Moving Backwards: U.S. Retreat From Afghanistan Reignites Familiar Problems

On Thursday, July 8th, President Biden vehemently defended his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, offering his most extensive comments to date on the reasons for the withdrawal. In a tone the New York Times described as often blunt and defensive, Biden insisted that the United States had done more than enough to empower Afghanistan to secure its own future. Yet Afghan forces have done little to slow the Taliban, who are rapidly seizing key provinces and surrounding major cities. 

“The problem,” says John Raine, a regional security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “is the situation’s potential for morphing at a speed and into something with which the Afghan government … can’t keep up.” The president’s reassurances came just days after more than 1,000 Afghan security personnel fled across the northern border into Tajikistan. Dozens of others were captured by Taliban insurgents. 

Tajikistan is now looking to set up refugee camps to anticipate new waves of Afghan evacuees. Although Tajikistan’s president said the latest group had been granted entry, he expressed concern about “forced crossings” in the future. Last month, 8,000 families fled their homes in the northern city of Kunduz due to sporadic fighting between Taliban militants and government forces, reports AFP News. This is likely to continue, as the Taliban continues its takeover and has already begun reinstituting ultra-conservative religious laws in newly occupied districts.    

Still, Biden has remained steadfast. Last week, U.S. troops evacuated Bagram Airfield, the sprawling airbase that served as the United States’s symbolic and operational center in Afghanistan. Troops left the base by shutting off the electricity and slipping away in the night without notifying General Asadullah Kohistani, the base’s new Afghan commander. Gen. Kohistani only discovered the Americans’ departure more than two hours after they left. By that time, the airbase had already been invaded by looters. “In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did,” said Naematullah, an Afghan soldier.  

The move is not without historical precedent. In a recent interview by the New York Times, a group of Vietnamese war veterans noted the similarities between Afghanistan today and Vietnam 46 years ago. “The Americans did not help like they said they would,” recalled Uc Van Nguyen, a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese Air Force. “I think in the end we felt betrayed,” Mr. Nguyen said. Several other Vietnam veterans see parallels: a hurried withdrawal, an enemy unwilling to engage in peace negotiations, and a local military propped up by the U.S. but left with little support. “After they left we had to ration bullets,” recounted Ly Kai Binh, a gunnery sergeant in the South Vietnamese Marine Corps, who fought alongside U.S. troops. “We couldn’t afford to fight the way they taught us to.” 

In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, the brunt of the conflict is now falling on local forces. “If we compare ourselves with the Americans, it’s a big difference,” admitted Gen. Kohistani. Of the roughly 18,000 defense contractors originally in the country, only a handful remain. The rest have left with the U.S. troops, even though Afghan security forces depend almost exclusively on them. Despite the alarming similarities, Mr. Ly understands Biden’s predicament. “I am an American citizen now,” he said. “We have been at war so long. But still, we need to keep our promises. That was not done in Vietnam.” 

So far, promises are not being kept in Afghanistan either. President Biden must accelerate plans to evacuate thousands of Afghan translators who aided U.S. forces and whom he promised to protect from the Taliban. He must speed up negotiations with temporary host countries until U.S. visas can be processed. Biden also needs to secure the funding he has promised Afghanistan so that Congress cannot scale back its commitments⁠⁠ once troops have left and public attention shifts elsewhere⁠, as happened with Vietnam in 1974.  

The Biden administration must then work quickly to establish a nearby base from which to continue peace-keeping and counter-terrorism efforts. Uzbekistan is a promising candidate, but its relations with the U.S. grew chilly after it last hosted an American base. The countries’ presidents have since rekindled ties, and Washington should consider helping to relieve Uzbekistan’s sanctions and support its bid to join the World Trade Organization in exchange for a deal. Now that Biden has doubled down on his decision, some scrambling is necessary.

Caleb Loughrin