Political Q&A: Withdrawal from Afghanistan


US Soldiers mount a transport helicopter back home. (Damon Winter, NYT)

On September 1, 2021, after twenty years of fighting, the United States officially withdrew from Afghanistan. As U.S. forces moved out, the Taliban rapidly took control of the country, raising concerns about the morality and efficacy of the U.S.’s withdrawal. This month, two Lakeside students responded to the question “Was the U.S.’ withdrawal from Afghanistan the right decision?”


Henry Z. ’25

Yes, it was right for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, as we should have done years ago. The war started as retaliation for the events of 9/11, but even after Bin Laden was killed, the war continued on without a clear goal for what to achieve. Even though the American military is far stronger than the Taliban, they only have to avoid being completely eradicated in order to not be defeated. Since there was no way to completely wipe out the Taliban without killing even more civilians, the situation was essentially unwinnable for the U.S., similar to the Vietnam war. Furthermore, the constant military action likely radicalized more Afghani civilians to join the insurgents in retribution. The war was a magnificent drain of tax money that could have gone towards social programs and infrastructure but instead went to the heads of defense contractors and weapon manufacturers, accidentally bombing civilians, and military equipment that ended up arming the Taliban when they were left behind in the withdrawal. With two trillion dollars spent by the U.S. alone, thousands of soldiers dead, and more than a hundred thousand civilians killed during the 20-year long war, it was about time we finally left. Even then, the retreat itself was horribly mismanaged, with many Afghan interpreters and diplomats left behind.


Connor S. ’22

The U.S. has a long history of interfering in the affairs of “third-world” countries, appropriating the spoils of the land while leaving political and economic systems in shambles and propping up dictators sympathetic to American interests (for reference: intervention in Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Cuba, the Philippines, Hawai’i, Vietnam, and really every non-European country). Let’s take the example of Indonesia, where we aided in deposing founding president Sukarno a moderate leftist and an important figure in the non-aligned movement and replacing him with the reactionary, fiercely anti-communist General Suharto, who later orchestrated the extrajudicial killing of upwards of a million Communist Party members, with the help of U.S. intelligence. This example is pretty cut and dry. It is wrong (and illegal) to unilaterally depose democratic foreign governments and fund political genocide. 

Obviously, U.S. foreign policy (yes, even under the Biden Administration) relies neither on Kantian ethics (morality based on codes of right and wrong) nor a global utility calculus (morality based on outcome). If it did, then we would have stayed in Rwanda in 1994. If we want to examine whether leaving Afghanistan was the “right” decision, we can’t just use Kantianism or utilitarianism (morals have never been involved in foreign policy, so I won’t prioritize moral arguments, though there are plenty to be made). Instead, let’s use the lens of American global strategy, first identifying (what I see as) the dominant American geopolitical goal: global economic liberalization. 

For the last half-century, free markets purportedly acted as the benchmark for successful foreign policy, prompting intervention against governments employing import-substitution (propping up domestic over foreign goods and nationalizing industries), in favor of neoliberalism (limiting government, lowering tariffs and taxes, and promoting foreign investment), as with Sukarno and Suharto. So, would continued U.S. involvement have furthered this goal? Well, liberalizing the economy requires two things. First is the inflow of capital usually from the US, the UK, the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU. The takeover of the Taliban halted investment from these organizations. Second is a government with the capacity to support legitimate markets (this qualification contributes to the former, since investors need a reasonable degree of certainty that financial promises will be kept). If the U.S. stayed in Afghanistan, investments would have continued (though I think the USG should’ve established Marshall Plan-esque infrastructure investment strategies over pure market reliance). Had we formulated our strategy around long-term geopolitical pursuits instead of administrative standing, then American troops, and, crucially, American dollars would still be in Afghanistan. Therefore, even ignoring ethics, American global strategy would have dictated we stay and invest in Afghanistan’s future, and our own.