President Joe Biden recently reached the end of his first 100 days in office, the arbitrary measure American political media has decided is the opening period of a president’s term. Discussion of these first 100 days has largely been related to Biden’s efforts in ending the COVID-19 pandemic and re-energizing the country’s economy after over a year of lockdowns. This is partially because, on most of the foreign policy issues the American media tends to care about, Biden has taken little action.
He has shown little interest in finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His policy on Iran up until now has mostly been fruitless negotiations to revive the former nuclear weapons deal. And while his ostensible end of support for the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen was initially met with some fanfare, it has largely been swept under the rug, especially after it was shown to be untrue. Seemingly the only exception to this has been Biden’s recent announcement that he plans to remove U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan after 20 years of war later this year. While I have frequently been critical of Biden in the past, I believe withdrawal from Afghanistan would be an unequivocally positive move from the president, and one he should absolutely proceed with.
However, it is important to consider that this alleged pull-out of forces may not actually happen. Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both announced troop withdrawals of their own, neither of which materialized. Additionally, as shown by his reversal on the end of U.S support for the Saudi invasion of Yemen, Biden is willing to announce the end of a U.S military operation and then take it back. Most concerningly, the Biden administration has been uncomfortably vague about the more than 18,000 private military contractors currently stationed in Afghanistan, currently outnumbering official U.S military personnel by about seven to one. A pull-out that does not include PMCs would be effectively meaningless.
Nevertheless, even the prospect of ending the war in Afghanistan has terrified many in the media and a number of Biden’s fellow politicians. These objections have primarily fallen under two categories: that withdrawal will be a boon for terrorist activity, and that it will cause an erosion of human rights — women’s rights in particular. The first category is best exemplified by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who stated shortly after Biden’s announcement that withdrawal means canceling “an insurance policy against another 9/11.” Among voices for the second position is Fawzia Koofi, an Afghan politician and peace negotiator, who claims “withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will undermine the Afghan government’s ongoing negotiations with the Taliban” and “risks sidelining Afghan women and all of the gains we have made over the years.”
However, neither of these arguments holds water when examined closer. As for the idea that U.S troop presence is preventing another terrorist attack on American soil: While withdrawal might strengthen the presence of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, this would not make it more likely for them to launch a 9/11-style attack on America again. Al-Qaeda still maintains a presence in countries such as Syria and Yemen that they could use to plan terrorist activity. Even if we were able to wipe out all of their bases of operation, attacks like 9/11 require mostly manpower and small arms, neither of which require having a large presence in any country. Keeping troops in Afghanistan does nothing to stop another large-scale terrorist attack — especially considering the Taliban, who would be the most likely to aid al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, are already gaining power and territory even with our presence.
In fact, this gain in power and territory is also why the argument that U.S. presence in Afghanistan protects women’s rights doesn’t hold up. The Taliban is certainly hostile towards women’s rights, and would most likely enact oppressive measures if they gained control again. But our presence doesn’t actually stop the Taliban from gaining that control. Once again, even with our presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban is continuing to capture territory from the U.N.-recognized government. Sure, if we waged another destructive campaign like the one that largely eradicated the Taliban in 2001, it would probably reset their progress. But, unless we plan on doing so in perpetuity — which would likely aid the Taliban by increasing anti-American sentiment, along with causing untold amounts of civilian casualties — they will simply come back again and again, leaving women’s rights forever in precarity.
This is for one simple reason: Democracy cannot be built on the back of foreign intervention. The fact that the Taliban is regaining control two decades after they were initially pushed out of power shows that the democratic institutions we built in Afghanistan are not resilient. Whatever society the Afghan people choose to build — hopefully some sort of democracy — must be one with the full consent and backing of the people, not one forced on them by a foreign power. While this process will likely be long and messy, it is the only way Afghanistan will be able to vanquish the Taliban for good.
Brandon Cowit is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.