U.S. troops carried out virtually every military mission they were given. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines overall fulfilled their duty with courage, skill and honor. We must never forget what they sacrificed — and what they accomplished. They ousted the Taliban and ultimately killed Osama bin Laden. The Taliban may now be resurging, but let’s not forget that since 2001 there has not been another large-scale foreign terrorist attack on the United States. Afghans have also continued to hold elections (though flawed) since 2004. Afghan men continue to enlist in the army and police to fight the Taliban (though many are driven to do so by financial needs). Afghan girls were allowed to get an education and women could participate in public life.
There is little doubt the United States made strategic mistakes in Afghanistan. We vastly underestimated the challenge of changing an ancient culture and of nation building in a historically highly decentralized country. We never figured out what to do about the Taliban safe haven in Pakistan. We developed an Afghan military that was largely modeled on our own, with heavy dependence on sophisticated logistics and equipment that the Afghan government is unlikely to be able to sustain without us.
President Obama, President Donald Trump and President Biden all wanted to bring American troops back home. They reflect the sentiment of most Americans, who want to put this war behind us.
But presidents also have to consider long-term consequences, and the geostrategic realities are such that even though our military forces are leaving, we cannot turn our backs on Afghanistan. Nor can NATO, which is also winding down its presence there. (President Biden is scheduled to meet with alliance leaders on Monday.) Meanwhile, Taliban forces are on the offensive in the countryside and are raising the level of violence in and around the major cities. Those forces are making steady headway, even with the presence of 2,500-3,500 U.S. troops; the situation doubtless will worsen when the U.S. troops are gone. Despite ongoing negotiations, I do not believe the Taliban will settle for a partial victory or for participation in a coalition government. They want total control, and they still maintain ties with Al Qaeda. Once in power, they may well turn to China for recognition and help, giving Beijing access to their country’s mineral resources and allowing Afghanistan to become another Belt-and-Road link to Iran.
Some observers contend that the Taliban, if they regain power, will moderate their policies and ideology in order to gain international recognition and economic assistance. However, the Taliban may be able to obtain both from China and other autocratic nations without tempering the harshness of their rule. And why should we assume they will no longer harbor Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that seek to target those — above all, the United States — that ousted them from power and have been fighting them for 20 years.
Considering the consequences of a Taliban victory and despite the popular desire to close the books on this war, we must continue to provide robust economic and multifaceted security assistance to the Afghan government and its people. Militarily, we should encourage the Afghan government to retain or engage contractor support for the Afghan Air Force and other key logistical and operational elements of the Afghan security forces — and we should pay for that support (including private security to protect those contractors). U.S. airstrikes from distant bases might delay Taliban advances on the ground, but they cannot stop them. Only the Afghan government forces can do that. Politically, we should use the new urgency of the Taliban threat to press for the formation of a strong National Unity government including all parties and factions (except the Taliban) and for a reform program covering Afghanistan’s security, economy and politics.
Economically, we could establish an international Afghan development fund conditioned on reform or on a peace agreement that includes basic rights for women and a disavowal of terrorists. And we must support in every way that we can those Afghans (such as interpreters) who helped our troops and our embassy, at great risk to themselves and their families.