Afghanistan’s war — and America’s stakes in it — won’t end when the troops leave

A silhouetted figure backlit by the setting sun waves a tattered Afghan flag.
Afghan Independence Day celebrations in Kabul in 2019.
(Associated Press)

When President Biden announced last week that the United States would withdraw its last troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, he cast the decision as closing the book on a 20-year conflict. “It’s time to end the forever war,” he said.

But the battle for Afghanistan began long before American troops arrived in 2001, and won’t end when the last U.S. soldier leaves. Taliban forces are almost certain to launch a military offensive to try to topple the government in Kabul. The result could be a military campaign that is bloody and short — or bloody and long.

And the United States will continue to have important stakes in the outcome, even if our troops are no longer there.


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April 16, 2021

The most practical interest Americans have in Afghanistan is to ensure that it’s not a base for terrorist attacks against the United States. That’s the reason U.S. troops entered the country in the first place after Al Qaeda’s attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Biden claimed that mission has been “accomplished” — and that’s true, for now. But the withdrawal of American troops will make it more difficult to keep track of Al Qaeda, as CIA Director William Burns acknowledged last week.

American intelligence agencies will continue to pay Afghan informants for years to come. If Al Qaeda appears to be regrouping there, American drones will attack it. U.S. forces will establish bases in nearby countries from which to conduct those strikes. And covert military units may even drop back into Afghanistan if a president deems it necessary, just as U.S. Navy SEALs landed in Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011.

More broadly, the United States and other countries still have an interest in trying to stabilize Afghanistan.

That’s partly for humanitarian reasons, of course. But there’s also a practical reason: A continuing civil war could result in more extremism, more terrorism and more refugees flooding into neighboring countries. The United States, Pakistan, Russia, China and even Iran all have an interest in keeping the conflict limited.

So it’s good news that Biden committed himself to a continued diplomatic effort, along with those other governments, to push the Kabul government and the Taliban into peace talks.

After the withdrawal, U.S. leverage will be limited. But there’s one bit of leverage the U.S. and other big powers may still have, even if the Taliban successfully fights its way back into power.


“The Taliban want legitimacy,” Laurel Miller, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, told me. “They don’t want to govern as pariahs again, the way they did from 1996 to 2001.”

If the Taliban wants international recognition and foreign aid, the diplomats argue, it may agree to deprive Al Qaeda of bases and to negotiate with other political factions — even, perhaps, to soften its earlier oppression of women and girls.

And that brings us to a third American interest, which, like the first two, is both humanitarian and practical.

Four U.S. presidents spent 20 years pursuing the unrealistic goal of transforming Afghan society and politics — and got part of the way there. Thousands of Afghans put their lives and families at risk by helping the U.S. military or other foreign institutions.

In 2009, Congress set up a special immigration channel for Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government. But the program was understaffed and underfunded, and admitted a relative trickle of applicants. In its first 10 years, only about 18,000 Afghans were allowed in — leaving a backlog of almost 19,000 applicants out of luck. If the Taliban enters Kabul, thousands of former military interpreters and embassy aides could be stranded.

Now add a second group: Afghans who didn’t work for the U.S. government, but whose lives could be in danger under a Taliban regime. This could include government officials, human rights activists and professional women. Many may ask to enter the United States as refugees.

On that score, Biden appears to be going in the wrong direction. Last week, White House officials suddenly announced that they were backing off from the president’s campaign promise to quickly increase the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year. They said Biden had decided to maintain the ceiling of 15,000 set by Donald Trump.

After a storm of protest from Democrats in Congress, the White House reversed course again and said a new limit would be announced next month — but didn’t say what the number would be.

A too-stringent cap on refugees will only create a new problem if Kabul falls. At that point, Biden is likely to feel pressure to open a special refugee quota for Afghans, just as the United States did for Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

That wasn’t universally popular.

“I do not believe the United States has an obligation, moral or otherwise, to evacuate foreign nationals,” then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware argued at the time.

He was wrong then — and he would be wrong now.

Strictly speaking, we don’t “owe” anything to them, not even those who put their lives at risk by collaborating with the U.S. military. But as we learned after Vietnam, we will feel better if we help save lives.

There’s self-interest even in that. Honor and compassion, when we remember to apply them, are good for the U.S. reputation. For a country that seeks allies, better to be a trustworthy partner than an untrustworthy one.