Afghanistan has been a presence in my life for decades. As a high school student at a Department of Defense school in Turkey, I read James A. Michener’s Caravans. I was enchanted. It seemed the ultimate in distant, exotic, hard-to-reach places. Just a few years later, I was there, as a college student joining the wave of world travelers wandering through Asia. Afghanistan did not disappoint, from the first night in a 25-cent hotel room in Herat to the last day traversing the storied Khyber Pass via Kandahar, Bamyan, and Kabul. I promised myself that I would be back.
That opportunity came just one year later when, freshly graduated, I was invited to be a prospective English teacher for the Peace Corps in Afghanistan. But then I was offered an appointment as a foreign service officer. It paid slightly better than the Peace Corps, so Afghanistan would have to be deferred, though not forgotten. Eighteen months later, as American vice consul in Khorramshahr, Iran, I traveled to Zahedan in Iranian Balochistan to visit a prisoner. I took the opportunity to drive north to the provincial capital of Zabul and look across the border at Afghanistan.
America’s Long History With Afghanistan
It would be a long time before I got back, but Afghanistan continued to be present in other ways. In late 1979, for example, when I was in Iraq as second secretary (in the U.S. Interests Section) at the Embassy of Belgium, I briefed the Iraqi Foreign Ministry on unusual Soviet troop movements near the Afghan border and asked how the Iraqis interpreted them. No answers were immediately forthcoming, but after the Soviets invaded, I was summoned back to the ministry to be told they had figured it all out. They claimed that U.S. policymakers had lured the Soviets into Afghanistan to provide a pretext for a U.S. invasion of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran and the acquisition of ports on the Persian Gulf, from which U.S. forces would then invade and occupy Iraq. America’s dark designs, I was told, would not succeed. I shook my head at this manifestation of unmoored paranoia. But as events played out over the years, they were not that far off. Granted, it was Iraq (not the United States) that invaded Iran the following year. But decades later in 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan. And my interlocutors were ultimately correct: U.S. forces finally did get around to invading Iraq in 2003.
Virtually all Americans old enough to remember 9/11 remember where they were that day. Newly arrived in Washington, DC, as deputy assistant secretary of state for Gulf affairs (including Iraq), I was on a U.S. Air shuttle to New York for meetings at the UN with the Russian permanent representative on Iraqi sanctions. We saw the smoke from the first tower on our approach to La Guardia. Stuck in traffic on the Queensborough Bridge, I saw both towers collapse. On the long drive back to Washington, I had time to think. Now the assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud two days earlier made sense. Under Massoud’s leadership, the Northern Alliance had been able to hold northeastern Afghanistan against the Taliban, and clearly al-Qaeda had wanted him off the field before the 9/11 attacks. I also had the conviction that, although Afghanistan was not part of my area of responsibility, my life was about to profoundly change. It did. I would spend seven out of the next ten years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, including stints as ambassador to all three countries.
More immediately, I was on one of the first planes out of Washington, DC, when commercial aviation resumed, headed for Geneva and some quiet talks with the Iranians on Afghanistan. Iranians and Americans now had a common enemy—the Taliban. We maintained a discreet and productive dialogue over the following weeks—in Geneva, Paris, New York, and ultimately Kabul. That cooperation ended abruptly in January 2002 when then president George W. Bush’s State of the Union address labeled Iran as part of the “axis of evil.”
Just a month earlier, soon after Christmas in December 2001, deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage had told me to get out to Kabul and get the embassy established. I departed for Afghanistan after a last meeting in Geneva with the Iranians; my senior interlocutor in those talks went on to open Iran’s Embassy in Afghanistan. When I arrived, Kabul’s airport was closed, its runways cratered and littered with destroyed aircraft. We landed at Bagram, north of the city, and drove through an utter wasteland of abandoned structures and endless fields of mud. There were no signs of life—plant, animal, or human. Kabul was not much better. Entire city blocks were destroyed, calling to mind photos of Berlin in 1945. While the U.S. military had begun bombing Kabul that fall, most of this destruction had been wrought by neither the Americans nor the Soviets before them. Rather, most of the damage was done by Afghans themselves during the vicious civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Hamid Karzai had arrived in Kabul just a few days before as the chairman of the Afghan Interim Authority created at the Bonn Conference the previous month. There was almost nothing to be chairman of—no military, police, or civil service. There were almost no communications even— we used radios and satellite phones. Karzai and I were in contact almost every day. We were both early risers in a country that by and large wasn’t, so we were often in touch in the morning. At one memorable breakfast at the palace, Karzai noted that Afghanistan did not even have a national flag yet. What should it look like? As he pondered, he sketched out a design on a napkin, commenting that it evoked the historical flag under the monarchy, an era that Afghans remembered positively. But the country was now an Islamic republic, so he added the Shahada: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the prophet of God.” And that became the Afghan flag.
We had a lot of visitors in early 2002. Two very important ones were then secretary of state Colin Powell and Joe Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden and I went to a girls’ school in Kabul that the U.S. Agency for International Development had funded. All Afghans had suffered under Taliban rule, but women and girls suffered the most. There were twelve-year-old girls in the first-grade class we visited; they had been six when the Taliban had eliminated all female education.
Why U.S. Forces Have Really Stayed in Afghanistan
This brings me to a critical point. The sound and fury swirling around the current debate on U.S. policy in Afghanistan creates a false impression of confusion on the part of successive American administrations over why U.S. forces were there.
The why has been clear from the beginning. U.S. military action in 2001 was a direct result of the 9/11 attacks, and the U.S. presence since then has been to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as a staging area for an attack on the U.S. homeland. That was clear on March 11, 2002, six months after the 9/11 attacks, when we commemorated this mission by burying a fragment of the World Trade Center under the embassy flagpole in Kabul. It had been brought to Afghanistan by the commander of the Fifth Special Forces Group, Colonel (later Lieutenant General) John F. Mulholland Jr.
Everything else was about the best means to achieve that goal. Economic and social development were identified as key factors for fostering long-term stability and a climate in which al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors could not survive. This was not nation building for its own sake—this was about U.S. national security. The same is true about peace among contending Afghan factions. Over the long term, a stable Afghanistan resting on a foundation of development and democracy is the best possible bulwark against the ability of terrorist organizations and their sponsors to organize attacks against the United States. But this is not an end in itself. If stabilizing Afghanistan is not attainable under current circumstances, the U.S. government has other means of assuring the country’s national security—boots on the ground. The last administration lost this critical focus. And very sadly, it seems that the current administration has as well.
I learned through hard experience in the greater Middle East that really good choices are very scarce. It is important to avoid the “if only” trap. It can be tempting to fall into thinking if only we had done X or hadn’t done Y, all would be well. But such thinking doesn’t necessarily help or even clarify things. After all, if it is true that economic and social development in Afghanistan are not ends in themselves but means to an end, it is also true that cultivating such development probably kept the Taliban insurgency from taking root sooner than it did. If the United States had instead tried to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan with no effort to improve the lives of the country’s desperately poor people, an earlier and fiercer insurgency probably would have arisen.
A little over two years later, I was back in the region as ambassador to Pakistan (2004–2007). For most of that time, my friend and colleague Ron Neumann was ambassador to Afghanistan. He invited me to Kabul several times to meet with (then president) Karzai to discuss Pakistan and possible means of improving relations between the two countries. That went nowhere, but it helped sustain a relationship with Karzai. Relationships count.
In 2011, I was back again, this time as ambassador to Afghanistan. Karzai was still president. Then U.S. president Barack Obama gave me two charges: reset the relationship with Karzai and negotiate a long-term, inclusive bilateral agreement between the two countries. We managed both, and in May 2012, Obama flew to Afghanistan to sign a Strategic Partnership Agreement. That period was the high-water mark in U.S.-Afghan relations. Later that month, a NATO summit in Chicago led to an agreement on long-term assistance to Afghan security forces, and an economic ministerial in Tokyo in July produced commitments on economic support against conditions established by the Afghan government itself. Again, it is important to recall that, for the United States and its allies, these measures were means to an end, not ends in themselves. This was (and always has been) about national and international security.
Former president Donald Trump seemed to understand this at first. In a statement on South Asia policy in August 2017, he stated that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan would be determined by conditions, not calendars. But that didn’t last. Less than two years later, the United States announced that it would begin peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar—without the government of Afghanistan. U.S. decisionmakers had capitulated to a long-standing Taliban demand that, while it was ready to negotiate with the United States, it would not engage with the government of Afghanistan, which it labeled an illegitimate puppet of the Americans. This critical concession delegitimized the Afghan government and sent a clear signal to U.S. allies and adversaries alike that these talks were not about peace but rather were about an American surrender, resembling in this sense the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War.
Each successive step made this increasingly clear. The United States agreed that the Afghan government would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners—without consulting the Afghan government. The administration then forced the Afghan government to comply. It freed individuals who had murdered many Afghan civilians, with no assurances that they would not return to violence. Targeted killings by the Taliban have increased exponentially, including against women. The murders of three female journalists a few weeks ago reveal all that needs to be known about the future of women and girls in Afghanistan if the Taliban regains power.
Without question, Trump dealt his successor a bad hand on Afghanistan. He steadily reduced forces with no effort to use withdrawals to exert pressure on the Taliban to meet its own commitments. By the time he left office, Trump had just 2,500 or so troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban, meanwhile, have largely avoided targeting U.S. or NATO forces. That is their leverage. Trump rescinded three good international agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In return, he concluded a very bad agreement with the Taliban. Biden should have torn it up. Instead, he embraced it, and he also embraced Trump’s special representative for Afghan reconciliation. As a result, Biden now owns that policy.
The Fallout of the Coming U.S. Withdrawal
What are this decision’s likely consequences? Here are a few. There will be no serious discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government—the Taliban have no reason to negotiate. The U.S. government’s ability to gather intelligence will be degraded, as Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns has noted. The ability of Afghan security forces to remain in the field is questionable, according to the commander of Central Command. The United States has had a problem for some time in getting special immigrant visas for interpreters and others who served with U.S. forces and officials and, in doing so, put their own lives at risk. With a final withdrawal announced, the risks they face have gone up exponentially. My wingman in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and I are on the board of No One Left Behind, an NGO dedicated to bringing these Afghan comrades safely to the United States. We wrote recently to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to deploy whatever resources are necessary to get these people out before the last U.S. forces are withdrawn.
Biden maintains that the United States must pay more attention to other areas that could threaten U.S. interests. That is prudent. But it is hard to believe that the U.S. military does not have the necessary forces to fulfill all its missions because 2,500 troops are in Afghanistan. This is a crucial point. The argument is not about numbers. When I left Kabul in the summer of 2012, the U.S. military had almost 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the Taliban held no provincial capitals. Now there are 2,500 U.S. troops in the country, and the Taliban still hold no provincial capitals. What Biden is saying is that he does not want to think about Afghanistan as president.
He asserts that U.S. humanitarian and development programs, especially those that benefit women and girls, will continue without U.S. forces in-country. Yet that may not be possible. It is not clear whether post-withdrawal security conditions will allow NGOs, which implement most of these programs, to continue operations. In fact, it is unclear if the United States will be able to maintain an embassy. The administration has already ordered the departure of some personnel. Once presidential focus disappears, U.S. adversaries will be unconstrained. Perhaps these things will not happen. I hope they won’t. But as they say, hope is not a strategy. Biden’s decision means that the Taliban has agency, not Americans. They will decide whether to continue attacks on civilians. They will decide whether to engage U.S. and NATO forces as they retreat. And they will decide whether to attack NGOs and/or the U.S. Embassy when U.S. troops are gone.
There is more. What happens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan. The message I got from senior Pakistani officials when I was ambassador in the mid-2000s ran something like this: “We were strategic allies in the campaign against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But after the Soviet defeat, you Americans walked out too, leaving us with a civil war on our borders. You also halted all economic and military assistance because of our nuclear weapons program, a program you had known about for a decade. And now you are back. You tell us that we must stop giving the Taliban safe haven in Pakistan. That isn’t going to happen. If you think we are going to turn the Taliban into a mortal enemy, you are completely crazy. Because at some point you will leave, and the Taliban will still be here.” And that is exactly what is happening. The Pakistanis feel completely vindicated in their support for the Taliban.
U.S. forces are in Afghanistan to ensure that its soil is never again used to stage an attack on the United States. We are not ending a war; we are leaving the battle space to our adversaries. Who are they? The Taliban and al-Qaeda, those who brought us 9/11. If anything, they are smarter, tougher, and more committed than they were a generation ago—the slow and stupid ones have already been killed. It may be that they no longer seek to attack the United States. But Biden’s announcement leaves that decision in their hands, not ours. That is a very bad place to be.