The problem with the Afghanistan withdrawal is that the US was still there in August 2021

  • A year ago this week, the final US troops left Afghanistan as the Taliban swept across the country.
  • The Taliban’s swift victory and violence during the withdrawal lead many to call it a failure by President Joe Biden.
  • Afghanistan was indeed a failure for the US, but it was one long before Biden or Trump moved to withdraw.

A year ago this week, many watched in horror as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in the wake of the chaotic final withdrawal of US troops from the country.

The Afghan National Army melted away, and within days, Afghanistan was fully under the control of the Taliban, as it was back in 2001, prior to the US invasion that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the country’s economy has collapsed, causing poverty and hunger to soar to humanitarian crisis levels. At the same time, the Taliban have dramatically curtailed political dissent and human rights, particularly for Afghan women.

As a result, some critics call the Afghanistan withdrawal one of the biggest failures of US President Joe Biden’s administration, if not the biggest. Beyond the damage to Afghanistan itself, some also argue that the chaos of the withdrawal may have emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to carry out his invasion of Ukraine.

Although Russia had begun massing troops outside Ukraine’s borders prior to August 2021, the debacle of the Kabul airlift in the last few weeks of the US presence in Afghanistan may have created the impression that the US was too inept or inwardly focused to respond to a security crisis in Europe.

Domestically, Afghanistan has faded from the news cycle and voters’ attention, as other issues, from inflation to the impact of Supreme Court decisions, moved to the fore. But there is no doubt that, at the time, it hurt perceptions of Biden’s competence as commander-in-chief.

Make no mistake, Afghanistan was indeed a failure of US foreign policy. But it wasn’t a failure of the Biden administration, or even of former President Donald Trump’s administration, which actually signed the agreement with the Taliban that Biden ultimately followed through on by withdrawing US troops.

In many respects, both administrations simply took a difficult step that should have been taken long ago.

Indeed, the foreign policy failure was not in how the US left Afghanistan in August 2021, but rather in the fact that US forces were still in Afghanistan in August 2021. The 20-year US involvement there under the auspices of the global “war on terror” fed into what became pejoratively known as the “forever wars”: conflicts with no end in sight, nor any clear markers of what could constitute a true “mission accomplished” moment.

Why did the war in Afghanistan last so long? There are three key reasons, which also point to core lessons for avoiding another such foreign policy failure.

First, the US forgot who the enemy within Afghanistan was, almost from the start. The reason for the US invasion was not to defeat the Taliban. It was to end their support for the al-Qaida terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks and to gain their assistance in handing over al-Qaida’s leader, Osama bin Laden.

But once the invasion began, that mission, while not forgotten, morphed into an operation to fully eliminate the Taliban’s ability to regain power in Afghanistan. While Osama bin Laden was eventually killed — in Pakistan, not Afghanistan — that broader mission obviously failed.

Had the US not lost focus on who the actual enemy was, it could have spared itself the frustration and the costs of fighting a futile 20-year war by accepting its eventual outcome — the full control of the country by the Taliban — much earlier. And by earlier, I mean in 2001, right after the initial invasion.

Indeed, in doing so, the US likely could have secured an outcome better suited to its long-term interests in the region at that time. Militarily speaking, the US invasion was a rout. And in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Washington enjoyed a bevy of international goodwill in a climate of near-universal condemnation of the Taliban.

These conditions — the easy defeat of the Taliban’s forces and the near-universal condemnation of the regime — would have allowed the US to strike a more favorable deal with the Taliban. This could have entailed allowing the movement to remain in power, but under the threat that the US, having demonstrated its ability to destroy the Taliban on the battlefield, would do so again if they offered assistance to al-Qaida or a similar organization in the future.

In other words, instead of an invasion followed by a 20-year counterinsurgency, the US could have conducted what would have amounted to both a punitive and preventive raid.

None of that happened. Instead, the administration of then-President George W. Bush focused on completely defeating the Taliban and remaking Afghanistan into a full-fledged democracy. This was a tall order and an objective that diverged substantially from the original purpose of the invasion.

Second, Afghanistan itself was soon forgotten. Once the operation there did morph into an inadvisable state-building mission, instead of providing it with the necessary resources to succeed, the Bush administration shifted its focus away from Afghanistan at a critical time.

Scholars who study state-building recognize that it is an extremely difficult task even under the best of circumstances. But they often point to the idea of a “golden hour” — the first year following the cessation of hostilities, during which, if the enterprise is going to have any success at all, it requires immense resources and attention.

If time and resources are wasted during that critical early period, then there is little hope that more time or more resources later on will ultimately make a difference.

This clearly happened in Afghanistan, as the Bush administration almost immediately diverted its attention away from the military intervention there and toward what it saw as the bigger prize for transforming the Greater Middle East: Iraq.

Third, US forces were used in Afghanistan for a mission completely ill-suited to their training. The US military is very good at fighting wars. It has a long history of quickly and efficiently defeating some of the largest and most powerful armies in history. It is adept at invading countries for the purpose of accomplishing a quick and decisive mission, such as defeating an army or toppling a government.

It is not, however, good at picking up the pieces after having done so. And it is not suited for policing, either in the form of carrying out peacekeeping operations or, in the case of Afghanistan, of patrolling rural areas looking for “bad guys.”

This is what contributed to the US failure in Vietnam, and it is why the US was bogged down for so long in Afghanistan. Fighting the war became an end in itself, not the means to an end. Such “imperial policing” is a gross misuse of the US military. It should never have been allowed, and it is a mistake that must not be repeated.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the failure in Afghanistan. But the most critical ones are about the mistakes that led to the war lasting 20 years in the first place, not those committed while ending it last August.

Paul Poast is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago and a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.