The Washington Post
Biden has only one option in Afghanistan
Writing in his last issue as editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, level-headed Gideon Rose defines the “genius” behind America’s global power as the “ability to cut losses.” Even those who share Rose’s admiration for cold pragmatism in foreign policy must admit, however, that this genius is not always pleasant to behold.
Case in point: Afghanistan. Nearly 20 years into the U.S. effort to modernize and liberalize that notoriously difficult land, Taliban forces once more control the countryside, and they appear to be poised for a final spring offensive against the parts of Afghan cities that remain under government control. President Biden faces a choice — but it’s not really a choice. He can continue the process begun under President Barack Obama, and ramped up under President Donald Trump, to “cut losses” and get out of Afghanistan. Or Biden can cobble together some sort of Plan B, in which U.S. air power and Special Operations forces continue to fight a war with no prospect of victory.
So much of history is a question of timing. Afghanistan has passed like a hot potato from president to president since George W. Bush toppled the Taliban regime that gave sanctuary to the al- Qaeda masterminds of 9/11. No one has wanted to be the guy who hands the keys back to the ousted enemy — perchance to resume its soccer stadium mass executions and brutal repression of women.
Biden’s best option — his only option, really — is to grasp the nettle, as the saying goes: complete the barely facesaving agreement Trump struck with the Taliban, and hope the threatened spring offensive can be delayed long enough to withdraw remaining Western forces. We should be generous in protecting refugees of the doomed Afghan government. But otherwise, close the book.
Biden can’t be blamed, nor should Trump be criticized, for making his embarrassing bargain. This bitter harvest was sown long ago, when the Bush war council — led by those strutting popinjays Richard B. Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, the vice president and defense secretary, respectively — barreled into two of the most notoriously complicated countries on Earth, with nary a thought as to how lasting peace might be achieved.
This is not merely the assessment of some carping columnist. It is the view of retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, for many years the commander stuck with the debacle. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan,” Lute told government interviewers, adding, “We didn’t know what we were doing.”
The time to win in Afghanistan and Iraq was at the beginning. By having no viable plan for stable government in either country, the Bush team ensured eventual defeat. Baseball has a rule that allows a loss to be charged to a pitcher even after he leaves the mound. Statecraft should follow that example and assign this L to W.’s record.
One of the greatest correspondents of this long, long war shares his latest dispatch from Afghanistan in the March 8 issue of the New Yorker. Dexter Filkins visits places along the country’s main highway, where Taliban forces already operate with impunity. He interviews Taliban leaders — among them former U.S. prisoners at Guantanamo Bay — who speak of their victory over the United States and their consolidation of power as a fait accompli. He sketches a portrait of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, grouchy and isolated in a feckless twilight. He shows us the strong women who trusted the promise of liberty enough to invest the past two decades in securing it. They can imagine what plans the Taliban has for them.
“It will be another civil war,” one Afghan general tells Filkins. “Worse than the last one.”
One can’t help but think of the young men and women who flocked to enlist in the armed services when their country was attacked on 9/11 — many of them deployed to Afghanistan and later to Iraq. With precious few exceptions, they have served bravely and well. Thousands have given their lives; thousands more have given limbs, eyes, peace of mind. Children have grown up to the rhythm of parents leaving home for long stretches of peril.
If only the outcomes had been equal to their valor and their sacrifices. But as the general said, we didn’t know what we were doing. An impulse doesn’t equal a strategy.
Unlike the planners who sent those men and women into harm’s way, our troops did all that could reasonably be asked of them — and more. Now the only way to respect their service is to ask no more of them in this endeavor. The losses to be cut are not Afghan losses, which sadly are sure to continue once Western forces are gone. Biden must stop the loss of U.S. and coalition forces in a war for which no plausible path to victory remains. With all respect to Gideon Rose, somehow this doesn’t feel like genius.