U.S. President Joe Biden is coming under heavy pressure to abandon the May 1 deadline to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan. The push to move the deadline might come from a former secretary of state, the congressionally mandated Afghan Study Group, or even NATO’s secretary-general. Opposing the pleas of these popular figures are 20 years of unbroken strategic failure. There is ample evidence to suggest that 20 more years of failure await, should the president give in to the wishes of these personalities.
In February, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright argued Biden should ignore the May 1 withdrawal date and instead adopt a series of five new steps. The Afghan Study Group likewise advocated to abandon the withdrawal date and offered its own objectives. Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the May 1 date was a “conditions-based” deal and declared the Taliban hadn’t met the conditions, and therefore NATO should continue the war.
All of these advocates ignore that every tactic and objective they advocate has been tried over the past two decades, usually multiple times, and uniformly they have failed.
When Barack Obama came into office, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Commander of U.S. Central Command David Petraeus convinced the new president that they had a better strategy than that employed by Obama’s predecessor. They advocated for a dramatic troop increase and the adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy. Obama listened. He authorized a surge of 17,000 troops to Afghanistan in February 2009, and another surge of 30,000 that December.
Obama was himself unsure the strategy would work. According to Jonathan Alter, however, Obama pressed all his senior officials before making the final decision on Nov. 29 of that year, and he pointedly asked whether they could complete the mission in the 18 months they had promised. All said yes. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months,” Obama demanded, “then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?" All agreed.
And yet as I personally observed — I was one of the surge troops from 2010-2011 — it was obvious from even a cursory observation on the ground that the mission wouldn’t be successfully completed in 18 months, or even in 18 years. Instead, Obama prosecuted eight more years of inconclusive war in Afghanistan. Donald Trump campaigned on ending endless wars and won the 2016 election. Unfortunately, as president he also came under enormous pressure by supposed experts against ending the war.
Then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis – both heavyweight former generals with combat experience – sought to sway Trump against following his instincts and ending the war. In August 2017, Trump announced that not only would he not be ordering a withdrawal, but he would reluctantly increase the number of troops.
“My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,” the president explained. The turnaround, the New York Times reported, was “a victory of sorts” for Mattis and McMaster, who had successfully pressured Trump to order the troop increase. Again the “new” strategy didn’t work, and the result was merely to add four more years to the failed war.
Now it is Biden who is coming under pressure, again by men and women that seem to have great credentials on paper, to seek yet another so-called new strategic roadmap. Again, they advocate against ending the war and withdrawing. If Biden proves to be the fourth straight president to listen to these experts and choose to cancel the withdrawal and continue the war, it is likely he too will be passing off the war to his successor – as the futile and wasteful adventure reaches 24 or 28 years.
I warned in 2010 and 2012 that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable. The fundamentals that led me to make that conclusion a decade ago have not changed. So long as Pakistan continues to secretly help the Taliban, the Afghan government remains one of the most corrupt in the world, the Taliban remains committed to fighting, and the Afghan Security Forces remain of limited capability, it won’t matter how many troops Biden orders to Afghanistan, how long they remain there, or what strategy he adopts: We will continue losing the war.
The best thing President Biden can do for America’s national security and the health and wellbeing of our troops is to end the war and withdraw our troops, on schedule, by May 1. Anything else will needlessly extend the futility into perpetuity.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1. The views expressed are the author's own.