Capstones: Stepping Back

January 2022

Four months after the pullout of a U.S.-led stabilization force from Afghanistan, the consequences of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and America’s withdrawal from the world are coming into focus.


Among the consequences specific to Afghanistan: reprisal killings on a mass scale, famine, the reassertion of sharia-law brutality, the death of representative government, the collapse of economic activity, the rollback of women’s rights and basic human rights. For those of us who subscribe to the notion that America is called to do more than simply promote and defend its own interests, these consequences were predictable and preventable, and they will be felt well beyond Afghanistan for many years.

The realists, calloused and calculating, are unmoved by that worldview. But to their credit, the realists are consistent and committed to focusing on direct threats to the national interest. Yet here, too, the consequences of pulling out of Afghanistan are now evident.

First, there’s the resurgence of jihadist groups. President Joe Biden said, “We succeeded in what we set out to do in Afghanistan.” That’s simply not true: The core mission in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks was to ensure that Afghanistan would not become again a safe haven for al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. In pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan—forces which provided key enabling capabilities to the Afghan National Army—the Trump and Biden administrations ceded the country to a jihadist group known as the Taliban. Decisionmakers in both administrations somehow forgot that from its earliest days in power, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan made common cause with jihadist-terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Indeed, it was the Taliban that allowed al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a training ground and launching pad for 9/11.

The Taliban hasn’t been reformed in the intervening decades. According to the Pentagon, the Taliban maintains close ties to al-Qaeda, which has a presence in 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Predictably, al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has grown since the pullout of U.S. and NATO forces. The United Nations reports that the Taliban “continue to be the primary partner” for virtually every terrorist group operating in Afghanistan. And thanks to the collapse of the Afghan National Army, the Taliban regime is in possession of huge stores of military hardware: machine guns, grenade launchers, ammunition, Humvees, armored vehicles, biometric equipment, Black Hawk helicopters. Simply put, the Taliban and its al-Qaeda partners field the best equipped jihadist army in the world—and in history.

Moreover, there are some 2,000 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. Experts warn that number could grow to 10,000 as the group recruits dispossessed Afghan men to its ranks. A resurgent ISIS has already carried out attacks against the United States (e.g., the bombing outside Kabul’s airport in August, which claimed 13 U.S. personnel). ISIS and the Taliban may view each other as enemies, but that attack was planned and conducted in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. 

Second, even the realists must now concede that, although the intent of the withdrawal from Afghanistan was to strengthen America’s ability to defend core interests in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, the withdrawal has had the effect of weakening the U.S. deterrent in those regions. The withdrawal sent a terrible signal to China and Russia, which are employing salami-slice tactics to extend their reach into Taiwan and the South China Sea in the case of China and into Ukraine and the Black Sea in the case of Russia. It’s no coincidence that Vladimir Putin issued his gun-to-the-head diktat to the U.S and NATO soon after their chaotic pullout from Afghanistan.

Even as the withdrawal emboldened Moscow and Beijing, the withdrawal undercut NATO’s cohesiveness and the value of NATO’s commitment. In addition, the withdrawal badly demoralized democracies such as Ukraine, Taiwan and Georgia (more on that below).

Step One

Add it all up, and the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan is many things—all of them bad: destabilizing, counterproductive, shameful, embarrassing, saddening, humiliating. But one adjective that should never be used to describe the U.S. retreat from Afghanistan—and what it represents—is “surprising.” What happened in Kabul in August of 2021—and all that has transpired since—is the natural next step on the inward-turning path Americans began walking in 2009.

Much was made—and rightly so—of President Donald Trump’s often-boorish treatment of allies and shoulder-shrugging response to America’s central role in maintaining some semblance of international order. But for those with eyes to see, all of those isolationist indicators were on display during his predecessor’s presidency.

Yet many forget that in 2009, President Barack Obama unilaterally pulled the plug on missile-defense plans for Eastern Europe—plans endorsed by the entire NATO alliance. Poland’s Defense Ministry called Obama’s reversal “catastrophic.” The Czechs angrily rejected Obama’s watered-down Plan B as “a consolation prize.”

That same year, the Obama administration offloaded Guantanamo detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda—without consulting Britain. “This is not the kind of behavior one expects from an ally,” a British official declared.

In 2011, the Obama administration employed the peculiar phrase “leading from behind” to justify its stand-off approach to NATO operations in Libya. What the White House learned after floating that unfortunate phrase was that no one likes a backseat driver. America’s NATO allies rightly expected leadership from Washington during the Libya crisis. What they got was the Obama administration’s insistence that America would play only a “supporting role”—and a stunning declaration during the operation that access to U.S. air power “expires on Monday.” What a bruising metaphor for American leadership during the Obama presidency.

By mid-2011, as he began to focus on reelection, Obama told the American people it was “time to focus on nation-building here at home”—a soothing reassurance to Americans that the War on Terror was coming to an end, that their desire to turn inward was justified.

That same year, in hopes of reining in the deficit, the Obama administration proposed $1 trillion in cuts—divided between defense and certain domestic programs—in the event that a special congressional committee proved unable to agree on deficit reduction. The committee’s members couldn’t agree on how to reduce spending, and the automatic cuts known as sequestration came down like a guillotine on America’s military. Sequestration would lop off $500 billion in planned defense spending. Importantly, even before sequestration, the Pentagon had already been ordered to cut $487 billion from its spending plans, which means the Pentagon would lose nearly $1 trillion in expected resources by the time sequestration had run its course.

The consequences were devastating. But don’t take my word for it. “No enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration,” Gen. James Mattis concluded. The Air Force stood down 31 squadrons. In 2011, the Army’s active-duty end strength was 566,000; after sequestration, it was 476,000—down from 480,000 before 9/11. Sequestration grounded half of the Marines’ fixed-wing fighters. The situation was so dire that Marine aviation units were reduced to salvaging aircraft parts from museums. Sequestration left 53 percent of Navy aircraft unable to fly—twice the historic average, as Defense News would report—and left America with just 277 active deployable ships. By way of context, then-CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert reported in 2014: “For us to meet what combatant commanders request, we need a Navy of 450 ships.”

The inevitable, predictable consequence of this bipartisan gamble was to shrink America’s reach and role in the world. As Robert Gates warned in one of his last addresses as secretary of Defense, “If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military, people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country…The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people—accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades—want their country to play in the world.”

Gates recognized that a war-weary and increasingly world-weary America was drifting toward retreat and retrenchment. The consequences were on full display in Kabul, as the most powerful country on earth sent an underequipped and undermanned taskforce to mount a frantic humanitarian evacuation—after seeking the grudging permission of an enemy that military had toppled years earlier. What America’s military lacked in resources it made up for in heroism and skill. Even so, the warning Gates delivered a decade ago had been brought to life.

As 2011 came to a close, Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq—disregarding the recommendations of Gen. Lloyd Austin (then-commander of U.S. forces in Iraq); Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen; Gen. Martin Dempsey (Mullen’s successor); and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Predictably, al Qaeda in Iraq reconstituted and rebranded itself into something worse (ISIS); Baghdad was nearly overrun; Yazidis, Shiites and Christians were massacred; ISIS declared a jihadist state in the heart of the Middle East; and U.S. troops were rushed back into Iraq.

In 2013, after the French military requested U.S. air support in its fight against jihadists in Mali, the Obama administration sent Paris an invoice for reimbursement. That same year, the Obama administration withdrew all of America’s heavy armor from Europe—the first time since 1944 Europe was left unprotected by American tanks. Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2014. When Ukraine asked Washington for weapons to defend itself, Obama sent nonlethal aid. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s response spoke volumes: “One cannot win the war with blankets.”

Step Two

Although Trump ended sequestration’s maiming of the military, he continued and indeed accelerated the disengagement that began under Obama. In a surprising echo of his predecessor, Trump used virtually the same language to explain the pullback: “We have to build our own nation…We have to focus on ourselves.” He embraced the historically-fraught “America First” label, and he oddly described “trying to topple various people”—we can infer he was talking about Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qadhafi—as “a tremendous disservice…to humanity.”

Trump called NATO “obsolete” and suggested he would come to the defense of NATO members under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty—only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Worse, he deleted language from his 2017 NATO speech reaffirming Washington’s commitment to NATO’s all-for-one defense clause. Doubly worse, he privately and publicly raised the possibility of pulling the U.S. out of NATO.

Speaking of pullouts, Trump’s 2019 decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and greenlight Turkey’s offensive against Syria’s Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a decision, as with Obama in Iraq, made over the objections of his military advisors—sent a terrible signal to our partners and undermined our own efforts. “What was working in Syria was that for very little investment, the Kurds were doing all the fighting, the vast majority of the dying, and we were providing intelligence and fire support assistance. And we were winning,” explained Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff.

Trump’s Defense secretary (Mattis) and envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition (Brett McGurk) resigned over the Syria pullout. Undeterred, Trump defended his decision by noting that the Kurds “didn’t help us with Normandy” and by pointing out that Syria is “7,000 miles away.” Never mind that the oceans cannot protect us from faraway threats (as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 should have taught us), but what kind of message did that send to South Korea (5,820 miles away and didn’t help us at Normandy), Lithuania (4,450 miles away and didn’t help us at Normandy), Taiwan (6,698 miles away and didn’t help us at Normandy)?  

In 2019, Trump ordered his negotiators to cut a deal with the Taliban and rapidly cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. The deal was signed in February 2020. “The internationally recognized Afghan government, led by Ashraf Ghani, was not included in the negotiations,” as longtime CIA official Bruce Riedel reported at the time. “By accepting the Taliban demand to exclude the Afghan government, the Trump administration betrayed our ally.” Trump ordered all U.S. personnel out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.

Finally, in 2020, Trump ordered the withdrawal of 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany. With Russia on the march and menacing NATO’s easternmost members, that was both senseless and reckless.

Next Steps

The chaos of Kabul was not just the natural next step for a world-weary America; it was a microcosm of what the world will look like if America keeps focusing on nation-building at home, keeps mistreating its allies, keeps underfunding its military, keeps walking down this isolationist path.

Early on, Biden’s rhetoric promised a rejection of isolationism and a return to engagement. Indeed, before the collapse of Kabul, Biden was fond of saying, “America is back”— back as the linchpin of NATO, back at the center of the world stage, back as a dependable ally and partner.

In his inaugural address, Biden assured the world, “We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security.” He reminded the American people that “For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations, and advance collective security and prosperity.” If America fails to play that role, he warned, “Either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue.”

Those are powerful words. But actions always speak louder than words. And Biden’s actions in Afghanistan spoke volumes.

As with Obama in Iraq, as with Trump in Syria and Afghanistan, Biden ignored the military’s advice and instead forged ahead with an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Regardless of one’s view of America’s Afghanistan project, the badly botched pullout serves as a grim reminder that means are as important ends. American troops, American credibility, American allies and uncounted Afghan innocents paid the price. The Biden-Trump pullout made a mockery of what was once known as Operation Enduring Freedom and then Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and then Operation Resolute Support: America’s support proved less than resolute. Without it, Afghanistan’s hard-fought freedom would not and could not endure. And freedom’s sentinel has been dimmed by the Kabul debacle.

We can talk about the swift collapse of the Afghan military, but as Gen. H.R. McMaster explained and warned before the Taliban swept back into power, “The Afghan military was designed to have a very strong plug-in of U.S. firepower…Without that, they’re in trouble.”

NATO allies were not consulted so much as they were notified that Biden was moving forward with Trump’s withdrawal plans. It pays to recall that NATO invoked its all-for-one collective defense clause—and went into Afghanistan—because America was attacked on 9/11. More than 1,140 allied troops were killed. And as Afghan operations came to a close in August 2021—20 years after al-Qaeda’s attacks on America’s largest city and America’s military headquarters—74 percent of the foreign troops deployed in the country that spawned 9/11 were not American.

This explains why some worry that the U.S. withdrawal—thoughtlessly negotiated by Trump and thoughtlessly executed by Biden—has done serious damage to NATO’s unity and credibility. “It is the biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding,” concludes a key German official. In an observation that probably angers Trump and Biden supporters alike, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada recently directed his cabinet “to address rising fears about President Joe Biden’s America-first policies.”

The fact that Biden rejected pleas from America’s closest allies, led by Britain, to extend the humanitarian airlift beyond the arbitrary self-imposed deadline of August 31 serves only to exacerbate the self-inflicted wound. One MP concluded, grimly, “Biden’s America seems to have chosen to back off just when it was obvious only they could step up.”

Rather than showing the world that “America is back,” Biden’s actions suggest that America is continuing to drift backwards—backwards to the post-Vietnam malaise years, or worse, the isolationist interwar years. His promise to “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy” and “push back authoritarianism’s advance” rings hollow after Kabul. After all, Afghanistan was a constitutional democracy, yet it was left to fend for itself, as Biden ordered democracy’s greatest defender to pull out in the dead of night.

What message does that send to democratic Taiwan, democratic Ukraine, democratic Georgia, democratic Israel, democratic Iraq? Their authoritarian foes in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran have a ready answer: “If America will quit on Afghanistan’s democracy, it will quit on you.”

Indeed, China’s state-run media mouthpiece declares that Washington’s “desperate withdrawal plan shows the unreliability of U.S. commitments.” Iran’s president cheers the “military defeat” of America. His proxies in Hezbollah, with their 130,000 rockets and missiles, exult: “Let all the allies of America watch the fate of all those who put their faith in it.” Putin’s December demands of NATO and Ukraine are surely a function of America’s retreat from Afghanistan and the consequent disarray inside NATO.

Stepping Back

Make no mistake: the Obama-Trump-Biden era of retrenchment reflects the national mood. A world-weary America wanted to disengage from the world, and three successive presidents have obliged.

In 2013, Pew polling revealed that 52 percent of Americans wanted the United States to “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964. In 2003, 66 percent of Americans supported plans to expand the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. By mid-2021, 69 percent of Americans supported pulling out of Afghanistan completely. We are left to conclude that just as Pearl Harbor shattered the pre-World War II consensus supporting U.S. isolation, the “wars of 9/11” shattered the post-World War II consensus supporting U.S. engagement.

Without question, engagement carries costs. The Cold War, for instance, cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. The War on Terror has claimed 6,900 American personnel and devoured $2 trillion. Understandably burdened by those costs, the men who’ve lived in the White House since 2009 lament America’s “endless,” “forever,” “open-ended” military operations in Southwest Asia. But they seem to forget that U.S. combat forces have been deployed in Germany since 1944, Japan since 1945, South Korea since 1950, Kuwait since 1991, Kosovo since 1999. The common denominator of this diverse group is that each is peaceful and stable.

U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan in October 2001 and withdrew in August 2021. Their presence and sacrifice did not make Afghanistan as peaceful or stable as those other countries, but Afghanistan was undeniably more peaceful and more stable when American troops were there than it was before they arrived—or since they departed.

Indeed, we overlook the costs of disengagement: Nanking, Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz in the 1930s and 1940s; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan in the early 1990s, which gave rise to the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al-Qaeda, which maimed Manhattan; Iraq in 2011, which served as feedstock for ISIS. Doubtless, post-democratic Afghanistan, as it spawns new threats and new terrors, will soon be re-added to this list. Indeed, Undersecretary of Defense Colin Kahl warns that al-Qaeda and ISIS could be able this year to launch attacks against Western targets from Afghanistan.

The underlying premise of the American public’s standoff approach to the world seems to be that U.S. engagement causes more problems than it solves. In fact, U.S. engagement is part of the solution to the problem of the world’s brokenness. Deterring aggression where possible, punishing and reversing aggression when necessary, and keeping the enemies of order (jihadists, cyber-soldiers, terrorists) and freedom (communists, fascists, business-suit authoritarians) at bay—all of these tasks are in the national interest and serve the broader interests of mankind. If America fails to play that role, to quote again from Biden’s words of warning, “Either someone else will take the United States’ place” (see China and Russia) “or no one will, and chaos will ensue” (see Afghanistan).

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay was published in Providence.

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