A truly historic moment is fast approaching. Under an accord signed last year, our two-decade war in Afghanistan will finally conclude in May. Afghans will be left to shape their own future, and American blood and treasure will no longer flow in Central Asia. It is President Trump’s one and only claim to diplomatic glory: ending a war.
Oh, wait — not so fast! The prospect of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan has struck terror into many hearts in Washington. Arms makers, retired generals, and the think tanks that love them have launched a multipronged campaign aimed at President Biden. They want him to renounce last year’s agreement and keep troops in Afghanistan. Pressure on Biden is intense. This will be his first momentous foreign policy decision.
The reasons being dredged up to justify staying in Afghanistan are the same ones that were used 10 years ago and that will be used again every year until we finally cut the cord. Behind them lie impulses that are deeply lodged in our national psyche. If we end our military involvement in Afghanistan, we will depart, if not in defeat, certainly in failure. Withdrawing would be an acknowledgment that there are limits to what the United States can achieve in the world. Many in Washington, weaned on the doctrine of irresistible American power, cannot bring themselves to accept that.
Last February, after long negotiation, American and Afghan diplomats signed the delightfully named “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban, and the United States of America.” It is a straightforward deal. American troops will leave by May 2021, and in exchange, the Taliban guarantees never to allow any group “to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
Because this accord was one of President Trump’s pet projects, few Republicans dared criticize it. Now that Trump is gone, they are attacking with a vengeance. “We’re not going to leave in May,” Senator Lindsey Graham recently asserted. “We’re going to leave when conditions are right.” Translation: Never.
This month an Afghanistan Study Group, most of whose members have ties to defense contractors, warned Biden that Afghanistan will “fall into chaos” if American troops leave. That’s code for “the Taliban will take over.”
It’s a good guess. Like our erstwhile Communist enemies in Vietnam, the Taliban have proved astonishingly resilient. American forces fighting in Afghanistan have spent 20 years and used almost every tool in their military kit, from drone attacks and night raids to the 20,000-pound “mother of all bombs,” but the Taliban are stronger than ever. More than simply an anti-occupation militia, this force is deeply rooted among the Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. It will probably displace our client regime and come to power sometime after we leave — whether that’s in May or years from now. The peace accord gives us what we got in Vietnam: a way to get out without admitting defeat, plus a few months’ grace before the inevitable collapse of the Afghan government that we back. It’s the best deal we’re ever going to get.
According to our own Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Afghan government is “riddled by corruption at every level” and dominated by warlords who, while holding high positions, have “continued their abuses, maintained private militias, and had links to narcotics, smuggling, and criminal networks.” Those warlords, and others who are making fortunes from this war, have even more reason than American arms makers to fear peace. If Washington turns off the spigot that has provided more than $80 billion in 20 years, their days of looting will end. Some will have to flee to escape retribution. They have excellent motives to do whatever possible to sabotage the peace accord.
In recent weeks a horrific wave of targeted killings has taken the lives of some of Afghanistan’s bravest peacemakers. No one claims responsibility, but it hardly seems in the Taliban’s interest to be spreading chaos just as the Americans are supposed to leave. Warlords who are pillars of the Kabul regime, though, have every reason to make it appear that their country is on the brink of apocalypse. Biden should not fall into their trap.
More than 2,400 American troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001. More than 20,000 have been wounded. The ever-mounting civilian toll is at least 43,000. Americans are sick of the Afghan war, and we can achieve no strategic gain by staying.
Besides those evident truths, another factor should push Biden to comply with the peace accord. It is the ancient principle pacta sunt servanda — agreements must be kept. President Trump recklessly violated that principle when he renounced the nuclear accord with Iran. Now Biden is being pushed to do the same: renounce an accord reached by his predecessor. It is a dangerous path. If two successive American presidents cancel major international agreements with strokes of a pen, foreign countries may logically conclude that there is little reason to negotiate with the United States.
Biden may decide to renounce the Afghan peace deal in a roundabout way. He could announce that we are “postponing” our troop withdrawal, or that we will temporarily deploy “counterterrorism forces.” That would mean a return to war. Not a single American has been killed in Afghanistan since the peace accord was signed a year ago. Taliban leaders have warned that if US troops are not withdrawn as promised, they will resume attacks. American forces would presumably counterattack. Welcome, then, to a new cycle of violence that could keep us fighting for more pointless years.
The alternative — honoring last year’s peace accord — would be a near-revolutionary step for the United States. The world knows how good we are at starting wars. Biden now has a chance to end one.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.