Since 2002, the United States has spent nearly $145 billion on reconstruction activities in Afghanistan. Of that sum, $88 billion (or roughly 61 percent of the entire total) was earmarked for building, arming, equipping, and training a professional Afghan national army and police force. Supported by the most capable air force in the world and backstopped by U.S. intelligence assistance and unconditional diplomatic support from the international community, the Afghan government was, until now, in reasonably decent shape against the Taliban.
For the political elite in Kabul, having the U.S. respond whenever their troops came under fire was a pretty good arrangement. But for Washington, maintaining this kind of status-quo indefinitely was a drag on resources and bureaucratic attention (not to mention costly for the thousands of U.S. troops who were ordered to ensure Kabul didn’t collapse).
Indeed, while the vast majority of the American public supported using U.S. military force in Afghanistan to retaliate against Al-Qaeda and its Taliban enablers for the 9/11 attacks, Americans were never particularly enthralled with using their military to construct an Afghan state from scratch (even the late Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t gushing to get into the state-building business). Successive U.S. administrations, however, gradually shifted the mission in this direction —and U.S. officials couldn’t have picked a tougher place to do it. When President Biden announced in April that U.S. forces would depart Afghanistan by September, the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Three months after Biden’s speech in the White House, 70 percent of Americans remained supportive of the withdrawal.
Of course, just because a decision is popular doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right. But Afghanistan was one of those rare instances in the foreign policy space where the merits of withdrawing U.S. troops — extricating from a decades-long civil war with no diplomatic resolution in sight; belatedly accepting the limitations of what the U.S. could do in Afghanistan; finally concluding that trapping oneself in a sunk-cost fallacy is totally counterproductive to a healthy grand strategy — moved in the exact same direction as public opinion.
Naturally, the withdrawal isn't without costs. As this article is being written, the U.S.-sponsored Afghan army is at its most demoralized in the institution’s history. The Taliban have captured 11 provincial capitals in the short span of a week, the most notable being the city of Ghazni about 80 miles south of Kabul, with the city of Herat in the west, and Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, on the verge of falling Thursday night, according to news reports. (Editor's note: Kandahar, Herat, and Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand, fell overnight after this article was published).
Former U.S. commanders and officials once responsible for the war effort in Afghanistan are blaming the country’s entire disintegration on President Biden’s decision to get out. David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, told Bloomberg that nobody will trust Washington after this withdrawal is complete. Ret. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who apparently believed the U.S. could just bomb the Taliban into surrender terms, blasted the withdrawal as unfair to the Afghan security forces.
What all of these former officials can’t or won’t acknowledge, however, is that Afghanistan had been in such a fragile state for so long, that there was only so much the United States could do to save it (assuming you believe saving the government in Kabul in its current form was worth the effort, which is highly debatable). While it’s true that limiting U.S. airpower and pulling out professional military advisers will inevitably handicap the Afghan government, it’s also true that it was already suffering from every ailment under the sun. One is the utter absence of honesty and self-reflection on behalf of its senior officials, like when President Ashraf Ghani put the blame of the current violence entirely on Washington’s shoulders.
Never mind that, protected by countless security guards and blast walls, the Afghan government in Kabul became more and more detached from the people it was supposed to serve. Or that its national police force was always riddled with corruption. Or that as many as 70 percent of police positions were held by “ghost officers.” Or that in many cases, brave Afghan grunts on the frontlines were often relegated to fighting the Taliban on an empty stomach, shoddy resupply lines, unkept promises of reinforcements, and perhaps no salary (which may or may not have been stolen further up the chain of command).
None of this even touches the petty and systemic corruption that engrossed civil society on a daily basis, whether it was Afghan politicians in league with narcotics dealers, or Afghan officers stealing U.S.-supplied fuel or weapons on the black market. This, in effect, was what the U.S. military was defending for so long — and regardless of how many anti-corruption initiatives that were formed, or how strong the broadsides in the ears of the senior Afghan leadership, the problems never seemed to dissipate.
Afghanistan’s current security situation is horrifying. If the past is any indication, the bloodshed will only get worse as the days and weeks roll on. More provincial capitals will be taken from the Afghan government’s grasp. The Biden administration will continue to insist a Taliban triumph in Kabul isn’t inevitable, even as more Afghan units negotiate their own surrenders.
Yet amidst this intensified civil war, the alternative to fully implementing the U.S. withdrawal — sticking around for another few months or years in the hopes the Afghan state will somehow reach the point of standing on its own two feet — simply wasn’t an option. Indeed, given the 20 years of prior experience, going down this route would have been the definition of insanity.
Daniel R. DePetris is a columnist for the National Interest, the Washington Examiner and Newsweek. He is also a fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to introducing more realism and restraint in U.S. foreign policy.
U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (C) and U.S. Army General Scott Miller, commander of NATO's Resolute Support Mission and United States Forces in Afghanistan, attend Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani's inauguration as president in March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo|FILE PHOTO: U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (C) and U.S. Army General Scott Miller, commander of NATO's Resolute Support Mission and United States Forces ? Afghanistan, attend Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani's inauguration as president, in Kabul, Afghanistan March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.