The Korea Herald


[Hal Brands] What went wrong in the Afghan pullout?

By Korea Herald

Published : April 18, 2023 - 05:13

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This month marks two years since President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, bringing America’s two-decade war there to an end. One might hope that Washington would be engaged in a searching debate about what went wrong in that conflict. So far, alas, it’s not clear that hindsight is making America much wiser.

See, most recently, the Biden administration’s “after action review” of the US withdrawal. That document is not an objective assessment of a searing episode. It is an exercise in blame-shifting and rationalization.

The report blames former President Donald Trump, correctly, for signing a flawed peace deal that was merely a fig leaf for US withdrawal. It blames the intelligence community, correctly, for failing to foresee the speed of the Afghan military’s collapse. It blames the Afghan government, correctly, for failing to take measures that might have delayed defeat. The report does not, however, acknowledge any mistakes on the part of current senior American leaders or the president himself.

There’s no acknowledgment that a rapid US pullout, executed just as the fighting season was starting, disastrously destabilized the battlefield. There’s no analysis of the breakdowns of interagency coordination that turned an unavoidably difficult withdrawal into an epic mess. There’s no discussion of the terrible consequences the pullout had for the Afghan people, including those who had worked with the US. Biden’s national security spokesman even denied -- in a statement that surely would have been labeled a “lie” had it come from the Trump administration -- that there was any chaos at all in Kabul in August 2021.

A humiliating withdrawal, the report argues, was really a triumph of visionary statecraft. It’s an oddly defensive stance to take -- not least because the administration actually has a decent story to tell.

Even those, like me, who criticized the withdrawal must admit that aspects of Biden’s decision look better now. (My view was that it made sense for the US to stay if it could do so with a force of a few thousand troops, reinforced by allies; it did not make sense if the cost would have been significantly higher.)

The world has gotten ugly, quickly, since August 2021. The Taiwan Strait has become a great-power flashpoint. A full-blown war rages in Ukraine. The US government can do more than one thing at a time. But Washington would probably find it harder to manage an intense proxy struggle with Russia, or the threat of conflict with China, if it were also fighting an escalating civil war in Afghanistan.

To be clear, the geopolitical effects of the withdrawal were mixed. It is plausible, although unprovable, that the impression of US weakness in Afghanistan made Russian President Vladimir Putin think he could push harder in Ukraine. Some allied officials did worry, in public and in private, about what a botched withdrawal signaled regarding US commitment and competence.

Yet the US has mostly repaired that damage with its performance in Ukraine, precisely because that performance has featured vital qualities -- careful alliance management, remarkably accurate intelligence, the deft use and coordination of multiple aspects of American power -- that seemed lacking in the Afghanistan endgame.

Which brings us to a second point in Biden’s favor: His team has learned at least one key lesson from Afghanistan.

In 2021, a relatively new national security team failed to seriously prepare for the worst-case scenario -- the possibility that the Afghan government would fall before US forces had even reached the exit. Biden’s administration has not made that mistake twice.

Once it became clear, in late 2021, that Putin was getting ready for war, the administration systematically prepared for the worst-case scenario of a full-blown invasion. It pushed relevant agencies to make plans for a rapid response.

When the invasion came, Biden was thus able to impose harsh sanctions, bolster Ukraine’s military effort, and otherwise get off to a fast start in addressing a historic security crisis. The fact that Biden did so poorly in handling Afghanistan is one reason he has done so well in handling Ukraine.

So why can’t the administration be a bit more candid? The problem is more political than analytical.

Biden took a beating in the polls when Kabul fell. Now, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is investigating the withdrawal. Don’t be shocked if that inquiry becomes intensely adversarial and politicized. With November 2024 on the horizon, Biden certainly won’t give his political rivals any additional ammunition to use against him.

Fortunately, there will be other opportunities to review the past with an eye to the future. The congressionally chartered, nonpartisan Afghanistan War Commission is charged with studying the entire 20-year history of the conflict. Its report will probably be sober and serious -- but it probably won’t be delivered for another few years. It’s a shame we’ll have to wait so long for a more penetrating, and less politicized, reckoning with the lessons of America’s longest war.

Hal Brands

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the State Department‘s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)