Editor’s note: To mark the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s second takeover of Afghanistan, Just Security is publishing a series of essays on the developments of the last year and the prospects for the future of Afghanistan. The series will continue over the coming weeks, and feature voices from Afghan civil society, U.S. national security experts, international human rights experts, and others.
A year ago, I watched with confusion the disorderly evacuation efforts during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although I had watched provincial capitals fall to the Taliban in the prior days and weeks, I could not understand how Kabul had fallen so quickly, why the United States was suddenly scrambling to evacuate civilians or how we had lost control of Hamid Karzai International Airport.
My confusion was combined with deep sadness. I had worked at the White House in the counterterrorism directorate at the National Security Council in the period just prior to 9/11, and I fully supported the U.S. mission to disrupt and effectively defeat al Qaeda. Having largely achieved those goals long before 2021, we were now leaving so many people behind to likely horrible fates. These included both Afghan allies who had risked their lives assisting the United States and other vulnerable populations susceptible to foreseeable retaliation. It was unfathomable to me that the United States would leave these people behind, especially those with whom we had fought side-by-side.
I started to receive an overwhelming number of panicked calls to help evacuate Afghan friends, families, and colleagues. But there were so many people in need of help, and by all indications Washington had lost control of the situation on the ground.
I decided to put all of my energies into trying to help save one family: a woman from Herat who suffered severe spousal abuse and ultimately had murdered her husband when she caught him trying to molest one of their daughters. It was a high-profile case and she almost certainly would have been killed by the Taliban had she stayed put. So she and her two daughters had fled Herat and were in Kabul, trying to make it to the airport for evacuation. I worked the phones furiously on their behalf, along with a small army of volunteers both in Afghanistan and the United States. For days that seemed like weeks, this ad hoc team coordinated with U.S. officials in Washington, Doha, and on the ground, navigating the family to safe houses and the airport gates, only to be turned back time and again.
In the midst of all of this, I received a call from the West Wing: Could I come help? A short time later, I was working in the White House helping to manage the aftermath and plot the course ahead.
Afghanistan: Leave or Re-escalate the Fight
When I got back to the White House, it was almost twenty years to the day since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and just over twenty years since I had left my last job there. President Joe Biden’s senior team was under sustained political attack as a result of the chaotic withdrawal. American leadership was also under attack, and our adversaries on the world stage took advantage of the chaos in Kabul to make the case that America was a declining power and unreliable ally.
And yet despite the messy withdrawal, Biden’s decision — to leave Afghanistan after twenty years, trillions of dollars spent, and too many Americans and Afghan civilians killed and injured — was the right decision. Context is important.
Even as many Americans were understandably disheartened by the withdrawal, the majority of Americans continued (and still continue) to support the fundamental decision to leave. That’s a view shared by former President Donald Trump, who in 2020 signed an agreement committing the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan in early 2021 — but who did virtually nothing to implement that agreement even as the withdrawal deadline loomed.
Americans across the political spectrum had grown tired of endless wars in South Asia and the Middle East, especially when they evolved into missions more about nation building than national security. The tens of billions poured into the war in Afghanistan each year are better spent here – rebuilding our infrastructure, supporting our communities, protecting our environment, delivering affordable healthcare. That is what Biden believed, and he is now delivering on those promises.
National security dollars are also better spent defending against current first-order geostrategic threats to the United States, particularly those emanating from Russia and China. Consider the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. The robust U.S. and NATO response would not have been possible — or at least nearly as robust — if we were still fighting a war in Afghanistan given the very substantial military, intelligence, and financial resources we were committing to that conflict.
And absent withdrawal in 2021, we would almost certainly have been fighting a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2022, with Americans in harm’s way. That is because the Doha Agreement, the agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February 2020, mandated a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan within just weeks after Biden’s inauguration. Despite the deadline to which they had agreed, the Trump administration made no plans to responsibly leave Afghanistan or to accelerate the granting of visas to Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghan populations who might otherwise be left behind.
And so the incoming Biden administration was left with a deadline but no plan. Although the administration extended the withdrawal deadline by a few months, to September 2021, the Taliban made clear its ceasefire with United States would not be further extended. Taliban promises to attack American forces remaining in Afghanistan after that time were credible.
Biden’s choice was thus to leave or to fight – Pentagon planners have acknowledged that a residual force of 2500, as some had proposed, would not have been sustainable and would have almost certainly required the deployment of additional, substantial U.S. forces to defend against renewed Taliban attacks. More U.S. servicemembers, and more Afghans, would be killed or injured, with no credible plan for achieving either an enduring peace or a U.S. exit.
This cycle of escalation is exactly what needed to end. The United States had clearly made many mistakes in Afghanistan over two decades under presidents of both parties, including under Biden. Those mistakes will now be studied by a bipartisan congressional commission, but the Biden administration was never going to be able to turn a war we had already lost into a victory.
Would a residual force of 2500 have been able to buttress the Afghan government and keep the Taliban out of Kabul? Probably not for long, and almost certainly not without the substantial additional investment of American blood and treasure. The nation-building goals the United States and its allies once had for Afghanistan had failed, even while our counterterrorism efforts were largely successful. And last month’s strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Kabul is strong evidence that even without boots on the ground, the United States retains a lethal “over the horizon” counterterrorism capability to help ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists intent on striking the United States.
New Foundations for U.S. Leadership
I was still at the White House while preparations were being made for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. The professionalism, preparedness, and expertise with which the White House has handled the Ukraine crisis does not surprise me based on what I saw when I was there, and dispels the worst impressions left by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden is rightfully credited with defeating Trump. But he and his team are not properly credited for having restored our institutions of governance in a way that has paved the way for the resurgence of American leadership.
Even while the outcome of Russia’s invasion remains uncertain, it has reshuffled both the international and domestic order. Republicans and Democrats have united in condemning Russian brutality under persistently firm and effective leadership from the White House.
Trump famously made decisions by himself or after consulting with family or friends. The decisions themselves were frequently personality-based or driven by private political or financial interest, in constant tension with our longstanding institutions and norms of democratic governance.
By contrast, the Biden administration has restored the normal process by which our government makes national security (and other) decisions. That process can occasionally be slow and tedious, but that’s the way it should be in a democracy with a government acting in the national interest.
Our nation’s longstanding national security system, stretched to the breaking point under Trump, sprang back to life when Biden and his team moved into the White House. It has helped that the President and his senior staff (almost all of whom had served in previous White Houses) knew by muscle memory how the government is supposed to work. They went right to it, working long hours breathing life back into our institutions and norms of governance.
This is one of the great unheralded accomplishments of Biden’s first year in office; it has laid the foundation for the restoration of largely bipartisan American leadership to tackle some of the most important challenges on the world stage, including most notably rallying democracies to confront Russia’s aggression.
It also helps, of course, that Biden has gotten the policy right. A series of massive aid packages for Ukraine will ensure the continued delivery of heavy arms and other forms of assistance that will both help Ukraine and continue to weaken Russia. Biden has refused to be paralyzed by Putin’s threat of nuclear escalation as other leaders might have been, while being careful to avoid needless escalation. He has also been right to rebuff calls for a no-fly zone that would put U.S. military personnel in direct confrontation with Russian forces.
The president has been unrelenting in supporting Ukraine’s beleaguered democracy in words and deeds. Contrast that with his predecessor, who praised Putin and sought to condition the delivery of essential U.S. military assistance on a bogus Ukrainian investigation into domestic political rivals.
The Biden administration has enjoyed bipartisan support in large part because Russian conduct has enabled most Republicans finally to see and say, with clarity, who Putin is: A dictator capable of mass murder with genocidal intent. As a result, they have remembered who we are as Americans: A democracy that fundamentally respects human dignity. Despite ongoing partisan disagreements, Washington is more united over fighting Putin than it has been in anything else for years.
A similar unifying dynamic is at play on the world stage, which has rallied behind American leadership. The Western alliance, which Trump wanted to rip apart and Putin sought to weaken, has solidified in opposition to conduct few anticipated in the 21st century. Germany, Europe’s most important power, has reversed foreign and military policy principles that have guided it for almost 80 years. Japan, South Korea, and Australia have firmly lined up behind NATO. And NATO itself, rather than being weakened, has strengthened and is poised to enlarge with the addition of Finland and Sweden, both historically neutral.
These dynamics are driven by common, accelerating affinities and shared values – those long associated with democratic governance and the rules-based international order touted by the Biden team since before the 2020 election. Indeed, early in his presidency and before war in Europe broke out, President Biden observed that the defining issue of our time was the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
The future is looking increasingly bright in that struggle – as it is for the family from Herat, now safely living in Canada.
Although more needs to be done, including help for those struggling to leave today’s Afghanistan, Biden’s firm leadership on the world stage has given the leg up to democracy and a rules-based order.