Within a few weeks, the last U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan, ending a military engagement that began 20 years ago this October. More than 2,300 of our finest have been killed, and more than 20,000 were wounded. More than 71,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians have died as a direct result of the war. We have spent much blood and much treasure.
Most Americans just want to close this painful chapter, but we cannot completely abandon Afghanistan. It would be a disservice to our troops, to our Afghan partners and, most important, it would not be in the U.S. national interest.
It may be hard to remember now, but it took just two months in late 2001 for the United States to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan and rout Al Qaeda in one of the shortest military campaigns in American history. On the diplomatic front, the Bonn Agreement in December 2001 forged consensus among Afghan factions and international parties on the formation of an interim government in Kabul. It called for the establishment of a “broad-based, gender-sensitive, multiethnic and fully representative government” that avoided corruption and placed armed groups under government control.
With such ambitious goals, the seeds of unending war had already been sown.
To understand this, keep in mind our early years in Afghanistan. There was a hard-nosed aspect to the Bush administration’s determination to remain engaged there. As Mr. Bush’s national security adviser Steve Hadley later told me, there was a strong belief in the administration that the power vacuum in Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989 created the conditions for civil war and then for the Taliban taking power. The administration thought that if the United States left Afghanistan after ousting the Taliban, that would probably lead again to a vacuum and the return of the extremists. The difference was that, in contrast to the early 1990s, at the end of 2001 there was agreement among Afghan factions and the international community on the path forward.
The passage of time has obscured the fact that things actually went pretty well in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2005. Schools were opened to girls, women participated in both businesses and the political process, and a relatively free and open media quickly emerged. Levels of violence throughout the country were relatively low, and conditions improved to the point that many refugees returned home.
The United States failed to see, however, that the Taliban, in the years after their expulsion in 2001, had gathered in Pakistan and reconstituted their military forces. They began to infiltrate back into eastern and southern Afghanistan — unhindered, and probably helped, by the Pakistanis. The level of violence increased steadily in 2005 and 2006, a trend worsened dramatically by a deal made by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan with Pakistani tribal leaders in the fall of 2006. It essentially gave the Taliban safe haven in Pakistan.
Even as the United States, allied and Afghan forces tried to deal with the deteriorating security situation — which included the deployment of ever larger numbers of troops between 2007 and 2010 — the corruption, incompetence and infighting among officials in Kabul, the provinces and the districts left many ordinary Afghans indifferent, or hostile, to the government. The massive influx of U.S. dollars for assistance programs, construction and contractors, together with the deeply rooted and extensive narcotics trade, turbocharged corruption.
It even extended to Afghan security forces: Promotions were for sale, officers stole troops’ wages and weapons appeared on the black market. Of course, many Afghan soldiers fought courageously to protect their country from the Taliban. But for many other Afghan soldiers, there was simply little motivation.
In late 2009, when President Barack Obama announced the surge in forces that would eventually give way to a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan, I believed — and told our commanders — that if, after five years (and with 100,000 U.S. troops), we couldn’t get Afghan military effectiveness to the point where they could defend the country against the Taliban, we probably never could.
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.
The outcome in Afghanistan still matters in terms of American interests. We turned our backs on Afghanistan after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989; we must not do so again after the last of our troops depart. We must assure the Afghans of our continuing support — and sustain that support — through every means available short of ground troops. The consequences of another Taliban takeover in Kabul would not be limited to the people of Afghanistan.
Robert M. Gates served eight presidents, including as the director of central intelligence for President George H.W. Bush. He oversaw the U.S. troop surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Gates is also the author of “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War” and “Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World.”
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