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Leaving Afghanistan: Lessons Not Learned From Iraq

18 May 2021 - 16:07

The media were abuzz with the announcement of US president Joe Biden on 15 April that American troops will leave Afghanistan before 11 September 2021. This date, twenty years after the 9/11 attacks, gives the withdrawal a sense of symbolic closure for Americans, as America’s ‘forever war’ comes to an end.1  It is also, however, a tactical disaster.

Much can and has been said about the war in Afghanistan, and undoubtedly much more will be written in the future. In this piece, however, I will focus on the withdrawal date itself. Rather than opting for a conditioned retreat, Biden tied himself to this symbolic deadline. Staying beyond this date under any circumstances would be political suicide for Biden, and he is sure to be aware of it.

With the US’ departure set in stone for this summer, Washington has already effectively removed itself from the Afghan political arena. Any negotiations the Taliban might have taken part in with the US-backed government in Kabul have lost their purpose. All the Taliban need to do now is wait and play their hand in post-US Afghanistan, where the Kabul government will be in a much weaker position.2

As was to be expected, the Taliban withdrew from a peace conference, that was to be held in Istanbul on 24 April, after Biden’s announcement. This conference had already been postponed from 15 April, when the Taliban also dragged their feet, presumably in anticipation of Biden’s decision on leaving Afghanistan.3

When it comes to the tactical consequences of locking onto a withdrawal date without any conditions, Washington could have learned from Iraq

Comparisons between the war in Vietnam and that in Afghanistan are plenty, and often accurate. As in Vietnam, the US is leaving a weak regime it unsuccessfully propped up in the face of an ideological enemy. However, there is a comparison that is closer to Afghanistan and to Biden. When it comes to the tactical consequences of locking onto a withdrawal date without any conditions, Washington could have learned from Iraq.

In 2011, the US withdrew its remaining troops from Iraq. Departing from Iraq had been a key promise of President Barack Obama, who at that time was campaigning for re-election. His hands were tied politically, just as Biden’s are now, as a result of having made a public promise to the Americans.

The effects of the US’ impending departure were predictable. Iraqi prime-minister Nouri al-Maliki – who the US had mistakenly seen as a unifying force for Iraq – stopped seeing the US and its interests as a key constraint on his power.

Al-Maliki showed increasingly authoritarian traits and ramped up a vindictive sectarian policy, in which Sunnis were excluded from political power, neglected in their needs, and even persecuted on trumped-up charges.4  These policies are some of the key reasons for the Islamic State’s rise in Iraq in 2014, when they were hailed as liberators in some Sunni areas.5

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, Donald Trump’s administration broke a major taboo in 2020 by negotiating about withdrawal with the Taliban in Doha – because normally, the Kabul government is the US’ negotiating partner. Washington then agreed to leave by 1 May 2021, but on the conditions that the Taliban commit to combating terrorist activities, and that negotiations with the Kabul government are successful.

Imprudent as it was to blindside the Kabul government like this, the tactic reaped some successes as the Taliban appeared to stick to their commitments. Despite mutual trust issues, Kabul and the Taliban engaged in prisoner swaps and negotiations.6

There is bitter irony in the fact that the War on Terror’s two major battlefronts should end this way

Much work remains to be done, but these talks could have led to a foundational framework that – with oversight by the UN, the US and regional powers – might finally have formed the basis for a stable post-US Afghanistan. This would not necessarily have cost a major surge in the presence of military troops.

Biden’s symbolic decision for the domestic audience, however, has made this outcome a mirage. Like al-Maliki in Iraq knew, the Taliban in Afghanistan know America’s pressure will soon be gone. There is bitter irony in the fact that the War on Terror’s two major battlefronts should end this way: as another example of how not to achieve strategic successes.

Iraq and Afghanistan were invaded by the poorly prepared administration of George W. Bush. It had ill-defined, broad mission statements, and little attention to local knowledge. The American war efforts continued with lacking creativity, as military options received prevalence over other means of conflict resolution. Now they end with a tactical error. Biden chose a rushed military exit for his domestic audience and squandered chances of diplomatic victories in the process.

There is little doubt that leaving Afghanistan would always have involved difficult trade-offs and potential destabilisation. I am not arguing that the US (and NATO) should have stayed forever. Nor do I argue that the vindictive policies of al-Maliki government in Iraq are entirely to blame on the manner of Obama’s exit. However, Biden, who was a key actor in the withdrawal from Iraq as vice-president, should have learned from the tactical failures that time-driven – rather than results-driven – withdrawal deadlines entail.

Deze column was de winnende bijdrage in onze studentencolumnwedstrijd, en is geschreven door Koen van Wijk. Koen heeft recentelijk de Research MA in Middle Eastern Studies afgerond aan de Universiteit Leiden. Daarvoor heeft hij de MA International Relations afgerond, eveneens in Leiden. Op dit moment loopt hij stage bij het Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. Zijn voornaamste onderzoeksinteresses zijn gewapende groepen in het Midden-Oosten, Iraans-Saudische rivaliteit in de regio, en moderne Midden-Oosterse politiek in het algemeen.


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