A Logical Analysis of America’s Afghanistan Endgame in A Nutshell
We are witnessing what is unfolding in Afghanistan with much sadness. Thirteen members of the American forces, who along with their allies have heroically helped evacuate over a 120,000 in two weeks, have been killed along with several Afghans in a Kabul explosion. Wars and their consequences are terrible. Neither extending a twenty-year war nor leaving Afghanistan in a quagmire are good options.
Biden is among the American Presidents with extensive foreign policy experience. His advisors have brilliant resumes. Yet the withdrawal, which has broad American support, was chaotic and has left many in a perilous state. How did this happen and was any of this avoidable? Decision making here, as well as in anything complex, involves the interplay of logic and probability. Here is an analysis of the key decisions.
Withdrawal decision. Should the Biden government have decided to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American forces from Afghanistan? Those who fault the Trump administration for negotiating a May 1, 2021 withdrawal timeline with the Taliban in 2020 need to understand that the Biden government had a choice. Their decision was to renegotiate the withdrawal date to August 31. Others disagree on withdrawing, noting the relative peace that had prevailed in Afghanistan in the first six months of 2021. But the likely reason for the peace was the agreement with the Taliban that they would not attack if America abided by the deadline. If that agreement were broken, a significant escalation and likely engagement of American forces would have been necessary to keep the Ghani government in power, taking the war into its third decade. The Biden government decided to withdraw instead.
Evacuation decision. Should Americans, allies, and endangered Afghans have been evacuated months before the withdrawal date? We have seen that nearly 120,000 have been evacuated within a couple of weeks even with Taliban’s control of Kabul. Why didn’t this process start sooner when the Ghani government was still in power? In a June 25 meeting with President Biden, deposed Afghanistan President Ghani made a single important request: Not to begin an evacuation, especially of Afghans, because that would foretell an impending collapse of his government precipitating exactly that. It is not possible to evacuate thousands secretly. About 5,000 were evacuated in July and that level might have continued for months. The Biden government decided that evacuations would wait to give the Ghani government a chance.
Decision on a withdrawal date. Should the August 31 deadline have been moved? American intelligence had expected that the Taliban would probably topple the Ghani government, though they had projected such an eventuality to arise months after American withdrawal, not well before. Mass evacuation of Afghans would be needed no matter when that end came and chaos would invariably follow because many would want to leave. The end game came sooner and more swiftly than anyone thought, but it was always going to be chaotic if the Taliban were in control. The truce between America and the Taliban is uneasy and the situation in Kabul is unstable. The Kabul explosion proves that point. The shorter the end game the safer decided the Biden government: No extension of the withdrawal date.
Now we have hindsight. What might we have done differently? Unlike the Biden administration, suppose we had pushed for an earlier evacuation of Afghans in June and July — after the Ghani government asked us not to. When that government would collapse in August, as it has done now, we would have attributed early evacuation as the cause and faulted it as a bad decision! Better decisions are easy to imagine in war games. The simple truth is that there was no easy way out of Afghanistan after twenty years.
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