucratic infighting, as well as burden shifting and finger-pointing.

Thus, successive administrations have failed to leave Afghanistan. Obama was easy to box in for two reasons. First, during the campaign he used Afghanistan rhetorically to criticize the Iraq War, making it difficult to then pivot to a pro-withdrawal position. Second, he was generally inexperienced with executive branch bureaucracy and especially with the organizational cultures of the national security state. Consequently, we double surged into Afghanistan in an effort to impose a settlement on the Taliban, then substantially withdrew after (again) the Taliban proved impossible to eradicate. The rise of ISIS likely eliminated any possibility that Obama could leave in the final years of his term, in large part because that rise was blamed on the rapid reduction of US forces in Iraq.

To his credit, Donald Trump wanted to leave Afghanistan, and even his decision to escalate the war was made with withdrawal in mind. Unfortunately, in addition to being weak, lazy, and stupid, Donald Trump had no sense whatsoever of how to manage the complexity of the national security state. Consequently, he got rolled badly, even more so because he made enemies of the entire bureaucracy. Trump played into the hands of his bureaucratic foes and did not understand how to make decisive executive interventions stick. Had he remained President it is possible that US forces might have been withdrawn by the May deadline, but I have my doubts.

Enter Joe Biden, who understands the bureaucracy of the executive branch and the national security state as well as any person alive. Biden understands the ways in which the national security bureaucracy embraces inertia, and he appreciates that “conditions” are a synonym for “never leaving.” Moreover, Trump gave Biden sufficient political cover on Afghanistan to ignore the howls from Congressional Republicans, who are the only constituency for remaining in Afghanistan that has any political heft whatsoever. Finally, I think Biden also appreciated that remaining in Afghanistan was going to be much more costly in the 2022 midterms than leaving, even if the Kabul government collapses in October 2022 or some other inconvenient time. The genuinely impressive thing about Biden is that he was a United States Senator when the helicopters lifted off from the roof of the embassy in Saigon, watched as the story of Vietnam was told and retold and twisted over the course of decades, and yet still held fast to the decision to withdraw. That is a degree of flexibility that I do not think we normally associated with the Man from Scranton.

And so the US will reduce its negligible military presence in Afghanistan to zero over the next few months, although PMFs (private military firms), diplomatic and aid personnel, and various others will remain. I have some thoughts on what this will mean for Afghanistan, which I’ll hopefully share sometime next week.

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