Afghanistan Withdrawal: Experts Had an Alternative
Months before America’s controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan, a nonpartisan, congressionally-chartered panel of experts offered a plan that was different from both the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal, and the Trump administration’s approach.
In 2019, Congress established the Afghanistan Study Group, or ASG, comprised of 15 individuals with deep and diverse foreign policy experience. I was honored to be one of the ASG members. They directed us to assess US interests in Afghanistan, and develop options for policymakers and the incoming presidential administration. Throughout the course of 2020, we spoke with American foreign policy experts, Afghanistan leaders and civil society representatives, as well as other key stakeholders.
The ASG took stock of battlefield progress, noting that in the years since 9/11, the US—working hand in hand with Coalition and Afghan partners—had destroyed terrorist sanctuaries, eliminated insurgent strongholds, and had prevented the Taliban from seizing and holding urban spaces.
We noted the improvements in the lives of everyday citizens made possible by work of the US and its allies. For example, life expectancy had increased from 56 to 64 years, and maternal deaths had been reduced by more than half. There were a range of advances made by and for women and girls—in a country whose treatment of women had been barbaric for so long. Child marriage declined by 17%, girls’ enrollment in primary school nearly doubled, and women gained presence in Afghanistan’s colleges, parliament, and diplomatic corps.
But the ASG never lost sight of essentially what led to its own creation: the high costs that accompanied those achievements. At the time of the study 2,298 American troops and 3,904 American contractors had died in Afghanistan, and more than 20,000 had been wounded. One thousand, one hundred and forty-four Coalition troops had lost their lives, and members of Afghanistan’s security forces—military and police—were killed through April 2020. The citizens of Afghanistan, of course, paid the highest price of all—an estimated 47,245 civilians died from the beginning of the conflict through April 2021, and according to the UN, 1,659 were killed during the first six months of 2021 alone.
In terms of financial costs, the United States, directly and indirectly, spent more than $2 trillion on the war since their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This amount equals $300 million dollars spent per day, for the past two decades.
At the end of 2020, after months of weighing both the achievements and the costs related to the US presence, the ASG concluded—contrary to the stance of the Biden and Trump administrations—that the US still had important interests in Afghanistan, saying, “We have an interest in Afghanistan not becoming again a safe haven for terrorists who can threaten us. We have an interest in a stable Afghanistan that is not a threat to its region. And we have an interest in an Afghanistan that respects human rights.”
The ASG also concluded that American interests could be effectively pursued without a large or permanent force presence. We noted that as of 2020’s end, our presence was a comparatively modest 2,500 troops. It’s true that had we kept troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban would have viewed that as a violation of the Doha deal, and perhaps prompted them to resume their war on our forces. But with US troops in a non-combat role, risks to American lives would have been minimal.
The group also pointedly came out against a continuation of the status quo… the type of presence and projects then in Afghanistan. We argued for a smarter presence… one tied to or conditioned upon certain broad principles: reiterating support for an end goal of an independent, sovereign, democratic state; clarifying our commitment to both the existing government and a vibrant, inclusive civil society network; and engaging regional partners in the process of building a regional framework in support of a lasting peace.
We also said that the only way to ensure that the Taliban would keep to its commitments from the Doha discussions was to condition any further troop withdrawals upon both progress in peace negotiations, and fulfillment of the Taliban’s most basic pledges.
These days, Afghanistan is a very different place, and the Taliban is not the government it promised—over and over again—to be. Girls and women have been banned from secondary and tertiary education. They have effectively banned women from public parks, baths, and sports. Women also cannot travel more than 75 km without a male escort, or mahram. The Taliban’s restrictions have compelled women to stay at home, erasing 20 years of hard won progress for women’s rights. But, the Taliban takeover has affected the whole population, not just females: approximately 28.3 million people—two-thirds of the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance.
To be sure, President Biden inherited difficult choices with respect to the US presence in Afghanistan. However, it’s hard to defend how the US abruptly left Afghanistan, and impossible to defend what was left behind. Reflecting on the work of the congressionally-chartered Afghanistan Study Group, it’s clear that a nonpartisan panel of experts believed a better outcome was possible.
This blog was researched and drafted with the assistance of Caroline Moody.
About the Author
The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more