The best case against withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan

This is a two-part series examining the arguments for and against withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan by May. Read the case for the withdrawal here.

President Joe Biden has a big, looming decision to make by May 1: whether or not to withdraw all 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan and end America’s 20-year war in the country.

Biden very broadly has two paths to choose from. He can abide by former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require all American service members to leave Afghanistan by that deadline. Or Biden can extend the US military mission, either unilaterally or by negotiating an extension with the Taliban, as a way to pressure the Taliban to strike a peace deal with the Afghan government.

Both options are fraught with risk. Experts warn that ending America’s presence will almost certainly lead the Taliban to take over the country, including the capital city of Kabul. Staying, though, will invite the insurgent group to restart killing American personnel in the country, adding to the over 2,300 US personnel who have already been killed since the war began in 2001.

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There’s simply no overarching consensus on which is the best course of action, underscoring just how difficult Biden’s decision — expected in a few weeks — will be.

But Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow and director of the Indo-Pacific security program at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, DC, is firmly on the side of continuing America’s military footing in Afghanistan.

“There are some costs associated with keeping US troops, but the risks of going completely to zero far outweigh the costs of keeping a small number of troops in,” Curtis, who also served as the top Afghanistan official on former President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, told me.

Not only will keeping troops in Afghanistan help defeat terrorists operating there, she said, it also will enable Washington to use “leverage with the Taliban to greater effect to get a real, genuine peace process in place.”

I called Curtis and asked her to lay out the best case for why Biden should keep US troops in Afghanistan past the May 1 deadline. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Alex Ward

What’s your main case for wanting US troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline?

Lisa Curtis

There are three options for a way forward.

The first option would be what you presented as pulling out all US troops. That would risk a civil war, the reemergence of a terrorist safe haven, and a tremendous loss of US credibility built with our allies. It would also empower a generation of extremists. And frankly, we may have to send troops back in: Look what happened in Iraq after US troops withdrew and ISIS took over. We sent forces back in.

One other option would be to completely drop the peace process and just keep a minimal number of troops in the country. We could provide financial assistance, air support, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities for the Afghan forces.

This would risk that the Taliban would resume attacks against US forces, which might be an unacceptable risk for many. But it would provide the Afghan government a fighting chance and mean that the US is not completely abandoning our partners of the last 20 years. Of course, it would also mean continued cost to the US taxpayer.

The last option — and this is the option that I would support — would be using US leverage with the Taliban to greater effect to get a real, genuine peace process in place, which would mean keeping US forces in the country until that peace process is further along and shows more signs of progress.

This would mean more costs and resources for something that admittedly may not work, but it would allow the peace process to continue, preserve US credibility, and reduce risks to Americans from terrorism.

I think that the question really is this: Is the US willing to spend $5 billion annually, which means a small US force presence of about 2,500? Is that worth it, as an insurance policy to prevent another 9/11-style attack? I think if you ask most Americans, they would agree that that is worth it.

Alex Ward

You say that withdrawing US troops will lead to civil war in Afghanistan, but one already exists, and there will be one regardless of how many Americans fight in Afghanistan. There’s no question it will get worse without US forces in the country, but there’s little America can do now with 2,500 troops there anyway. Simply put, we can’t stave off a broader civil war forever.

Lisa Curtis

But if the US left, that war would be much worse, and you’d probably see the Afghan government collapse pretty quickly. Even though we do have war now, it’s not an all-out civil war with no state: We have a state, we have an Afghan security force.

This is important: Afghanistan’s forces, which are backed by an Afghan state, continue to help us in fighting terrorism. Senior al-Qaeda leaders were taken off the battlefield in the last 18 months with the help of Afghan security forces. By contrast, we’re never going to be able to rely on the Taliban to protect our counterterrorism interests.

There may never be a full solution to the fighting in Afghanistan, but we have to remember we’re still protecting ourselves against terrorist threats.

Alex Ward

Why doesn’t the US completely remove itself from the civil war then — tell Kabul and the Taliban to duke it out — and then just lead a counterterrorism operation? President Biden suggested such a plan during the campaign.

Lisa Curtis

That’s pretty much what we have now. Most American forces remaining there are involved in a train, advise, and assist mission. We also provide air support, but we’re not out there fighting on the ground with the Afghan forces.

There’s a misunderstanding of our role: Our combat role ended back in 2014. Since then we’ve really been focusing on the counterterrorism mission, which does involve backstopping the Afghans by assisting and advising. But it’s not as if we’re going at it hand in hand with the Taliban.

But remember also that if the Taliban came back to power, you’ll see terrorists from all over the world — not just al Qaeda — you’ll see a convergence of extremists and terrorists back in Afghanistan. It’s likely to be a worse terrorist safe haven than it was before 9/11.

Alex Ward

Isn’t the Taliban going to take over anyway, even if we kept 2,500 troops in the country? Why put their lives at risk? Surely there are other ways for the US to keep tabs on terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

Lisa Curtis

The troops that we have there now are partnering with the Afghans, but also are enabling 8,500 or so NATO troops. If we left, the NATO troops would likely follow. What we’re doing is we’re an enabling force for other countries to also be there to ensure that the Afghan state remains intact and the Afghan forces can continue to fight. That is a good reason to keep a small number of troops in the country.

Let’s not forget that the US provides moral support, too. Having the US there is a source of reassurance for the Afghans. The minute the US says “we’re going to zero troops,” you’re going to see a lot of Afghans flee the country, you’re probably going to see a refugee crisis, which the Europeans are really worried about. There are a lot of impacts that happen when the US takes that ultimate step of going to zero.

That’s why I come back to this: There are some costs associated with keeping US troops in the country, but the risks of going completely to zero far outweigh the costs of keeping a small number of troops in.

Alex Ward

One of those costs, as you’ve mentioned, is the possibility of another 9/11-style attack. But it’s 2021, not 2001, and the US and its partners have far more robust ways to stop that attack. We’ve made terrorism a larger intelligence priority than in the past, for example. Isn’t the risk of such a catastrophe exceedingly small, even if the US fully withdrew from Afghanistan?

Lisa Curtis

You make a very good point. We are obviously much more equipped to prevent that 9/11-style attack from happening on US soil, no doubt. The argument that I’m making is that if we withdraw to zero, the Taliban comes back, and terrorist groups and extremists pour back into Afghanistan.

That gives the Taliban a dangerous narrative to propagate, which is they were able to kick out the US and its NATO partners. “We succeeded,” they could say. That is the real danger, that we lose to terrorists and extremists and we provide an opportunity for them to regather strength.

And yes, you’re right, we do have the ability to stop terrorism much more than we did 20 years ago at our border. But it’s still a high cost for us to pay when we could continue to support partners that we’ve been supporting for 20 years. There’s no indication the Taliban feels pressure to break with al-Qaeda. Even the UN has said the Taliban has not changed its relationship with al-Qaeda.

Alex Ward

I get that giving the Taliban the ability to say “America lost” stings and is unpalatable. But haven’t we already lost? Is spending billions to somewhat deny the Taliban that narrative a wise investment?

Lisa Curtis

Let’s look at Iraq. When the US withdrew troops, ISIS rose and took over Mosul in 2014. We had to put troops back into Iraq and in even greater numbers, and we had to redouble our efforts to stem the rise of ISIS.

We should learn from past mistakes that it’s not always a win-lose situation. We’re trying to manage threats, and we can manage the threat from Afghanistan by empowering and working with our Afghan partners who also don’t want the Taliban to take over their country.

We’ve been there a long time, but at the same time, we have built up Afghan forces and Afghans have seen real improvements in their lives. It’s not as if there was nothing gained — there have been tremendous gains in Afghanistan. That just means that we may not be able to withdraw troops as soon as we’d like.

And let’s face it, we’re down to 2,500 troops. We had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at one point. We really have right-sized our engagement there. We’re not looking for quick, easy solutions. We’re trying to manage threats and being able to manage the threat at roughly $5 billion a year, that seems like a good investment from a national security perspective.

Alex Ward

Perhaps the fundamental question here is why should the US care so much about Afghanistan anyway? We have bigger issues to worry about, like China and Russia and climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

I feel for the people of Afghanistan whose lives will get worse if the US withdraws by May 1, but America also has limited resources and limited power. We can’t do everything and be everything for everyone.

Lisa Curtis

You’re right, we have many threats that we’re facing across the world. Strategic competition with China is where we should be putting the majority of our military and financial resources right now.

But we also have thousands of troops fighting off terrorists around the world. Is terrorism the number one threat? Maybe not. Does it deserve some of our resources and attention? I think it does. We’re a global power. We’re going to have our resources, our troops, in different parts of the world at any given time. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Maybe it’s time to draw down the resources that we’re investing in Afghanistan, but let’s right-size it, let’s not throw out the whole objective that we went there for in the first place. Let’s draw down responsibly, and let’s give the peace process time.

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