Of all the examples of incompetence documented in the latest report from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, one would stand out as almost comical were it not so tragically illustrative of the serial missteps that led to this week’s fall of Kabul.
The SIGAR report, released just as the Taliban were overtaking the Afghan capital, concluded that U.S. forces repeatedly undertook new projects in Afghanistan “without first guaranteeing enough personnel resources were available to see them through.” Helicopter pilots were thus seconded to train Afghans in policing, though they had no policing experience themselves. “With such a training deficiency,” the report noted, “some police advisors turned in desperation to television shows like Cops and NCIS to become more familiar with policing.”
If U.S. President Joe Biden was looking for additional ammunition to counter the criticism of his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the SIGAR report surely provided it. As Mr. Biden described it, the U.S. faced a choice between reaffirming a commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan, with all the cost in American lives and treasure that entailed, or leaving Afghans to organize their own affairs, even if it meant empowering the Taliban and igniting another civil war.
Mr. Biden chose the latter option, persuaded that America’s “forever war” had led U.S. leaders to take their eyes off the ball regarding the main national security threat facing their country, specifically the rise of an increasingly assertive China.
As a Democratic senator, Mr. Biden had soured on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan soon after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. By the time he became Barack Obama’s vice-president, he adamantly argued against the 2009 troop surge that led to a peak presence of more than 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan a decade ago. As Commander-in-Chief himself, there was no way Mr. Biden was not going to pull rank on the Pentagon officials whom he had been railing against for years.
No matter how much his own Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, pleaded with him to maintain a residual U.S. presence of as many as 4,500 troops in Afghanistan, Mr. Biden came to office determined to follow through on an early 2020 agreement former president Donald Trump had negotiated with the Taliban to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops – which then numbered about 13,000 – this year.
Under Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda had found a haven in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan from which to wage jihad on the United States. Nelly Lahoud, a senior fellow at the think tank New America, who pored over Bin Laden writings seized by U.S. forces from the Pakistani compound where he was killed during a U.S. Navy Seal raid in 2011, notes that the al-Qaeda chief plotted the 9/11 attacks to “destroy the myth of American invincibility.” But the attacks had the opposite effect.
“Bin Laden never anticipated that the United States would go to war in response to the assault. Indeed, he predicted the American people would take to the streets, replicating the protests of the Vietnam War and calling on their government to withdraw from Muslim-majority countries,” Ms. Lahoud writes in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. “Instead, Americans rallied behind U.S. president George W. Bush and his ‘war on terror.’”
Twenty years on, Americans have naturally grown weary of that mission. By withdrawing entirely from Afghanistan now, however, Mr. Biden is putting all the successes of the war on terror – and they are countless – at risk.
Under the peace deal, the Taliban negotiators agreed “to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the United States and its allies.” But as Ms. Lahoud explains, “owing to the Taliban’s factionalism since 9/11, it may be difficult for the group’s leaders to enforce compliance with the terms of their agreement with the United States.”
Mr. Biden pointed to the exorbitant costs of the Afghan mission to justify ending it. Indeed, as the SIGAR report notes, the U.S. government has spent US$145-billion “trying to rebuild Afghanistan, its security forces, civilian government institutions, economy, and civil society.” The U.S. military has also spent US$837-billion “on warfighting, during which 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops have been killed and 20,666 U.S. troops injured.”
Much of the money was wasted due to corruption of Afghan leaders and haplessness of U.S. officials charged with executing the mission. But those overwhelming sunk costs should not detract attention from the likely price of leaving Afghanistan now – including the renewed rise of terrorist groups there, the humanitarian disaster already unfolding, another European migrant crisis, the further erosion of U.S. credibility among allies and the loss of on-the-ground intelligence-gathering capabilities needed to detect and neutralize security threats.
Stubborn as he is, Mr. Biden may live to regret this.
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