Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s impromptu visit to Kabul over the weekend where he claimed the United States seeks a “responsible end” to the war followed Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and a leaked U.S. peace plan. These moves have made one thing clear: Washington’s foreign-policy elite is once again deluding itself, this time to think that if U.S. troops are kept in Afghanistan a bit longer, a deeper civil war can be evaded, the Taliban can be kept in check and the gains Afghans have achieved in urban areas can be protected.
The reality is, whether or not President Biden withdraws all U.S. forces by May 1 in accordance with a U.S.-Taliban agreement, something he describes as “tough,” Afghanistan is likely to spiral into more violence. President Biden must accept the logical conclusion of this reality: The only variable he can control is whether American soldiers will be the target of that violence or be safe at home with their families.
The grim reality is there is no “responsible” alternative to withdrawing from Afghanistan. A recent report by a congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group proposes that a U.S. withdrawal should be conditions-based. That is, it should occur only after violence plummets, intra-Afghan negotiations make significant progress and the Taliban cut all ties with al-Qaeda.
That may sound good on paper, but a unilateral decision to blow past the May withdrawal deadline will destroy an already beleaguered peace process and Washington will find itself drawn back into a violent counterinsurgency. It will annul the U.S.-Taliban agreement, which, despite its flaws and failure to bring peace to Afghans, led to a year without a single U.S. combat death, and leave President Biden to once again await American caskets at Dover Air Force Base.