One Lesson to Learn from the Withdrawal from Afghanistan…And One Not to Learn

Seth Weinberger is Professor of Politics & Government at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

With the stunningly rapid collapse of the Afghan National Army and the abdication of power by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the U.S.’s 20 year-long sojourn in Afghanistan comes to an ignominious close. Despite promises by the Taliban that there will be “no discrimination against women” and an offer of amnesty to those who worked with either the Afghani national government or American and other foreign forces, most observers are expecting a return to the pre-9/11 harsh implementation of sharia law.

As the U.S. prepares to try to evacuate as many Afghan refugees as it can (or is willing to), it seems appropriate to try to think about what lessons can be drawn—and which should not be drawn—both from the term of the American adventure in Afghanistan as well as from the events of recent days.

The first, and perhaps most important, lesson to be learnt relates to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan itself. Once again, the U.S. has been confronted with the implications of its failure to properly tailor its efforts to its goal, or perhaps tailor its goals to its effort. Much has been made of the cost of the state-building effort in Afghanistan and the failure to produce anything resembling a functioning, capable state. Commentators have noted the broad support (around 70%) among the American public for withdrawing and President Biden defended his decision in a press conference, stating that he had faced “the choice…to make…either to follow through on that agreement [made between President Trump and the Taliban] or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season.” He added that “our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building…it was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.”

If the goal of American policy and presence in Afghanistan was not “nation building” then what was it? True, Biden was not president for the first 19 years of this war but state building has clearly been the goal in Afghanistan. But as more and more evidence comes out that U.S. officials lied about and covered up the true state of dysfunction in Afghanistan, America is forced to reckon once again about the disconnect between what it says it is doing in a foreign country and what it actually sets out to do.

One of the main causes of the “Black Hawk Down” tragedy in Somalia was the unwillingness of U.S. Defense Secretary Les Aspin to provide armor units requested by the commander on the ground. When U.S. Rangers went on a mission to break the power of militia warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, two American helicopters were shot down, and, lacking tanks, the operations to rescue the crews resulted in a number of casualties and graphic images on TV of the corpses of American soldiers being dragged through the streets. Secretary Aspin denied the request for tanks because he was worried about the gradual expansion of U.S. military presence. Somalia was, in his view, a humanitarian mission and tanks have no place in a humanitarian mission. But once American soldiers were asked to hunt down a warlord and his militia, they were no longer involved in a humanitarian mission, but rather warfighting. The failure to properly match mission to goal and to properly equip that mission resulted in the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers and was a large factor in the eventual humiliating withdrawal from Somalia. Could those 18 deaths been seen as a reasonable, necessary, and acceptable cost for ending the famine and bringing stability to Somalia? Perhaps, but the U.S. never bothered to ask or answer the question. Instead, those 18 deaths were too high a price to pay and U.S. abandoned its mission in Somalia without achieving its goals.

Part of the problem that led to this humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan seems to be a similar failure to match mission to goal. As American troops drew down from a high of approximately 100,000 in August 2010 to around 10,000 in October 2015, 4,000 in November 2020, and 2500 in January, 2021, the mission needed to shift as well, not just on the ground but in the eyes of American policy makers and public opinion. The U.S. Congress recognized this need, passing a law that barred then-President Trump dropping troop levels below 4,000 without first submitting to Congress “a comprehensive, interagency assessment of the risks and impacts.” Such an assessment would have looked at troop levels in relation to U.S. strategic goals. Neither President Trump nor President Biden obeyed this law. By failing to either conduct or submit such an assessment (at least publicly), U.S. presidents lost sight of mission and purpose.

This failure cost an opportunity to reevaluate American purpose and options. U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad’s recent claim that there is “no military solution” to the situation encapsulates a blinkered view that reinforced the decision to withdraw in the manner that the U.S. did. The binary choice perceived by President Biden—withdraw or reengage with the Taliban—only exists if the sole mission one can envision for American troops are those that advance the goal of state building. Yes, the Afghan Army and government were not, and perhaps never would become, capable of standing on their own. However, by reassessing risk, purpose, and mission, Biden’s perceived options might have expanded to include other options including, perhaps, a humanitarian mission to prevent the worst depredations against Afghan civilians. Or at least better preparations to process the visa requests of those who aided the U.S. effort or to secure the Kabul airport and aid in the evacuation of tens of thousands of terrified Afghan citizens. Even considering the worst case envisioned by Biden—a return to conflict with the Taliban—66 U.S. personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since 2014, just under one per month. For the last seven years, U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan, guarding hard-won humanitarian gains, protecting thousands of newly empowered and educated women and girls, and preventing the overrun of the entire country without engaging in widespread direct combat with the Taliban or suffering large-scale losses. Would that have been a cost worth continuing to pay to avoid the humanitarian disaster that might be coming?

Unfortunately, the United States was unable to either ask or answer that question as it had lost sight, as happened in Somalia, of its goals and purpose in Afghanistan. Over the course of the 20-year war, in the face of thousands of lost American lives and trillions of dollars, it was no longer clear to either President Biden or the American people why America was in Afghanistan. When that happens, both officials and public can no longer understand why costs are worth bearing or a mission worth sustaining, and humiliating withdrawal is soon to follow. So, lesson number one (which should have been learned a long time ago!) is to constantly reassess national interest in any intervention, ensure that force levels and plans match mission, and to not allow an ossified sense of task to close off future options. Maybe billions of dollars and the loss of one soldier a month is a reasonable price, maybe not. It certainly is not if you see the goal as building a functional state and then determine that goal to be unattainable. But how does that cost assessment change if Biden had refocused the American mission towards a humanitarian goal?

On the other hand, one lesson not to learn is the one many analysts and commentators have already drawn. From both the right and the left come warnings that the Afghanistan withdrawal and any subsequent humanitarian disaster will undermine U.S. credibility and alliances around the world. As one pundit wrote, “the signal sent to Taiwan—and China—is that [the United States] can’t be counted on.” This lesson is one that conventional wisdom seems to think should be learned from every American intervention: From Vietnam to Iraq to Syria to Afghanistan, policy makers and armchair generals alike worry about the implications for U.S. credibility and fret that U.S. weakness or withdrawal in one place threatens American national interest and emboldens American adversaries everywhere. Presumably, these people would have U.S. troops in Afghanistan indefinitely for the purpose of bolstering (or at least not eroding) U.S. commitments elsewhere in the world.

And yet, the bulk of academic research rejects, or at least modifies, the claim that reputation matters in the way that these critics argue it does. One scholar writes that “refraining from acting when U.S. interests are not directly engaged will not diminish America’s “credibility” or its ability to wield power effectively,” while another argues that while during the Cold War “U.S. policy was driven by the fear that backing down would damage the credibility of the United States”…“the credibility of U.S. threats and promises does not hinge on establishing a history of resolute actions.”

Those who see Afghanistan as a blow to U.S. credibility focus on the concepts of deterrence and compellence—the former being the use of threats of force to dissuade an actor from doing what it otherwise might choose to do and the latter being the use of threats of force to get an actor to do what it otherwise would not choose to do. Both concepts depend on the credibility of the threat and whether the actor being deterred or compelled believes that the use of force will follow either action or non-action. Failure to stay the course in Afghanistan, goes the lesson, convinces American allies that the U.S. is unreliable and American adversaries that the U.S. does not mean what it says.

There are several reasons why this lesson might be incorrect. First, it is not at all clear what states or other actors pay attention to when determining the credibility of a deterrence or compliance threat. Why would one focus on the withdrawal and not the 20 years of involvement, the thousands of lives lost, and the trillions of dollars spent, all for a cause that many thought was impossible and not in the first tier of American security interests? Rather, Afghanistan seems to demonstrate American
“sticktoitiveness” and a willingness to spend immense blood and treasure despite all odds.

Secondly, there is evidence that actors assess credibility based not on the deterring or compelling state’s behavior in past actions but rather evaluate threats based on the extant balance of power and the stakes in play for the specific situation. For example, after President Barack Obama in 2013 refused to carry out his “red line” deterrent threat against Syria, many argued that that refusal would undermine American deterrent capabilities elsewhere and specifically against Russia which, just a few months later, began the process that led to the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. In this telling, despite President Obama’s warning that there would be “costs” for any Russian intervention in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin looked at the failure to carry out the deterrent threat in Syria as a sign of American irresoluteness, leading him to ignore the warning and to seize Crimea, confident the U.S. would do nothing to stop him.

Would an American airstrike against a weakened Syria, largely unable to defend itself or retaliate against American interests, convince a powerful state like Russia not to pursue a core security interest on its immediate border? Was it really credible that the U.S. would risk war with Russia to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine or seizing Crimea? Russian concerns over a buffer zone on its western border have driven Russian foreign policy for decades, including its behavior at the Yalta conference in 1945. It is implausible that, even if the U.S. had attacked Syria for its use of chemical weapons against civilians, Russia would have been deterred from its adventures in Ukraine because it was equally implausible that the U.S. would risk starting World War III over Ukraine. President Obama’s threat against Russia was incredible on its own merits.

There is evidence that Putin made exactly this calculation and separated American behavior towards Syria from his own assessments of how the U.S. would respond to Russian activity in Ukraine. It is hard to imagine that any threat by the United States to deter Russia in Ukraine would be seen as credible. The local balance of power would favor the closer actor on Ukraine’s border and the stakes clearly meant more to Russia than to the U.S.

Even scholars who believe that reputation does matter in the way that actors assess the efficacy of threats are unlikely to agree that that the withdrawal from Afghanistan will have a serious impact on American credibility. When actors do look to past actions to judge credibility, they seek out actions that are similar to the situation at hand. How an actor behaved in circumstances similar to the ones that they are in at the moment might matter. Where in the world does the U.S. face a situation similar to that of Afghanistan? And even if reputation does matter, one still needs to ask: What price is worth paying to maintain that reputation? Reputation, if it does affect deterrence and compliance, is but one factor of credibility. Would it be worth continuing to spend billions of dollars and one American soldier a month? How much credibility would that buy? Opponents of withdrawing on credibility grounds never try to quantify the value of the thing they value so dearly.

It is certainly possible that the way in which the withdrawal was handled has caused concern amongst American allies. But such concern is likely going to be limited to questions over coordination, communication, and perhaps the future direction of President Biden’s foreign policy, specifically whether the U.S. will remain engaged in the world. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, no matter how sloppy and regardless of whatever humanitarian disaster might ensure, will not embolden China to seize Taiwan. Nor will it weaken NATO or American alliances with Japan and South Korea.

The American adventure in Afghanistan will surely join the Vietnam War as one of the U.S.’ worst foreign policy decisions. While Afghanistan’s future is still uncertain, at the moment it is difficult to see what the U.S. got for 20 years of state building, spending, and dying. But even if the withdrawal had to happen, it did not have to happen in the way that it unfolded. But failing to comprehend the way in which the American mission had changed and what it might possibly look like in an alternate configuration, the U.S. seems to have missed an opportunity to have pivoted in a way that might have delayed or prevented any coming return to the Taliban’s brutal rule before the U.S. invasion. At the same time, while the withdrawal might have serious negative consequences of its own, undermining American deterrent or compellence threats is not likely one of them.

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