Debate: Should the West pull out of Afghanistan?

Adam Bartha and Giulia Honegger

August 11, 2021

Adam Bartha, Director of EPICENTER, argues YES

Afghanistan is a textbook example of the sunk cost fallacy – where throwing additional financial and human resources at the problem will not improve the outcome. The fallout from two decades of Western military engagement is truly dire: 200,000 dead, including 50,000 civilians, a weak and unstable Afghani government, and radical islamist ideas as popular as ever before.

Trying to implement the western concept of nation states with liberal democratic principles onto a region with vastly different historical governance structures, primarily dominated by tribal and religious conflicts was always an ambitious endeavour. After 20 years of trying – and failing – there is no sound reason to believe the next 20 years of battle would achieve anything different. The West should cut its losses and admit defeat; prolonging would only create more misery both for the local population and Western countries that bear the human and financial burden of war.

After the departure of Western allies, most of Afghanistan is likely to be recaptured by Taliban forces within a year. The return of Taliban rule would certainly lead to the deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. Whilst Western nations should always exercise diplomatic and financial pressure on countries abusing human rights, there are already countless radical governments in the region that Westerners cooperate with. The Saudi regime is one of the most important military allies of the US in the region, importing over $10 billion of military gear annually. Telling the Saudis and the Taliban apart when it comes to human right abuses is difficult, after all, it’s no coincidence that the former financed the rise of the latter in the early 90s.

Nevertheless, Western countries bear moral responsibility for their allies in the region. Refugees fleeing Taliban brutality should be welcomed by Western nations. The US administration’s call to continue providing close air support, and supplying Afghan forces with food and equipment to help them fight the Taliban are also commendable.

But Joe Biden is right; the US should not regret its decision to pull out its forces from Afghanistan – but it ought to remorse its decision to invade the country in the first place.

Giulia Honegger, EPICENTER policy intern, argues NO

The West’s decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan is very alarming in the context of the Taliban having now seized at least 50 per cent of Afghan territory

The number of Afghan refugees to Europe has already increased by 85 per cent from 2018 to 2019 and will continue to increase with complete military withdrawal, which risks having the same disrupting effects on the EU as the 2015 refugee crisis. Furthermore, the rise of the Taliban will encourage the rise of other extremist groups in neighbouring countries, contradictory to the West’s interest in promoting democracy and women’s rights.  

The US and EU have announced that they intend to stay in Afghanistan to try and stabilise the situation, through aid programmes, for example. However, such soft power proposals seem unlikely to have an impact on Taliban intentions. The attempt at peace negotiations have repeatedly failed, demonstrating that negotiating with the Taliban is impossible. Without a military presence to exert pressure, influencing the situation in Afghanistan seems like a lost cause.  

Whilst the negative aspects of interventions have to be acknowledged, such as civilians dying, or the possibility of leaving a power vacuum, it has to be weighed against alternative scenarios. Retreating and effectively allowing the Taliban to extend its control does not seem like a favourable alternative. Reforms to interventions, such as maintaining stabilisation forces after regime change to avoid power contests, such as in Libya, are urgently needed.  

But the main question remains; if the West leaves Afghanistan now, doesn’t this render the past 20 years of struggle redundant, implying that the 241.000 lives that were lost were essentially wasted? 


Written by Adam Bartha and Giulia Honegger

Adam Bartha is Director of EPICENTER and Giulia Honegger is an EPICENTER Intern.


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