March 18, 2021
Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as special assistant to the President for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017 and is the author of “Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.” Douglas Lute, a retired lieutenant general, was the coordinator for Afghanistan at the National Security Council from 2007 to 2013 and the US ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017. He is currently Defense Chair and International Chair at the BGR Group.
As the Biden administration weighs whether to remove all US troops from Afghanistan by May 1 — upholding the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban — its discussions should focus on one main concern: preventing future terrorist attacks on the United States or its allies from Afghan territory. Since 9/11, this objective has guided US engagement across four presidencies.
Those who argue that we need to stay in Afghanistan to thwart attacks against the homeland are wrong. Biden should keep in mind the obvious: 2021 is not 2001. The terrorist threat from Afghanistan has been dramatically reduced in the last 20 years. The departure of US troops is not only possible, but desirable.
The United States and its coalition partners have devastated al Qaeda and crippled its ability to strike across borders. The terrorist group has not been able to carry out a major overseas attack since the bombings in London in 2005. Its leaders have been in hiding for years, although mostly not in Afghanistan, as became clear in the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden. The Taliban does maintain links to al Qaeda, including through family ties. Yet the several hundred remaining al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a minor threat, especially compared with the group’s more dangerous branches in Yemen, Somalia, Syria and the Sahel.