Videos of Afghans climbing walls and standing on active airport runways in the capital city of Kabul have fueled the ongoing debate about the Biden administration’s rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. There have been unconfirmed reports of several Afghans dying amid the chaos, women and children beaten in the streets by Taliban fighters, beheading of Afghan civilians and the like, but President Joe Biden and some academics have not budged in their position to defend their policies about ending “endless wars” abroad, no matter how abruptly.
Will Ruger, vice president of research and policy at the libertarian Charles Koch Institute and a veteran who served in Afghanistan, commended Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in July, saying that “Americans should be thankful at the end of the United States’ longest war.” The same statement noted that the Afghanistan operation “no longer made strategic sense” and that Biden “made the right call to fully withdraw from the war.” Ruger also mentioned that “diplomatic engagement with the Afghan government and other regional actors,” in addition to U.S.’s “over-the-horizon strike capabilities” will defend the U.S. from terrorist threats in the region.
Since then, Ruger tweeted his support for the ongoing withdrawal, without acknowledging the lackluster planning by the Biden administration. One of his tweets, which was part of a longer thread of posts, read, “The execution of the withdrawal should be debated but engaging in Monday-morning quarterbacking is a bit much. Regardless with what we have witnessed over the 48 hrs, any American withdrawal would have inevitably led to messiness and less than ideal outcomes.”
Neither of Ruger’s statements addressed the potential human rights practices that the Taliban would undertake once it retook the country.
Another academic, David Sterman at the left-wing New America think tank (formerly called the New America Foundation), agreed with the “endless wars” rhetoric and noted, “Endless war is no longer a warning of what the war on terror might become, but widely recognized as the existing character of today’s wars.” Sterman continued, “Yet administrations of both parties have continued to wage counterterrorism wars without either clarifying the objective sought or defining what an achievable end-state might be.” Sterman made the point that U.S. leaders should define counterterrorism objectives before engaging the military in a prolonged conflict in countries such as Afghanistan.
Academics such as Ruger and Sterman did not address human rights concerns in defense of the Afghanistan withdrawal and focused primarily on the foreign policy and strategic thinking about waging foreign wars. However, some examples of the unmentioned human rights concerns range from preserving hard-won gains for women obtaining Western-style educations to a woman’s right to work as a professional outside the home to a woman’s freedom to dress however she would like to dress.
Due to Biden’s sudden and chaotic withdrawal, Afghanistan’s societal progress not only stalled, but will likely reverse back to a fundamentalist Islamic society under the Taliban. The Taliban, in the past, suppressed women’s rights such as the right to vote, in addition to requiring women to wear burqas and clothes which covered their entire body, limiting women’s ability to leave the house alone (often requiring male relatives to accompany them), and other similar situations.
Biden announced this year that his administration would withdraw all U.S. military personnel by September 11, in time for the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In his most recent speech this week, Biden laid the blame on his predecessor, President Donald Trump, for placing him in a no-win situation. He claimed that Trump’s Doha agreement with the Taliban had left the group “in the strongest position militarily since 2001.” Yet he made the claim despite his administration reversing policies on the Keystone XL oil pipeline and reinstituting the Iran nuclear deal. Biden also blamed the Afghan government and military, “The truth is: This did unfold more quickly than we anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight.”
But Biden could have torn up the Doha agreement that Trump made with the Taliban, which detailed the transfer of power in Afghanistan and withdrawal of U.S. military forces, and kept a small American military force in the country to conduct counterterrorism operations.
Instead, Biden chose to follow the “endless wars” crowd and created a disastrous and chaotic situation where the U.S. government does not know how many citizens it stranded nor where these citizens are located. Some speculate that there are between 5,000 to 15,000 American citizens trapped in Taliban-held territory. Department of Defense press secretary John Kirby admitted, “I don’t know,” when asked by a reporter on how many Americans are stranded in Afghanistan.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressman and former U.S. Navy SEAL, opposed the “endless wars” rhetoric. In several interviews on cable news, Crenshaw pointed to the successes from the Afghanistan operation, such as the lack of a 9/11-scale terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the application of pressure on the Taliban to check their terrorist, anti-American activities, and the relative stability of the Afghan military and civilian government.
“You have a lot of people who have been using emotional slogans to drive foreign policy, ’Bring the troops home, no endless wars,’” Crenshaw told MSNBC, “In fact, we’ve made the world a lot more dangerous as a result.” He said, “We haven’t had a combat casualty in 18 months. There was no political need… to do this in a hasty way.”
On the congressman’s podcast, “Hold These Truths,” he asserted that U.S. generals misled the public on the operation’s progress and failed to properly communicate that it is no longer a war, but a limited-strength counterterrorism operation meant to keep the Taliban out of the U.S. If anything, the “endless wars” rhetoric exposed the lackluster communications strategy by the U.S. Department of Defense and its generals, Crenshaw added.
The Houston-area congressman also pointed out that once Biden withdrew U.S. air support from Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, the Afghan military no longer had capable air support and had no other option than to surrender. The Afghan military gave up without a fight, Crenshaw said, because they knew there was no more logistical or military support from the Americans and the Taliban threatened their families with violence if they did not peacefully surrender.
Poll-testing policy decisions have rarely worked out in U.S. history when it comes to military strategy. At the end of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford’s decision to withdraw all Americans from South Vietnam led to horrifying television broadcasts of Vietnamese men, women and children climbing U.S. embassy walls to try to get on a helicopter flight out of the country.
The “endless wars” rhetoric won out in the Biden administration and some academic circles, but the chaotic situation in Afghanistan demonstrated the cold calculations of the foreign policy establishment which ran on poll-tested slogans without accounting for human rights concerns and counterterrorism strategy.