President Joe Biden’s announcement that all remaining U.S. forces will exit Afghanistan by Sept. 11 has prompted well-reasoned debate as to the merits and risks of the plan. In justifying his decision, the president argued that “only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country, and that more and endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.” Whether intentional or not, this message – that the time has come for Afghans to clean up their own mess – reflects a dangerous amnesia about this war’s origin story. As troops depart Afghanistan, this kind of revisionist history also jeopardizes a crucial opportunity still available to U.S. policymakers: to make a just exit.
Philosophers and war-makers the world over have long articulated the concept of “just war” to regulate the decision and means by which to wage battle. The importance of a just peace has also long been recognized. The warning of one of the founders of the laws of nations, the 16th century Italian jurist Alberico Gentili in his “Three Books on the Law of War,” bears a particular weight: those “will be unjust who offer a peace. . .which cannot endure, and therefore cannot truly be a peace.” The United States went to war to serve its own interests; it cannot but acknowledge that those interests will only be served by an enduring peace. And a just exit is a necessary, albeit incomplete, foundation for a sustainable peace.
In an interview last year, then-candidate Biden was asked what responsibility he felt for the fate of the Afghan people, especially women. He matter-of-factly noted that suffering is ubiquitous and asked, “Are we going to send our American forces all over the world to make sure that stops?” In posing this question, he conflated the decision to send troops into war for a possible just cause with the decision to end a war justly. Today, the president’s decision is not whether to “send our American forces” into a fight but, rather, how best to bring them home from a fight they have actively shaped for decades. The answer must start with an honest reckoning of the responsibility Americans bear for what and whom they leave behind and the opportunities that remain to support the gains made.
The United States launched the war in Afghanistan in retaliation for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, having effectively abandoned the country in 1989 when the Soviet army withdrew. The Afghan mujahedeen commanders who had been armed by the United States to fight the Soviets turned on each other, dragging Afghanistan into a dark new chapter of civil war that culminated in the rise of the Taliban regime. The Afghan citizenry suffered gravely for years at the hands of the Taliban, but it barely registered with Western audiences until the day the Twin Towers fell in New York.
Thereafter, the United States sought to transform Afghan governance to make Americans safer; the security and well-being of Afghans represented a means to that end. The motivation to exact swift vengeance prompted the United States and its allies to make a series of decisions that would cripple the new Afghan government’s ability to manage politics and violence on its own terms — in other words, to govern independently. The U.S.-led military campaign, Operation Enduring Freedom, partnered with strongmen on account of little more than their shared animosity toward the Taliban regime. That brittle regime fell quickly, and these newly emboldened victors laid claim to the political spoils. At the same time, the international community prevented Taliban efforts at surrender, banishing its remnants from the new political order. This wholesale marginalization, not unlike the policy of De-Baathification that would come later in Iraq, laid the groundwork for a virulent and persistent insurgency.
As the fledgling administration of President Hamid Karzai began to govern, it was forced to accept ongoing U.S.-led military operations that detained, displaced, and killed its citizens. In exchange, it received significant foreign aid, much of which it lacked the capacity to absorb. The failures of responsible stewardship on the part of Afghan leaders have been well-documented, but their corrupt opportunism cannot be divorced from the uncertainty and incoherence of U.S. strategy and tactics. From the Bush administration’s pivot to the Iraq War to the Obama administration’s military and civilian surge to revitalize the Afghanistan campaign, the see-saw effect of U.S. involvement incentivized Afghan elite rivalry and opportunism.
Western governments invoked the plight of Afghan women to justify war, but they also routinely undermined the emergence of democratic governance and equal rights, even referring to gender equity as a “pet rock” when those goals conflicted with their counterterror imperative. We see the same logic at work presently when considerations of gender equity and rights protection are pitted against the domestic political imperative to bring the troops home. And, while Biden’s decision to end the war did not come as a surprise, his announcement of an immediate, unconditional withdrawal came just weeks after his administration embarked on an ambitious diplomatic push, including a roadmap for an interim government and a proposed peace conference in Istanbul, the latter of which then quickly fell through.
As U.S. troops head home, the United States has an obligation to acknowledge its own mistakes and inconsistencies, and to exercise all remaining levers of influence to enable a genuine peace. To date, the peace process has been largely defined by an American willingness to engage insurgents still actively seeking to overthrow the government. Having fulfilled the Taliban’s main ask — troop withdrawal — the United States should now advocate for the current constitutional republican system of governance. The U.S. government can make clear to both parties that ongoing security sector assistance and development aid to the Afghan state will be conditional on its commitment to protect crucial freedoms and rights — after all, will the United States seriously consider maintaining military and civilian aid to Afghanistan if a hardline regime comes to power? Bilateral sanctions relief for the Taliban also should be contingent on the same commitment to protecting crucial freedoms and rights.
Now that the decision to withdraw U.S. troops has been made, other countries, willingly or otherwise, assume a more prominent role in Afghanistan’s fate. The United States can intensify diplomatic support to those multilateral processes that offer the best chance for a sustainable peace in Afghanistan and the region. In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear the Biden administration’s interest in a mediating role for the United Nations, and the 15 member states of the U.N. Security Council will decide if and when multilateral sanctions against the Taliban are lifted.
Meanwhile, the Russian-led Troika (Russia, China, the United States) shows promise as a format for encouraging regional cooperation, including vis-a-vis Pakistan, Iran, and India, while the European Union will remain a key partner in cultivating conditional, sustainable forms of engagement and assistance. And, while most Afghans wish for nothing more than to remain in their own country, the United States and its Western allies must open their doors to those whose past affiliations with the coalition effort put them at risk. The most recent Biden decision to raise the cap on refugees is a welcome one, but a multilateral effort to safely resettle Afghan refugees is also required.
Finally, the Biden administration must acknowledge that any remote management of terror threats that relies on drones, detention, and untrustworthy regional actors like Pakistan is war by another name. At the very least, these measures demand renewed domestic political debate in the United States, congressional oversight, and respect for Afghan sovereignty. Without confronting and addressing these issues forthrightly, there is no hope of any exit at all, much less a just one in the service of building an enduring peace.