Joe Biden has decided that 20 years is enough for America’s longest war, and has ordered the remaining troops out no matter what happens between now and September.
Biden’s withdrawal is one area of continuity with his predecessor, although unlike Donald Trump, this administration consulted the Afghans, US allies and its own agencies before announcing the decision. But both presidents were responding to a national weariness of “forever wars”.
To the surprise of no one, the Republican party that acquiesced in Trump’s order to get the troops out by May, is now launching attacks on Biden’s “reckless” decision. The political attacks will mount if, as many expected, the current peace initiative fails and the Taliban steps up their offensive.
In Afghanistan, any US president is damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Biden has plainly decided in that case, “don’t” is the better option.
In the Obama administration, Biden was a consistent voice of scepticism over the utility of military force in foreign policy, sometimes in opposition to advocates of humanitarian intervention.
He bluntly told a television interviewer on the campaign trail that he would feel “zero responsibility” if the status of Afghan women and other human rights suffered as a consequence of a US withdrawal.
“Are you telling me that we should go into China, go to war with China because what they’re doing to the Uyghurs,” he asked his CBS interviewer.
Safeguarding Afghan women and civil society has never been an official aim of the vestigial US military presence, but in the absence of a clearly defined goal, it became part of the de facto rationale.
“There are things that American officials have said over time to encourage that kind of thinking,” said Laurel Miller, who served as US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and now runs the Asia programme of the International Crisis Group.
“I’ll admit to – when I was in government – not feeling comfortable with some of those statements of enduring commitment, because I didn’t think it was believable.”
In making this decision, Biden has made clear he is setting aside Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule”: if you break it, you own it. The quote comes from 2002 when the then secretary of state cited the fictional rule (which is not the policy of that furniture store) to warn George W Bush of the implications of invading Iraq. In Afghanistan, the US has part-owned the store for two decades now, and in reality, people and their livelihoods are still getting smashed.
There are gains to be lost however. While the US has been in Afghanistan, the number of children in school has gone from well under a million (almost all boys) to more than 9 million (40% of whom are girls). Life expectancy has risen from 44 to 60.
There is no question such advances are at stake. The US intelligence community’s prediction, in its annual Threat Assessment published on Tuesday, is that peace talks were unlikely to succeed.
“The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support,” the assessment said, adding: “the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory”.
Whether that confidence is borne out depends on some unknowables, such as whether the Afghan security councils will crumble or be galvanised by the departure of their US and Nato backers, and whether the absence of a foreign foe will dampen enthusiasm among would-be Taliban recruits.
Michael Semple, a former EU envoy in Afghanistan and now a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, said he believed more progress could have been made to stabilise the country prior to departure. He said “not enough has been done to avoid the risks of Taliban takeover or civil war”.
“The US should have invested in a Plan B alongside the efforts to get a grand bargain with the Taliban,” Semple said, adding that more could have been done to build unity within the Afghan government, exploiting divisions within the Taliban and to bolster the sustainability of Afghan security services.
There are questions, too, over whether withdrawal will allow the US military to achieve its more narrowly defined objective in Afghanistan: to prevent the resurgence of al-Qaida or Isis in the country to the extent that they could pose a direct threat to the US, its interests or allies.
“Effective CT [counter terrorism] requires good intelligence, good partners, good capabilities and access,” General Joseph Votel, the former head of US Central Command told the Defense One website. “While probably not impossible – all of these will be much more challenged and difficult from over the horizon.”
US generals have told successive administrations for years that Afghanistan had “turned the corner”, but each year there were more corners. Biden has chosen to stop trying to turn them. After 20 years of US presence in Afghanistan, no one knows for sure what happens next.