U.S. President Joe Biden announced earlier this month that the United States would withdraw its last active-duty troops from Afghanistan by September 11, which will mark the 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. After the U.S. and British troops invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, they quickly dislodged al-Qaeda from the country and toppled the Taliban government. As the U.S. occupation continued, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump pledged to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but neither succeeded. U.S. costs for the war now top $2 trillion, and more than 110,000 Afghans, along with 2,400 U.S. troops, have died in the conflict. As America’s longest war reaches nearly 20 years, why are American soldiers still in Afghanistan?

Anatol Lieven is a fellow at the Washington-based Quincy Institute. According to Lieven, the United States has stayed in the country largely out of fear that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul will collapse once U.S. troops leave—and that U.S. credibility will be significantly damaged when it does. America and its allies in the European Union and NATO committed to building a functioning and democratic Afghan state, so it will be an admission of failure to leave now, when that state still has little authority beyond Kabul and remains deeply corrupt, says Lieven, who spent time with the Afghan mujahideen in the late 1980s during their war against the Soviet Union, and who has returned to the country many times since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.


Michael Bluhm: Why is the American military still in Afghanistan after all these years?

Anatol Lieven: What happened was that U.S. credibility, which Washington and, especially, the military are obsessed with, became involved with propping up the Kabul government.

Fourteen years ago, I was talking to an American general, and I asked him if he could define what winning in America meant. He said, Honestly, I can’t, and what’s more, I don’t think that anybody in Washington can. But, he said, we can define what defeat looks like. Defeat looks like Saigon 1975. Panic-stricken Afghan refugees on the roof of the American Embassy trying to get out of the country, all American staff fleeing.

That is why America has kept some troops there: It’s because of the fear—a very well-grounded fear—that, once all the American troops and air power have gone, the Kabul government will fall to the Taliban. That will lead to further civil war in Afghanistan, but it would also be a blow to America’s prestige.

I don’t think that withdrawal from Afghanistan will significantly damage America’s prestige, but that’s not the way a lot of people in the American military have previously seen it.

Bluhm: The original stated goals of the United States were to dislodge and incapacitate al-Qaeda, and to topple the Taliban-led government. But once that was accomplished—within two months of the invasion—then the goals started to shift to state-building. In your mind, what was the United States trying to accomplish? What were the goals?

That is why America has kept some troops there: It’s because of the fear—a very well-grounded fear—that, once all the American troops and air power have gone, the Kabul government will fall to the Taliban. That will lead to further civil war in Afghanistan, but it would also be a blow to America’s prestige.

Lieven: Given the original reason for going in was to get rid of al-Qaeda, that was accomplished in Afghanistan quickly. [Former U.S. President George W.] Bush then launched this freedom agenda—the whole business of bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East. I’m not saying it wasn’t sincere on his part; it probably was. But this was also very, very much part of justifying the future invasion of Iraq.

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