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Politics & Policy

The Unavoidable Tragedy in Afghanistan?

Queue at Kabul Airport Courtesy of BBC

Was the current tragedy in Afghanistan avoidable? As we watch desperate, scared people clinging to the bottom of airplanes or dying in ISIS bomb attacks, it’s hard not to armchair quarterback and think anyone competent could have done things better. I’m not going to disagree; it’s a farcical disaster that will damage US credibility for decades and probably cost many more lives. But was it as easily avoidable as some think?

I doubt it.

President Biden will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan over the coming months, U.S. officials said, completing the military exit by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that drew the United States into its longest war.  – Washington Post, Apr 13, 2021

Afghanistan Options

I’m no expert on Middle East foreign policy, our wars in the region or anything else, but there are a couple of obvious “alternatives” to the current situation that are worth discussing…

1 / Stay in Afghanistan (Forever?)

In this model, the US military stays in the country indefinitely, fighting the Taliban, expending US lives, in the hopes that a democracy will form over time…and eventually be able to defend itself. At some point in the future, we might have been able to draw down troops while maintaining stability.

Pros: Afghani civilians protected (kinda), US military contractors get more money, Taliban gets great PR for ongoing fight, possible eventual democracy maybe.

Cons: Infinite monetary cost, unlimited US human cost, no real proof it would ever work. Would have violated Trump’s 2020 agreement with the Taliban:

And hasn’t really worked anywhere else I can think of. Not really politically viable after 20 years of failure.

2a / More Gradual Withdrawal w/o Evacuation

In this model, Biden would presumably have announced withdrawal on a longer timescale, but kept to the story that everything would be fine and the Afghani military would pick up the slack. This would give more time for voluntary repatriation and emigration, though without any incentive to do so–after all, everything’s going to be fine, right?–it’s not clear anyone would actually have left. This just means delaying what we’re seeing today to some point in the future.

Pros: More time for transition, maybe some more people leave sooner, collapse happens more slowly so maybe US has time to revert to option 1 before it’s too late. Might be done slowly enough to be less damaging to Democrats in 2022.

Cons: Probably just ends up the same way as what we’re seeing today, because there would be no concerted evacuation effort; is hard to sell because if it was possible in the first place, than we wouldn’t be seeding sudden collapse we are seeing, and option 3 (the current option) would be more logical anyway, etc. Would still have violated agreement with Taliban, possibly precipitating more violent collapse.

2b / More Gradual Withdrawal with Evacuation

With this option, Biden would have announced US exit on a longer timeline and then forced evacuation of US citizens and Afghani supporters during the transition, while holding the country to allow them safe passage.

Pros: Might actually have worked and saved lives.

Cons: Would have required Biden to admit Afghanistan was lost, undermining Afghani military confidence and authority, thereby throwing up a peremptory surrender flag that would have gotten him eviscerated in US politics and international opinion. Perhaps the moral decision if he truly believed there was no hope, but political suicide. And there’s no clear evidence he believed this (that I know of) despite intelligence briefings that painted a far more dire picture than he projected to the public.

3a / Get Out on Current Deadline

This is basically what’s happening now, and it’s a freaking horror show.

And now this explosion from today:

3b / Get Out But Adjust Deadline

Here, Biden would admit he got things a bit wrong, return some troops to defend allies and evacuations, even if this means military engagement with the Taliban to get people out. Evacuate everyone, and then revert to 3a. This is probably what the intelligence community would have advised…at least in part:

In a series of meetings leading up to his decision, military and intelligence officials told Mr. Biden that security was deteriorating in Afghanistan, and they expressed concerns both about the capabilities of the Afghan military and the Taliban’s likely ability to take over major Afghan cities. – WSJ

Pros: Probably the best way to save civilian lives given current situation, and to honor obligations to those who have helped the US over the past 20 years.

Cons: Requires Biden to admit he got things wrong; removes any hope of future work with softer, kinder Taliban (?); risks getting more Afghani allies killed as they are targeted more overtly by the Taliban; prolongs the conflict into future news cycles that further damage Biden and the Democrats; costs more US military lives.

3c / Get Out on Deadline but do a Better Job

You know, plan for evacuation (even if secretly). Defend the airport. Get people prepared to leave (even if secretly). Project manage the hell out of this thing. But, well, that doesn’t seem to be the current administration’s strong point.

“A responsible withdrawal needed more time and better preparation. History will record Mr. Biden, a supposed master of foreign policy for decades, as having failed in this most critical assignment.” – NYT Opinion

Pros: Sounds nice

Cons: If they were capable of it, and had the plans to support it, they would have done it. Fantasy at this point. What the current failure shows more than anything else is not a failure of policy, but a failure of execution. It’s not clear that the people who allowed this failure to occur have any idea how to fix it, or the skills to do so.

To be clear, I would have voted for a version of 3b/c where the deadline was extended, but not too far, and evacuations and related planning began in secret on the assumption that collapse was inevitable. Not sure how practical this is given real world conditions, but I’m surprised they didn’t even try.

4 / Something Else?

If you have or know of better ideas, let me know. Let everyone know. Because this is horrifying to watch, and I can’t imagine what it’s like on the ground.

So, Nothing’s Going to Change

Given the above option analysis (light), if it’s even vaguely right, nothing is going to change; we’re locked into getting out on the arbitrary political deadline. Many, many Afghani allies are going to die. And we’re not going to do anything but watch and try to blame it on prior administrations. Who are largely at fault for getting us here…but not for the decisions or we’re making today–or the utter failures of basic planning and execution.

President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the United States is on track to meet the current Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, leaving a narrow timeline to finish evacuating Americans and Afghan allies. – NBC, Aug 24

Sorry this isn’t a happier post, but sometimes positivity is just another lie. This is a tragedy. Biden will have to own it. But he’s not really the one paying for it…


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