In a regal salon on the second floor of the White House, the era of American empire opened, reached its most delusionary peak, and began to expire. It is suitably called the Treaty Room. There, on Aug. 12, 1898, negotiators signed the accord that turned Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and other formerly Spanish islands into American colonies — making the United States an overseas power for the first time. From that same room on Oct. 7, 2001, President George W. Bush announced the US attack on Afghanistan. This month, President Joe Biden faced cameras there as he promised to end the ill-fated Afghan adventure.
If Biden fulfills his promise to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by September, this announcement will prove to have been truly historic. Withdrawing from Afghanistan may end America’s suffering there, but it will not end the suffering of Afghans. Civil conflict is likely to intensify as factions vie for power. Taliban commanders will presumably seek to hang a military noose around Kabul and pull it tight. The Afghan National Army may hold them off for a while, but it is riddled by corruption and notoriously reluctant to fight. Don’t expect the country’s current rulers to carry out Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s howler of a pledge to “die with 100 bullets in my chest” rather than surrender. Most will flee to foreign havens and live comfortably off the Swiss bank accounts they have spent 20 years fattening, courtesy of American taxpayers. In their place, the Taliban will rule.
What happens next may resemble what happened in Vietnam after our longtime enemies took power there. An insurgent victory would likely be followed by score-settling, possibly including execution of some who collaborated with the United States. The government would be repressive, many foreign-funded civil society groups would be forced to close, and women’s rights would be limited. This harsh rule would also bring peace, security, and a crackdown on the heroin trade. Ultimately, as in Vietnam, a new ruling group might evolve and allow more domestic freedom. Communist-ruled Vietnam became a friend of the United States. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan could too.
Biden’s announcement suggests that regardless of the outcome, the United States will not stand in the way. “Only the Afghans,” Biden said, “have the right and responsibility to lead their country.”
Placed in the context of modern American history, that was a breathtaking statement. For generations, Americans have insisted that we know what is good for the world better than the world itself knows. President William McKinley, who ushered in the imperial era, called American intervention in distant lands “a great act for humanity.” More than a century later, President George W. Bush echoed the same view when he said, “We are trying to lead the world.” If the United States is now truly willing to allow civil war in Afghanistan to take its own course, and to accept the result without intervening, we will be admitting that American power is limited — that there are some things in the world we simply cannot accomplish.
The coming months will challenge Biden’s resolve. The first test will be whether he truly removes all American forces from Afghanistan or leaves some behind in one guise or another. He will also have to refrain from launching drone attacks or “special operations” from nearby countries. Withdrawal has to be complete: the departure of all uniformed personnel and contractors, the closure of all bases, and a refusal to intervene again even if the Taliban approach victory. Warlords and drug traffickers who have made fortunes off the American war may now try to foment violence aimed at inducing Biden to change his mind and stay. Militants from al Qaeda and ISIS, who fear the Taliban’s resurgence, have an incentive to do the same. Ending a war in defeat or failure is always difficult. Biden will need fortitude to stay the course.
Within the United States, the results of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan and ultimate Taliban takeover would be less bloody, but perhaps equally profound. If Biden does carry out a complete withdrawal, why stop with Afghanistan? Pulling out is an admission that despite what our leaders have been proclaiming for 20 years, we have no vital interest in the country. Biden should realize that the same is true for Iraq, Syria, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. If he follows his Afghan withdrawal with a decision to allow countries in the Middle East to strike their own security balance without guidance from Washington, he will be turning an imperial tide that has been flowing for more than a century. That would make his speech this month the most important ever delivered from the Treaty Room.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.