Joe Biden and Donald Trump don't agree on much, but both have argued that America's seemingly forever war in Afghanistan, the nation's longest, must end. A majority of Republicans and Democrats also now apparently share their view that U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan and Afghans to their fate. As President Biden argued Thursday, in an impassioned speech defending his decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan before Sept. 11, "We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build."
"Nation-building," it seems, has become a dirty word in America's foreign policy lexicon, a concept inexorably linked to Washington's disastrous post-9/11 interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and, before that, its "humanitarian interventions" in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.
Conservatives long have been skeptical of such human rights interventions, and liberals of invasions aimed at strengthening American security. Yet the U.S. has done a lot of intervening since the end of the Cold War. As political scientist and author Francis Fukuyama noted in 2004 in The Atlantic magazine, Washington took on roughly one new nation-building commitment every other year between the end of the Cold War and 2005. While Fukuyama argued that America should learn how to improve its nation-building capabilities, since there almost surely would be a next time, its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have ended the nation's zeal (or tolerance) for such forays, at least temporarily.
"There are no longer many defenders of nation-building," Richard A. Clarke, a former senior national security adviser in Republican and Democratic administrations, tells me. While most administrations would have invaded Afghanistan to destroy Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda after 9/11, a series of presidents "stumbled or got lured into trying to make Afghanistan look like Montgomery County," he says. Nation-building is so seductive because "we're Americans," he adds, and "Americans tend to think that every problem has a solution if we try harder, spend more, get smarter."
Dov S. Zakheim, a former senior defense official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, says he finally decided two decades ago that nation-building rarely advanced American national security interests. "It just doesn't work for us," he concluded in his 2011 book, "A Vulcan's Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan."
Perhaps the British were better at it, given their lengthy colonial experience, Zakheim speculated when I spoke with him. But unlike the British, whose colonial offices were staffed by officials who often had devoted their lives to understanding and manipulating the people whose countries they occupied, "Americans just don't have the cultural sensibility for it. You take an army recruit from Kansas and plop him in Mazar al-Sharif, and what do you expect to happen?"
Still tempted by such missions, however, Zakheim argues that U.S. nation-building might have worked in Afghanistan had President Bush not gotten "distracted" by his 2003 invasion of Iraq and "had resources not been diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq." By late 2003, he said, 2 million Afghans had returned to the country, small businesses and schools for girls were opening, a free-wheeling press and non-governmental organizations were emerging, and the Taliban were
nowhere in sight. But then U.S. attention and materiel shifted to Iraq — with catastrophic consequences for Afghanistan. "The problem," Zakheim says, "is that we're so easily distracted."
In his speech Thursday, Biden argued that history warned of the inevitability of failure in Afghanistan. "No nation has ever unified Afghanistan, no nation," he insisted; neither the British nor the Soviets succeeded in stabilizing the country. "I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome," Biden declared.
But there is a difference between giving up on the perhaps impossible dream of building a free, independent, and stable Afghanistan — given its centuries of tribal, religious and ethnic hatreds — and sacrificing the economic freedom and human rights that 20 years of America's presence has fostered. If America has concluded that nation-building is beyond its capabilities and, hence, unwise to undertake absent a willingness to stay indefinitely and spend vast human and economic resources, it also should have learned — but apparently has not — that cutting and running without a coherent strategy for what comes next in Afghanistan not only undermines American credibility abroad but may eventually endanger security at home.
Biden appears to be fleeing Afghanistan without addressing that fundamental issue, Frank Wisner, a former ambassador and close observer of the region, tells me. In his speech, which Wisner called "unfortunate," the president failed to indicate how he plans to support the beleaguered Afghan government, round up Afghanistan's neighbors and the region to help support Kabul and contain the chaos should the U.S.-backed government fall, and deter the Taliban from attacking U.S. and allied forces, massacring its own rivals and foes, hosting al Qaeda again and crossing other American "red lines."
For example, the U.S. is leaving apparently without having military intelligence capabilities in place to enable America to help protect Afghan forces, or to carry out surveillance and counterterrorism operations swiftly in much of the country. In his speech, Biden asserted that Kabul, the Afghan capital, would not become another Saigon of 1975 when the North Vietnamese seized control. "There is going to be no circumstance in which you are going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan," he said.
But how, exactly, is he planning to protect the 18,000 Afghans who worked with American forces as interpreters, drivers and facilitators (or their estimated 58,000 to 75,000 family members) who risk being murdered by the Taliban following a U.S. pullout? Moreover, the number of Afghans who require such protection is likely to grow, warns Wisner, who played a key role in the evacuation of South Vietnamese allies. While Washington initially estimated that 150,000 South Vietnamese would need American help to survive, the number grew to close to 1 million within a decade. "The first numbers are rarely the final numbers," Wisner said.
The Taliban already have reacted to the apparent lack of an overarching U.S. strategy for what comes next. As soon as Biden announced America's unconditional drawdown from Afghanistan in April, the Taliban began violating the agreement that the Trump administration helped craft in 2020, by launching a massive offensive against Afghan forces, as well as Afghan villages and towns. In the past two months, the Taliban have taken control of at least 150 of the country's 421 districts, U.S military officials say. Biden's response was not to surge forces or additional assistance to America's beleaguered allies, as President Obama reluctantly did in 2009, or even to slow the pace of the withdrawal. Instead, Biden said the withdrawal would be completed by Aug. 31, 10 days before his original Sept. 11 goal.
Though Biden pledged ongoing economic support for the Afghan government and vowed that the U.S. would continue to assist Afghan forces after the pullout, that pledge was undermined by the U.S. departure from Afghanistan's largest air base at Bagram in the dead of night on July 2 without a word to Afghan authorities. Looters arrived before Afghan commanders even realized their American allies were gone.
A key lesson of the "forever war" is that Biden could — and should — have done far more early on to protect not only the Afghans who worked with Americans, but also the Afghan government and forces charged with protecting the country's 38 million people. He should have found ways to ensure that the U.S. would be able to use its air power effectively from neighboring states to support Afghan army units. He should have devised plans for keeping the Afghan air force flying even after foreign maintenance contractors withdraw. And he should have already tried to persuade Afghanistan's problematic neighbors, including Iran, which also fears chaos on its border, to join Washington in creating a ring of containment if the government in Kabul falls.
There is little sign so far that such an overall political strategy exists, or that specific plans and capabilities are in place.
There may be no good way to withdraw from a war. But there is a wrong way to do so if it is likely to result in a military fiasco, political collapse, and the squandering of American influence and credibility at home and abroad. In adhering to Trump's politically driven withdrawal schedule, Biden now risks just that.