The U.S. military has not suffered casualties in Afghanistan since February 2020 – that is, for 16 months. So the actual costs of staying in the country, at the reduced manpower levels that have become the new normal, have been relatively low.
Meanwhile, the unknown risk involved in leaving, both humanitarianly and strategically, is relatively high.
So what’s in the mood in America today that encourages retreat?
This question at this point is largely rhetorical because the departure is happening. The Pentagon announced last week that the withdrawal would be completed by the end of August, a few weeks earlier than planned when President Biden said forces would be withdrawn by the 20th anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001, the terrorist attack that brought the U.S. military presence to Afghanistan initially.
The urge to leave the Asian country crosses both parties. Former President Donald Trump announced while he was in office that all forces would be withdrawn this year; Biden does this.
This is despite the fact that the American presence has been reduced to several thousand soldiers, most of whom work in areas where there is no violence. They did not “win” the fight against Taliban extremists, but they did create a semblance of stability and kept the Taliban and its version of anti-Western Islamism out of power.
In front of this picture can be placed the visible risk involved in leaving. These risks begin with a high chance that the pro-American government and the Afghan army will collapse and the Taliban will take over again. It may open the door for Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven and operational center for Muslim extremists, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, who still intend to harm the United States.
Actions for revenge and humanitarian catastrophe
The Taliban’s return to power may also lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, including retaliation against pro-US civilians and those who oppose the rule of Muslim extremists, and the withdrawal of much of the progress made by women in Afghanistan.
As in other areas, “To the extent that the United States remains a supporter of elections and democracy, the takeover of the Taliban will represent a dramatic setback, especially for women and girls,” former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
There are also strategic costs. A US presence in Afghanistan, including a large air force base in the city of Bagram, has made both Iran and China in the East think twice about any action. A significant U.S. presence at this strategic point provides at least some degree of oversight of Iranian aggression and China’s expansionist ambitions. There is now at least some risk that the Taliban will become a customer of a Chinese government with growing ambitions (although China’s hostility to the Muslim population within it may lower the danger of that).
Beyond that, U.S. bases in Afghanistan provide a platform for intelligence services to better monitor Iran’s activities. This platform is gone.
Leaving Afghanistan may mark the end of much aid the United States has received from its allies in an effort to maintain the country’s stability. To the extent that America can still keep an eye on what is happening on the ground, hitting extreme threats as it develops, The United States has the ability to do that; There are no allies to build. So keeping threats from growing will now become a US occupation quite exclusively.
Any “victory” in Afghanistan will be political, not military
Well, why is America, which has been happy to leave a continuous garrison in Europe, Japan and South Korea for decades in order to maintain stability, unwilling to do so in Afghanistan? The answer says a lot about the national character and the national mood in this period.
First, in dollar terms, the budgetary cost of staying in Afghanistan is still high and federal deficits are skyrocketing. In terms of human life, there were no guarantees that the burden on American soldiers would be so low. Taliban attacks on U.S. military force have dwindled due to a fragile peace agreement signed last year that preceded the US withdrawal and set it apart; without the withdrawal, the number of attacks would probably have begun to climb. Among them.
Beyond that, Americans do not see themselves as occupiers. They prefer to see themselves as liberators – people who end up occupying – so a constant presence within even limited local resistance causes Americans who believe in the US way to sweat.
The American urge is to “win” in any competition, military or otherwise, not to continue to participate in it. A military victory in Afghanistan not only did not happen; Most analysts realized long ago that this is not possible at all. Any “victory” in Afghanistan will be political, not military.
In any case, America today has a “America first” mood.
So after learning the price of entering Afghanistan, the Americans will now learn the price of leaving it. And it will have a price.