Afghan security personnel stand guard inside a building a day after a car bomb explosion in Kabul on August 4, 2021. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)
Artillery Row

Rough statecraft

Biden’s Machiavellian moment

A determined Taliban, backed by parts of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus, has defeated the United States and its client state in its longest war. President Joe Biden inherited this failed, two trillion dollar, time-consuming enterprise. He did what his predecessor agreed to do, what his country formally committed to do, and what he promised to do. He ended it. 

In implementing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden is guilty of negligence. He inadvertently aggravated the sufferings of abandonment. His mishandling of the exit precipitated a preventable, humiliating scenario, where America scrambles to evacuate under Taliban permission. Some Afghans perished who might have been rescued. 

The incompetence of departure deserves inquest. But it should not serve to deflect from the need to withdraw, nor obfuscate the true choice. The plausible alternative to leaving was not a stable exit followed by “muddling through” cheaply until somehow things got better. It was a futile war that would likely have intensified. This point escapes “Stayers”, outspoken former officials, security elites, commentators and allies who oppose withdrawal, who historically misjudged Afghanistan and support protracted interventions in the Middle East. Their narrow fixation on withdrawal and its execution, as though it were the primary error, deflects from their own complicity in profound failure, in Afghanistan and beyond.

It is an agonising choice — to leave, or escalate. There was not a quiet, stable withdrawal to be had

Biden realised what they cannot. His steely, at times obtuse determination to leave and defend the decision shows, if not virtue, virtù, a quality cherished by the Florentine diplomat and pessimist Niccolò Machiavelli. Virtù distinguishes private and political morality. It includes the unflinching willingness to do ruthless, even immoral things to preserve a ruler for reason of state.

Biden may not be an artful manipulator or far-sighted statesman. But amidst failure, he had one Machiavellian moment. As the crisis spiralled, he recognised the nature of the problem, and remorselessly got it done. “I stand squarely behind my decision.” He spoke unapologetically, at times callously and duplicitously. He acknowledged no error. He presented all chaos as predestined. Focussing blame on the disintegrating Afghan army, he ignored their previous sacrifices. He dismissed questions about allies’ concerns and reports of mayhem.

What else could he do? A contrite, more measured president issuing a mea culpa would be torn apart, his ability to make foreign policy destroyed. It is one thing to attract condemnation for a policy that retains broad support, but becoming pitiful is more dangerous. In order to make foreign policy — to sustain the ability to have a foreign policy — Biden had to maintain his state. Withdrawal — even if bungled — remained necessary, and required fierce defence.

Chairs covered with the blood of victims are seen outside a wedding hall after a deadly bomb blast in Kabul on August 18, 2019. (WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty)

What is the nature of America’s problem in Afghanistan? It is an agonising choice — to leave, or escalate. There was not a quiet, stable withdrawal to be had. Given the evident fragility of morale and the country’s institutions, a better advertised, more efficient drawdown would have been less bad but only by degree. Withdrawing equipment and emptying facilities with advance notice would have been conspicuous, triggered locals’ fears, and brought on the crisis. Had they waited out the summer fighting season, the Taliban may not have cooperated. They could demonstrably have overrun the rest of the country and encircled Kabul, driving civilian flight, army collapse and heightening calls to stay, and the crisis may have extended into the winter too.

Some critiques of Biden need not detain us. The accusation that any withdrawal was a “betrayal” falsely assumes there was a permanent commitment to maintain a military presence, or that the US had an open-ended humanitarian obligation beyond the heavy investments it had made. There was not, and it does not. The charge that leaving undermines US “credibility” suggests that refusing to extend a peripheral war into its third decade will cause allies to lose faith and enemies to pounce. America won the Cold War seventeen years after leaving Vietnam and seven years after quitting Lebanon. As before, allies may gripe, but their allegiances are likely to endure

Some stress the need to retain a garrison in Afghanistan to suppress terrorism. The US has taken other steps to disrupt the international channels for long-range, mass-casualty aggression and to make itself a harder target since 9/11. Washington does not install permanent forces in other countries to help host states battle Islamists. As for geopolitical complaints, the claim that the Taliban’s return is a bonanza for international terrorism in the region contradicts warnings that America’s departure creates a vacuum for China and Russia’s influence. Moscow and Beijing have a stake in the former.  

After two decades, Afghan forces still could not function independently

What deserves a fuller critique is the fantasy of a cheap, sustainable stalemate. Biden’s critics allege that the choice was either leave, or persist with a small US force, preserving a stable, sustainable status quo. For Rory Stewart, the former MP, a future where America stayed would resemble the recent past, given that the US hadn’t suffered a fatality or squandered much treasure for eighteen months. Staying was “the easiest thing to continue to do.” He even compares keeping troops in Afghanistan, where there was a war, to South Korea, where there isn’t.

This is a misleading view, of both the status quo and future possibilities. The government was already steadily losing ground. Critics stress that Afghan forces had previously fought hard with great losses, and were disheartened by the withdrawal of US support. But that is precisely the point. They were already bleeding and demoralised unsustainably, and after two decades, still could not function independently. This did not begin in 2019. As one observer notes, already in 2015 there was:

Poor morale, desertion, attrition, corruption, ethnic factionalism, bad logistics, and an overreliance on backup from Afghan special operations forces. And for years, it was no secret that ANDSF units were making deals with their supposed enemy—warning the Taliban of forthcoming offenses, refusing to fight, and selling the group weapons and equipment.

The army, and its parent state, were in a state of disequilibrium. Staying to hold the ring would have required years longer, and increased effort. And increased combat. The Taliban’s relative restraint in recent time — towards NATO troops — was not a template for the long-term. It was due to temporary conditions, namely the Doha withdrawal agreement of February 2020, and under COVID restrictions, the absence of US participation in ground operations. Consider, too, what the Taliban achieved with 2500 US troops in country, and could do again: brokering troop defections, and prepositioning for a rapid assault.

Afghans pursue a US Air Force transport plane as it takes off, some cling to the fuselage

The Taliban themselves credibly warned they would again target US troops if they stayed. How else would they respond to the cancellation of the withdrawal agreement? By pretending temporary, restraining conditions still obtained? A better guide to how things might have been, after breaking the Doha agreement, is what happened before it was signed, before the suspension of attacks on US troops. In 2019, there was intensive combat enough for the US to increase airstrikes significantly and to suffer 180 wounded. There is nothing “easy” about personnel losing limbs or suffering brain damage, and caring for the seriously injured or suicidal, annually, is not cheap. Neither is more time allocated, or further billions of dollars spent, at a greater cost than the damage of most terrorist attacks, to reinforce a beleaguered small force and a bleeding national army, only to postpone a similar outcome.  

Biden put it indecently, but it remains basically true: Afghan forces were not willing to fight in the decisive hour

Biden put it indecently, but it remains basically true: Afghan forces were not willing to fight in the decisive hour. Even allowing for their over-dependency on US technology and technical assistance, the withdrawal of such support and attrition suffered doesn’t fully explain their reluctance. There were still numbers, and weapons, and training to draw upon. It was surely also a vote of no-confidence in their own predatory government. Many were unwilling to fight for a corrupt order that was guilty of systematic abuse, including child rape on a large scale. The Taliban are overall worse, but Kabul’s kleptocracy failed to mobilise loyalty when it most counted. The rottenness of the state and the wider project was symbolised by the flight of President Ashraf Ghani, once celebrated guru of nation-building. 

In such a state, when, and how, would a “muddling through” mission terminate? Some advocates of staying call for “strategic patience.” Patience for what? It is unclear how a holding operation would be supposed to end, short of the wildly difficult task of reforming the country’s governance. Only on a distant day could there be a more orderly departure, when the Afghan army was able and willing to fight independently, or when the state with its incentives to keep its US bodyguard had agreed power-sharing with the Taliban, or when Pakistan cut off its patronage to insurgents. This would have taken time, and not months either. Strategic patience was part of the problem.

Looking to the future, there are pressing questions — how to give succour to refugees, and how to deter the new regime, as Washington has done with stronger oppressive states. But to reach this point, the only way to get out of Afghanistan was to get out of Afghanistan. It took Biden, a bad-tempered, unreasonable man, to grasp that hard truth and delay no longer, and to grit his teeth, and hang tight.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover