Yesterday, President Biden announced his plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the highly symbolic date of September 11, 2021. Eliot A. Cohen takes stock of the decision, and nearly two decades of war:
This is not the end of the war; it is merely the end of its direct American phase. The war began more than four decades ago, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and its first American phase, in the 1980s, featured indirect United States intervention on behalf of the anti-Soviet mujahidin. The war will assuredly last well beyond the American exit. There will be no power-sharing, no reconciliation, no peace of the brave.
The war will grind on, with the edge going to the brutal fundamentalist warriors of the Taliban, who will torture and slaughter even as they repeal the advances made in women’s education and secularism in any form. But they will not have it all their own way. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, and the Central Asian republics have their own stakes in this war, and not all of them want to see an outright Taliban victory. So they will fund clients and proxies, as will, in all likelihood, the United States. And the people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer.
The United States will be able to pick sides in the conflict, a luxury it does not now have. For decades it has been subject to implicit and explicit Pakistani threats to choke the supply lines running to American forces in Afghanistan. Once the withdrawal eliminates Pakistan’s hold on its logistics, the United States can and should more freely support India’s efforts to protect its own interests in Afghanistan. The United States can similarly play off the Russians against the Chinese, who do not necessarily want the same things there.
But strategic freedom will come at the cost of strategic reputation. It is not possible simply to walk away from a war one has been committed to and pay no penalty, even if the penalty is less than the cost of continuing to fight.