The writer, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, led US military units in Afghanistan
We arrived after dark. My platoon was first deployed to Kuwait in the confusing weeks after the September 11 attacks, and we didn’t set foot in Afghanistan until March of the following year. That first night we slept on the cold concrete floors of a half-demolished building. When we woke up, the first thing we noticed was the immeasurable beauty of the Hindu Kush mountains.
Afghanistan, as people often forget, lived a relatively happy century before the Soviets invaded in 1979. However, that was no longer the case when we arrived in 2001. And just as Afghanistan was at war for 20 years before our arrival, it is a sure bet that it will remain at war after the withdrawal of all US forces in September. The Afghans – many of whom have fought with us, many of whom have fought against us, all of whom have suffered – will continue their war.
About 800,000 Americans fought in Afghanistan, but most of us experienced combat in the first decade. For many, the current conflict therefore still seems a long way off. When I heard the news that President Joe Biden would end America’s involvement, I worked from home in Texas, my days in a bygone uniform, playing my three young children.
However, I was moved to see our 78-year-old President walking among the Section 60 graves in Arlington National Cemetery. When I lived in Washington, I took my family there every Memorial Day to visit the grave of a friend who died in 2006 in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Now the president walked through those same places. “Check them all out,” Biden told reporters who accompanied him. “Check them all out.”
As a very decent man, Biden never forgot that young men and women fall victim to the decisions of their elders. During the second term of the Obama administration, I spent a week traveling with the then Vice President in my capacity as the Pentagon’s senior Middle East policy officer. Every morning I called my office to ask if any American lives had been lost in battle overnight. Biden always carried a map with the exact number of Americans who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I knew he might ask me for the last digit, and I didn’t want to be wrong. You knew he took each of those lost lives personally.
In the closing days of that administration, I asked a colleague who was responsible for coordinating our Afghanistan policy why we were still there. She sighed and said to me, “Because the known risks of continuing to outweigh the unknown risks of leaving.” It’s just as difficult to prove a negative point in policymaking as anywhere else: Was our little remaining presence the thing that prevented another major terrorist attack in the US?
It is fashionable to blame the persistent optimism of our military leaders for our war in Afghanistan that dragged on for as long as it did. And given the overly rosy assessments of the ‘progress’ of the war, delivered year after year by commander after commander, I understand the anger and frustration that activists, younger veterans, and others are expressing at them.
But military officers don’t start or end wars in the US; elected civic leaders do that. Biden’s two immediate predecessors – one Democrat and the other Republican – both lost faith in this war, but neither was brave enough to accept the kind of risk that came with ending it. Biden deserves some credit for that.
Yet risk analysis has changed in the 12 years since Obama announced his first force to Afghanistan – something that I and many others supported. Today, with the 2001 attacks a distant memory for most Americans, and with more than 500,000 deaths from a pandemic at home, the as-yet-unknown risks of withdrawal seem far less scary than ever. The massive expenditure on resources – some $ 45 billion a year, according to the Pentagon estimate – in a landlocked country in Central Asia seems far more extravagant.
The voices of dissent, meanwhile, are much softer than ten years ago. There is no meaningful pro-war constituency in either side – not after Trump, whose skepticism of the war has been vociferous. As with many other things Biden is doing today, from pandemic aid to infrastructure spending, his decision will be popular in Afghanistan: Based on recent polls, a majority is likely to support him.
The withdrawal is not without risks. It will be harder to keep training Afghan troops and even harder to launch special operations attacks there. But the president’s team will think those risks can be mitigated.
More difficult to mitigate are the risks to the Afghans themselves: the Taliban will feel encouraged by Biden’s announcement, and the Afghan government will defend itself by any means available, including largely arbitrary air strikes. It is estimated that 3,800 Afghan civilians died in 2018 alone.
As for us veterans, we are left with the memories of a hard-fought conflict in which we lost little but much. Most of us, I think, don’t think about war too often. But a few weeks ago, my son pulled a brown beret off the bookshelf and asked if it was mine. I said yes. And then the memories come back. But like the war, those too will fade over time.