In Afghanistan, Americans are taking a terrible humiliation, but the United States and our allies face greater dangers if we take the wrong lessons from this debacle.
We went into Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban but, in the process, took on nation-building. Before President Obama’s 2009 troop surge, General McCrystal stated, “the government of Afghanistan must sufficiently control its territory to support regional stability and prevent its use for international terrorism.”
That was transmogrified by our foreign policy elite and pressure from the feminist movement into establishing a western liberal democracy with full rights for women.
The objectives were quite similar in Iraq—where we are succeeding. The constitution requires an independent judiciary and rule of law, civilian control of the military, and that at least 25 percent of parliamentarians be women. Since 2004, the country has had four successful transitions of power.
Both countries are rife with sectarian conflict, but in Iraq, the American-led coalition defeated Saddam Hussein. The United States maintains a permanent troop presence though its role has been redefined to a support mission to give Prime Minister al-Kadhimi political cover.
The United States maintains far larger contingents in Germany, Japan, and South Korea as part of our forward defense against Russian, Chinese, and North Korean aggression. Given the threat of terrorism projecting from the Middle East and South Asia, basing 2500 troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan would have been hardly burdensome. Especially considering the greater cost of an over the horizon presence to deal with terrorists.
Nation-building was a tougher nut in Afghanistan. The Taliban before us and the recently fallen government never accomplished full control of the nation’s territory.
In 2001, it was a medieval, illiterate dystopia. Whereas just before Mr. Biden’s blundering withdrawal, the Afghan economy was growing. Over 9 million children were attending school, 39 percent of those were girls. Women at universities studied science, law, and medicine, and more than half the population would accept a female running a large corporation or for president.
The government in Kabul was undermined by Presidents Obama’s, Trump’s, and Biden’s intentions to leave. This encouraged corruption, which made Kabul ineffective among a population with strong tribal loyalties. That helped the Taliban to maintain legitimacy and a shadow government in the countryside.
Mr. Biden unfairly dishonored the Afghan military. It required air cover and logistical support to function, and when Mr. Biden withdrew those, its collapse was inevitable. Pakistan wanted the Taliban as a proxy against India and enabled sanctuary on its territory. The U.S. did not take decisive action to squash this.
The Taliban’s hold on power is hardly guaranteed because much of the fallen government’s budget was financed by U.S. foreign aid and contributions from international organizations. The Taliban could not raise comparable sums in exile through the opium trade, extortion, kidnapping, and bullying locals. It will only encourage regional insurgencies if it tries to find the money it needs by doubling down on those tactics—in fact, regional rebellions are already forming.
Afghanistan has untapped mineral resources, including lithium, but the Taliban must establish a non-terrorist, stable order to attract private foreign investment. For the time being, the United States has frozen access to Afghanistan’s overseas assets, and U.S. sanctions would cut off access to the U.S. dollar payment system—similar to the plight of Iran and North Korea.
China may be tempted to move in, but it has its own MeToo movement and issues with Muslim minorities. Too much engagement with the new Taliban government will precipitate internal opposition.
From Europe to Taiwan, epitaphs abound about the end of Pax Americana. Do our allies really want us to withdraw our overseas deployments and bear the expense of replacing the security those provide?
President Biden hardly consulted with our allies—who risked troops and treasure in Afghanistan. He hastily withdrew U.S. forces to serve his ill-compassed political instincts. The results place him in the Pantheon of failed American presidents—Grant and Harding.
Appearing in foreign media, I was often embarrassed by the antics of Donald Trump, but Joe Biden’s behavior is worse—he makes me ashamed.
Mr. Biden and Secretary Blinken were warned withdrawing U.S. troops invited calamity, but they went ahead anyway. Congress must now bridle the president and take the reins. He is not impeachable, and even Democrats consider Vice President Harris politically inept and a liability.
The Taliban or whatever succeeds it will need access to capital and come calling. Congress must reassert itself and not leave so much to a dim-witted Commander-in-Chief.
• Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland and a national columnist.