When should the U.S. have left Afghanistan?

Was there ever a better time?

(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

After 20 years, America's war in Afghanistan is finally coming to an end. The May timetable for withdrawal that the Trump administration agreed to in Doha won't be adhered to perfectly, but President Joe Biden has affirmed that a complete withdrawal will be happening, albeit to be completed by the end of September.

While hawks maintain that America cannot abandon its Afghan allies, and many established foreign policy hands are anxious about the prospect of presiding over defeat, Biden's decision has garnered a notable array of support across the political spectrum, from Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul on the right to centrists like former Secretary of State Colin Powell to left-wing firebrands like Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Moreover, the language used to describe the withdrawal — "not conditions-based" — makes it clear that the administration intends to follow the plan even in the face of dramatic political or military reversals suffered by the Afghan government that we have been supporting since the Taliban were deposed.

So we will finally be leaving, even if leaving ultimately means a Taliban victory. Which raises the obvious question: What took us so long?

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But the less-obvious follow-up question is more to the point: When should we have left Afghanistan?

The original objectives of the invasion were retaliation for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the defeat and destruction of al Qaeda and the Taliban government that harbored them, and the elimination of any threat of mass-casualty terrorism originating from Afghanistan in the future. By the end of that year, the Taliban had been deposed, a new government installed, al Qaeda's camps destroyed, and the point made that if you attack the United States, even from a land-locked country half a world away, your power will be destroyed — and with relative ease.

It was the last objective — eliminating the threat of future terrorism originating in Afghanistan — that manifestly was not achieved. Al Qaeda still existed — indeed, most of its leadership and fighters, including Osama bin Laden, had escaped. The Taliban still existed — and were already launching raids into U.S.-controlled territory in 2002. Whatever we had achieved by the invasion, the gains were obviously fragile.

They remained fragile, though, for the next 20 years, through four different administrations and multiple changes in strategy. The Bush administration originally pursued a relatively light footprint, wary of repeating the mistakes of the Soviet Union but also distracted by their disastrous invasion of Iraq. The conventional wisdom on the Democratic side — fully endorsed by candidate Barack Obama — was that the United States should have kept a larger presence in Afghanistan all along. His administration followed through by surging forces into the country as well as expanding the war into Pakistan, the main theater of his drone-based strategy for combatting terror groups.

None of these escalatory strategies were any more successful than President Bush's at stabilizing Afghanistan in a way that would permit an American withdrawal. The only durable achievement of the war since the end of 2001 was the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan a decade after the war began, the intelligence for which did not clearly require a military presence in Afghanistan at all (though the helicopter raid itself had to be launched from Afghan territory, without which the military would probably have had to rely on drones or stealth bombers to execute the strike).

That would have been a very reasonable time to call it quits — and I personally think the Obama administration erred in not doing so then. The strategic inertia that has characterized the last 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan has done nothing but cost lives, waste money, and undermine America's own sense of self. But it's worth recognizing what leaving Afghanistan in 2012 or 2013 would have meant. It would have meant reducing America's war aims to a manhunt, and admitting that much if not all that we had done to try to establish a stable and minimally friendly government had failed. If we were willing to admit that in 2012, we might well have admitted it in 2002. But would the quick defeat of the Taliban after 9/11 have had any meaning, either to Americans or in the eyes of the world, if we had blithely accepted the descent of Afghanistan into civil war over the next several years, ending with the Taliban's return to power? So was our ultimate war aim in Afghanistan just to stay there long enough to be able to say: We've done all we can do?

Unlike the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, the war in Afghanistan was not a war of choice. America had been attacked, in a spectacular fashion, and the organization loudly claiming responsibility was sanctioned, protected, and supported by the Taliban government. We had to fight — and we had to fight to win. But achieving anything that could be plausibly described as victory posed the same challenges as those other wars: defeating a ruthless and determined insurgency in a country with which we share little cultural affinity on behalf of a corrupt and incompetent government of questionable legitimacy in the eyes of its people. We simply don't have a very good track record of winning such wars — and neither does anyone else.

In other words, in retrospect we could have left Afghanistan at any time, and in retrospect there was no good time to leave. The original mission — which was an obvious, reasonable, and popular response to al Qaeda's attacks — was never realistically likely to be achieved. We can investigate all the mistakes that were made — and there were many — but if we did everything right, we still probably would have failed. And yet, in this case, it's inconceivable that we wouldn't have tried.

That should be a very sobering lesson for the stewards of American power. If history is any guide, we probably won't learn it.

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