In August 2021, the United States concluded the tumultuous process of withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan—a process that was initiated by former President Donald Trump with the Doha agreement between the US and the Taliban. As the United States backed out of Afghanistan this summer, the Taliban swooped in at a remarkable pace, occupying Kabul by August 15 and prompting the second and last president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, to head for the hills.
While President Joe Biden was likely right in ending the “forever war,” his execution of the withdrawal was a calamity: Allies were left stranded and in peril, and there was no protocol for peaceful transition. Moreover, his administration has failed to acknowledge, as did its predecessors, that the United States never had a coherent set of goals in their mission in Afghanistan after the Taliban collapsed in 2001. In order to justify its extended intervention, the United States wrongly misled the American people into thinking that the war was on a trajectory toward success.
In February 2020, the Trump administration agreed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by May 2021, and, in exchange, the Taliban promised to engage in peace talks with the Ghani government and ensure that Afghanistan would not become a breeding ground for terrorism. This deal is what has come to be known as the Doha agreement.
Having inherited this treaty from his predecessor, Biden was left with two major choices: follow through with US withdrawal, or renegotiate the deal at the risk of escalating the war. If Biden decided to continue the war, he would have been investing money and lives into a directionless conflict. The bottom line is that there was never a consensus on how to rebuild Afghanistan. And without a vision for Afghanistan’s reconstruction, Biden would have been delaying an inevitable outcome.
“I think that Biden was right that some more time on the part of US troops staying in Afghanistan would not change outcomes in substantial ways,” said Basit Muhammadi ’22, a Brown student from Ghazni, Afghanistan. “So, as an Afghan, I definitely credit Biden for seeing through the policy loopholes that, before Trump, other officials were not willing to admit.”
While Biden’s thinking was in the right place, he neglected to protect US allies, provide the Ghani government with diplomatic leverage, and safeguard American progress in his effort to withdraw swiftly. The president prides himself on safely evacuating 98 percent of Americans who wanted to leave the country, yet approximately 250,000 Afghans who likely qualified for a visa were left behind as of August 25, including individuals that served as US allies throughout the course of the war. Biden also failed to protect the Ghani government from the Taliban invasion. While the president does not deserve all of the blame for this, he could have made US withdrawal conditional on an intra-Afghan peace agreement, or at least applied some pressure to facilitate cooperation between the Taliban and the then-presiding Afghan government. By setting the Ghani administration up for defeat, Biden practically invited the Taliban’s seamless takeover, jeopardizing the progress the United States made in Afghanistan, including the improvements in women’s education. Clearing the way for the Taliban’s onslaught endangered every girl whose education the United States fought so fiercely for.
As much as the US government may want it to be true, withdrawing from Afghanistan does not wipe its hands clean of the enduring impacts of the past 20 years. The United States must come to terms with and learn from decades of papering over interagency disagreements—there was never a consensus on our goals, let alone any way to measure progress.
In general, the United States has rarely had a coherent idea of what it can reasonably hope to accomplish in its interventions. Afghanistan is only the latest example. The US government depicted the war in Afghanistan as a success story without a real concept of what success would look like: We gave the impression that we were painting a portrait, but we had no canvas and no subject.
A report by Craig Whitlock at The Washington Post exposed this very phenomenon: Over the past two decades, US officials have fed the press false information about the war in Afghanistan so as to convince the American public that the effort was worth the casualties and debt it incurred. They manipulated statistics, avoided publishing casualty counts, and distorted news. For instance, a rise in US troop deaths was cast as an indication that American forces were “taking the fight to the enemy.” Further, US officials claimed to be working towards creating a strong central government in Kabul that mirrored that of Washington. However, they had no idea how to accomplish this: Imposing a Western model on a country with very different political and cultural circumstances was a recipe for failure. In order to learn from our past and prevent future misguided interventions, the United States needs to come clean about the past two decades of mistakes.
Whatever the complexities and ambiguities of the past, the United States is surely left with an obligation to help Afghanistan today. The country is currently embroiled in one of the most severe droughts and food shortages in decades, not to mention grappling with the impacts of a crippling economy. While the Biden administration has acknowledged the reality of the current situation, they have not acted with any sense of urgency. Afghanistan currently has $7 billion in frozen assets stored in the United States, which the Biden administration has refused to return to Afghanistan. The families of 9/11 victims have made claims to half of that money as a form of reparations—which is flawed on its own since it purports that regular Afghan citizens should be punished for the actions of a terrorist organization, furthering vicious Islamophobic stereotypes.
And while the other half of the money has been unfrozen by Biden and will be moved to a trust fund, it is unclear how the trust fund will operate, what kind of aid it will provide, what role Afghan people will play in the money’s dissemination, and how exactly the United States plans to ensure that the Taliban “can’t get their hands on it.” Just as the United States had no plan guiding their reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, they had no plan leaving the country and even now have no plan for how to help it by distributing these funds.
“A better use for the money would be to set it aside and lease it to the Central Bank of Afghanistan on a conditional basis so that it would not be used for government expenditures but more as a liquidity support,” says a former employee of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance, who has asked to remain anonymous. Channeling the money into the Central Bank of Afghanistan would create opportunities for economic growth and development. Short term humanitarian projects are well-intentioned but ultimately provide no assurance of future stability. What Afghanistan needs is strong domestic institutions in order to revitalize and integrate into the global economy.
There is much for the US government and American public to reflect on, but one thing is certain: Just because there are no more American troops on the ground in Afghanistan does not mean that the fight is over. The United States must act now to provide immediate aid and attention to the Afghan people whose interests it insisted that it represented these past two decades.