When, on Tuesday, the American secretary of defence Lloyd Austin announced that 500 more American troops would be sent to Germany, a tacit intention of his speech was to convince observers that a terrible thing had been averted in the nick of time.
It was the policy of the Trump years to withdraw many US forces from their German bases; and under Donald Trump’s successor Joe Biden, this has been reversed. Now those Americans based in Germany will stay there, joined by a few hundred others.
The Trump years were unquietly unfocused and chaotic, with foreign and military policy characterised by snap decisions and the abrupt cancelling of decades-long American commitments to their friends. Democrats claimed this was a gesture not only of Trump’s unseriousness in governing, but also an invitation for aggressive powers like Russia to menace America’s newly unprotected European allies.
Biden’s intention is to mark an end to this incoherence, with the extra soldiers as icing on the cake. Some have been taken in, and have rejoiced in what all this is intended to mean: the presidency has changed hands. US commitments will now be honoured. America is back.
Compare this to Biden’s speech on Wednesday night, in which the president announced a complete, unconditional American withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was a model of irresolution. Biden framed his desire to evacuate all American forces by September 11 as his ending of America’s ‘longest war’, and also deprecated the logic of a continued American troop presence in the country, while simultaneously suggesting that in any case, his hands were tied by an agreement made between his predecessor and the Taliban.
America has, at present, only 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, as well as a few thousand special forces whose numbers are not declared. This is a great distance from the 100,000 troops who were deployed during the surge, which came under Barack Obama and Biden.
‘We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result’, Biden said. Afghanistan cannot be made better; the time to disengage is now. Implicitly, it would have been better to have done so earlier.
Biden claimed that although America’s military presence will end decisively, broader American influence would somehow still be felt. He promised, hollowly, that the rights of women and girls would be protected by American humanitarian assistance. Biden leant rather heavily on the idea that under American tutelage, Afghanistan’s own military has grown in strength and competence, and that its soldiers would fight to defend the state in America’s absence.
The road will not be easy. Within Afghan territory exist not only a parallel state run by a still-violent Taliban but also a significant foreign province of the Islamic State, which has perpetrated a number of terrorist attacks which have shocked many in even as jaded a nation as Afghanistan. When the Taliban signed a deal with the United States under Trump, it agreed to stop fighting the Americans but not the Afghan state. That war continues, and will continue for as long as the Taliban desires.
For a glimpse of the future for Afghanistan, one need only examine what Helmand province currently resembles. Fazelminallah Qazizai reports for Newlines magazine on a Taliban emirate which is already assembled and untroubled by American influence. He writes of Sangin, a city where the Parachute Regiment was defeated by insurgents, and which fell to the Taliban in 2017.
In Sangin, the Taliban has entrenched itself in bunkers but also in daily life. To own a weapon (hardly uncommon in Afghanistan), or a telephone, or to download a messaging app, one needs a document from the emirate’s rulers. ‘No schools are open, with boys of all ages and prepubescent girls allowed to attend madrassas only,’ Qazizai writes. No American ‘humanitarian mission’ could return those girls to school.
Afghan politicians are currently scrambling to save the country from the resumption in violence which they see as inevitable, and for which the Taliban has long planned, to begin the second the Americans leave for good.
In recent weeks, Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani has made some failed overtures to the Taliban about potential cooperation. He wishes to talk not only of peace, but of free and fair elections.
All of these things have been rejected because the Taliban knows that it has time on its side and a position which has become progressively stronger over the past four years, as American troop numbers have dwindled and successive presidents have searched in vain for the door.
The Taliban has begun to govern the areas the government and its international backers have vacated almost as if the country was never invaded in 2001. While Biden may believe he is simply ending a war, revoking American involvement in Afghanistan risks a reversion to the bad old days of internal civil conflict and austere religious rule.
Biden knows his withdrawal needs only a patina of military sense to be broadly popular. All of the most terrible threats of Taliban rule remain, and will return; Americans just no longer care. An American withdrawal will not end the fighting — just America’s participation. For many in the States, that remains all there is to it.
Compare this to Germany, which does not need more American troops. Russia has alarmed many democratic countries by building up its forces on the Ukrainian border. European leaders now openly speculate whether Ukraine will once again by invaded by Russian forces or their surrogates as we enter a season more suited to a military campaign.
It is unclear what 500 more Americans are expected to do about that invasion, if it comes.
Biden wants his foreign policy to be one of American restoration, a return not only to normalcy, but to global leadership. But so far, he has done what is showy and politically easy rather than those things that are hard and necessary. And the people of Afghanistan will suffer for that failure.
This piece was originally published in The Critic.