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The unappreciated costs of withdrawal
Why the strategic case for leaving Afghanistan is less compelling than the Biden administration thinks
On the surface, the strategic rationale President Biden and his administration have offered to justify their decision to withdraw from Afghanistan seems compelling. Pulling out of Afghanistan at any cost, the president maintains, will free up political attention and national resources for far more important foreign policy priorities like China and Russia. In any case, the United States will stay focused on a Salafi-jihadi terrorist threat that has, in Biden’s own words, “metastasized” beyond Afghanistan to countries like Syria and Yemen.
Scratch the surface, though, and the strategic rationale for leaving Afghanistan offered by the Biden administration doesn’t quite add up – even on its own terms. As long as counterterrorism remains a central foreign policy priority, moreover, the ability of the United States to shift attention and resources to other foreign policy priorities will be highly constrained.
President Biden’s strategic case for withdrawal is nowhere near as clear-cut or compelling as his administration and its supporters seem to think:
Start with counterterrorism: President Biden has promised to maintain an “over-the-horizon” mission to keep an eye on al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi terrorist networks that now have free rein in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. That mission almost certainly won’t be as expensive in financial terms as even the limited U.S. military presence in Afghanistan of recent years, but it won’t be cost-free to keep aircraft, special operations teams, and the like on standby in the Gulf. Ongoing military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria cost the country some $7 billion last year, and it’s reasonable to expect that the cost of a vaguely similar “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan would be in the same ballpark – much less than the roughly $45 billion the United States spent there annually from 2016 to 2019, but not necessarily an enormous step down from the $12.9 billion it spent last year. (By way of comparison, the House Armed Services Committee just added another $23.9 billion to this year’s Pentagon budget.)
But money isn’t the primary issue here: it’s the time, attention, and resources President Biden and his administration say can now be shifted to more important foreign policy priorities. In reality, however, the United States will still devote a good chunk of these more intangible national assets to the post-withdrawal counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan – all the more so without a cooperative local government partner or access to bases in neighboring countries in Central Asia. It’s already scrambled the CIA’s plans to focus more intently on China and Russia, forcing the agency to devote additional attention to Afghanistan – but now from afar and without a local intelligence agency to help out.
What’s more, it’ll take longer for drones and other airborne surveillance platforms to reach the country from bases in the Gulf, for instance, meaning they’ll have less time on station over Afghanistan and requiring more aircraft to maintain less extensive coverage than before the withdrawal. There’s the prospect that the U.S. Navy will be required to regularly deploy an aircraft carrier strike group to the Arabian Sea, potentially leaving it understrength in the Pacific – as has been the case with the carrier deployed to cover the pullout from Afghanistan. That’s even before taking the risks inherent to any combat operations into consideration, particularly ones carried out “over the horizon.”
Then there’s the bigger counterterrorism picture, where the Taliban victory in Afghanistan threatens to undo the strategic and ideological gains made by the military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Afghanistan. The global security problem of Salafi-jihadi terrorism will not be going away any time soon, and withdrawal from Afghanistan has only made it worse by reopening the country to these groups while giving them their biggest morale boost in twenty years. We’ve not ended a war but instead entered a new and more dangerous phase in an ongoing conflict with Salafi-jihadi terrorist networks.
That alone will make it more difficult for the United States to pivot away from the Middle East and toward priorities in Europe and Asia. Even President Biden himself acknowledged this reality with his promise to not only conduct “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan but continue the prosecution of a wide-ranging counterterrorism campaign stretching from the Sahel to the Levant.
Beyond counterterrorism, however, it’s clear that post-withdrawal Afghanistan will continue to create problems policymakers will need to deal with. First and foremost, there’s the likely humanitarian disaster of both Taliban rule – murders of cultural figures and extreme restrictions on women have already been reported outside Kabul – and the militant group’s inability to actually run a country. United Nations humanitarian officials, for instance, have warned that the country’s food stockpiles could run out within a month. Given that the country will no longer receive regular injections of foreign assistance that amounted to 43 percent of its gross domestic product, Afghanistan’s economy will likely collapse as well. Even if some aid were to return, it’s unlikely in the extreme that the Taliban will receive as much of it as the former Afghan government did from the United States and its allies.
All of which likely adds up to increased migration pressure from Afghanistan, with some international organizations estimating a million and a half could flee this year alone. Those Afghans who do not wish to remain in a deeply impoverished country ruled by brutal religious fanatics will quite reasonably strike out for better prospects elsewhere in the world. But a significant migration flow could create significant political problems for American allies in Europe, something of which the political leaders of these nations remain acutely aware. It’s one more challenge that complicates any American attempt to shift attention and resources away from Afghanistan and toward other foreign policy priorities.
In sum, the United States may have freed up some national resources by pulling its troops out of Afghanistan – but not as many as claimed by President Biden and other supporters of withdrawal. While the United States may save some money thanks to withdrawal, it will still need to commit time, attention, and other resources – including scarce intelligence and military capabilities like drones and aircraft carriers – to both carrying out an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan and dealing with the very real humanitarian, economic, and migration consequence of the Taliban’s victory. Even on its own terms, then, the strategic case for withdrawal becomes far less persuasive when the likely strategic costs are taken into account.
Zoom out even further and the costs of the way in which the Biden administration quit Afghanistan loom even larger. It’s not a question of national credibility; it’s foolish to believe that the United States will fail to honor its formal commitments to defend its treaty allies in Europe and Asia because it withdrew from Afghanistan after an almost twenty-year effort. But President Biden’s own personal credibility has likely taken a severe hit with America’s allies due to the peremptory way he’s handled both the withdrawal itself and the Kabul evacuation. Most recently, for instance, Biden ignored pleas from fellow G7 leaders to extend the evacuation beyond his own self-imposed August 31 deadline.
That damage will make it harder for President Biden and his administration to pull together American allies in pursuit of a set of common goals, whether confronting climate change or countering Chinese influence worldwide. Declaring that “America is back” does not make it so, especially when the United States acts unilaterally and without due regard for its allies and their interests.
Even worse, the administration’s handling of the withdrawal – in particular its apparent indifference to the fate of Afghanistan and its people, as well as its inept execution – sends the signal that the United States stands for nothing beyond its own naked self-interest. That may warm the hearts of academic realists in international relations departments across the country, but a world in which every country does the same stands in stark opposition to core U.S. national interests and values. A Germany that ruthlessly pursues its own narrowly defined national interests, for instance, is more likely to seek an accommodation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia that erodes America’s own interests in Europe than it is to invest in a more capable German military.
In quitting Afghanistan, the United States seems to have substituted a difficult but manageable problem for a larger, more complicated, and unfamiliar set of challenges that will consume its time, energy, and resources moving forward. The costs of departure – both in itself and in how the Biden administration carried it out – have been unappreciated and underestimated, likely leaving the strategic dividends smaller and more marginal than promised by President Biden and other withdrawal advocates. It’s something we’ve seen before, when President George W. Bush and his supporters wildly overestimated the gains from invading Iraq and failed to consider the potential drawbacks.
America may ultimately obtain some long-term strategic benefits from pulling out of Afghanistan when and how it did. But the unforeseen if foreseeable costs of withdrawal will mount and threaten to neutralize whatever gains the United States does in fact realize. These benefits will probably prove much less impressive than advertised, making the strategic case for withdrawal less convincing in its own terms.