Biden Plans Afghanistan Train Wreck
On May 1, U.S. may face an “entirely new war.”
The seemingly eternal war in Afghanistan continues. American forces have been on station for nearly 20 years, longer than the Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korean War combined.
Some $2 trillion have been spent. More than 6,000 U.S. service members and contractors have died, along with roughly 1,100 allied soldiers. Many more have been wounded, some suffering crippling injuries. Absent a speedy exit, those numbers will continue upward.
The U.S. is supposed to leave Afghanistan on May 1, the timetable agreed to by the Taliban. However, at his recent press conference President Joe Biden essentially admitted that American forces won’t be leaving then. He expressed hope that they would not be there next year.
Even if there was trust between Washington and the Taliban, that sentiment probably would not suffice. The American military has spent nearly two decades seeking to end the insurgents’ bid for power. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump both increased the number of American personnel in Afghanistan before reducing them.
Moreover, Biden, despite joining his predecessor in criticizing “endless wars,” never committed to implementing the peace accord. Worse, the president is under significant pressure from the Pentagon, hawkish establishment media, mostly interventionist think-tank paladins, and a bipartisan war lobby, which heretofore have dominated Afghan policy. Typical was the Afghanistan Study Group—established by Congress and including former political and military figures who had backed and mismanaged the war—which came to the unsurprising conclusion that U.S. forces should stay. Never mind two decades of failure, even after America put in nearly 100,000 troops, and (largely European) allies added another 40,000. Acknowledging error was simply beyond members’ comprehension.
The best that co-chair Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of many architects of the present imbroglio, could offer was: “If we take advantage of the opportunity we have right now then there is at least a prospect of achieving that end state [a U.S.-friendly outcome] even as we recognize how difficult it will be.” That is supposed to be a serious argument for violating the withdrawal plan, putting troops at risk, and sticking around months or years more, with reinforcements likely necessary? Afghanistan is truly an endless war.
Of course, if Biden folds this time, similar claims will be advanced again whenever the possibility of withdrawal looms. Indeed, if negotiations between the Kabul government and Taliban continue to go badly, Biden will face pressure to do more militarily to strengthen Afghan forces. The Ghani government would have an incentive to hinder progress to justify a continued and even expanded American presence. Countries in the region also would push harder for delay, preferring that the U.S. continue to relieve them of responsibility for confronting the conflict.
Most of those advocating America’s forever role in Afghanistan assume that relative peace would continue. Thankfully, no American lives were lost over the last year, but that reflected the Taliban’s assumption that the U.S. was leaving. If the Pentagon keeps several thousand troops on station—about 3,500 are there now—the insurgents would have less reason to stick to the deal. Indeed, the Taliban issued a statement warning that it “will be compelled to defend its religion and homeland and continue its Jihad and armed struggle against foreign forces to liberate its country.”
Of course, that could be an empty threat, an effort to pressure the administration to stick to the withdrawal schedule. However, the Islamist movement has been fighting for decades, starting well before the U.S. arrived. Absent a serious and credible U.S. promise to leave soon after May 1, the Taliban would be unlikely to hold back. It has seen American force levels wax and wane over the last two decades; Biden is the fourth president to deal with Afghanistan and he might mimic his predecessors by trying a troop surge first.
Indeed, retired Army Col. Chris Kolenda, who was involved in earlier negotiations with the Taliban, warned what abandoning the agreement might unleash:
The Taliban have already prepared militarily for this scenario. We’ve had a false sense of confidence over the past 14 months in which the Taliban have not attacked any U.S. bases or facilities. If we tear up the agreement, we can look forward to a Vietnam-style, Tet-like offensive by the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Some of those major attacks are going to be much more successful than the Tet Offensive was.
None of this is certain, of course, but what would Biden do then? Withdrawing quickly would be the only proper response, ending American involvement in Afghanistan’s endless civil war. However, countervailing pressure would be heavy. Public outrage would encourage retaliation. The entire pro-war establishment would declare the administration’s policy a failure and demand that he send in heavy reinforcements, which would not likely prove temporary.
There also would be a crescendo of cant about the threat of withdrawal to American global credibility. Every intervention, no matter how foolish and counterproductive, is always defended as essential to convince the world that Washington is willing to undertake even more foolish and counterproductive interventions in the future. Biden would be told that if he didn’t punish the Taliban for attacking U.S. forces to punish his administration for violating the agreement, no one would ever again believe American promises. He would be warned that U.S. credibility was at risk, that inaction would trigger an avalanche of Chinese, Iranian, North Korean, and Russian aggression worldwide to “test” U.S. resolve. Biden would be told that acting tough is essential for America’s security and even survival.
However, there are no good arguments for staying. Imagine Afghanistan as it is, except without U.S. forces. Would anyone suggest that Washington intervene militarily? Would anyone single out Afghanistan as a land warranting invasion and occupation, a country 40 years into a civil war involving a kaleidoscope of changing combatants? Would anyone insist that given the many challenges facing America, this is one of its highest priorities, warranting what amounts to a permanent military presence? At least, would anyone not residing in Washington, D.C.’s St. Elizabeth’s Hospital do so?
Central Asia is not important for America. Rather, it is geographically about as far from a vital national interest as any location on earth. That doesn’t mean the region isn’t important to several significant and even great powers nearby—China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran. But their presence is an obvious reason for the U.S. to stay out. All would benefit from a resolution of the Afghan conflict, especially Pakistan, which would most gain from ending the war. And these governments should take over efforts to promote peace. Rather than maintain a permanent military presence in Afghanistan, Washington should encourage regional discussions on how those states could best cooperate to yield a country with a modicum of stability, prosperity, and peace.
There remain enthusiasts for nation-building. For instance, Ronald E. Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, asked: “At this time, when so many young Afghans are dying to build the kind of society we preached to them, have we no moral responsibility to sustain what we helped build?” Similar was the argument from Rina Amiri and Mark Kustra, who served in Afghanistan in civilian and military positions, respectively: “If the Taliban prevails militarily, it will surely unwind the substantial social, political, and economic gains that have allowed Afghans to advance over the last 20 years.”
The war is a tragedy, but Americans are not obligated to fight and die, and especially to do so seemingly forever, to transform other nations. And there certainly is no reason for Afghanistan to be Washington’s top responsibility in a troubled world. The list of countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East in which the U.S. could launch similar missions, and perhaps with greater chances of long-term success, is long. War should be a last resort to protect Americans, not a first resort to fix other systems. Especially when almost two decades of U.S. involvement have not delivered the desired peace.
This is no less the case when considering the status of women. On my two trips to Afghanistan I met many who enjoyed a better life because of America’s presence and who understandably feared for their future in a Taliban-dominated nation. However, as then-Vice President Biden reportedly responded to the argument that the U.S. should stay to remake Afghan society: “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights! It just won’t work, that’s not what they’re there for.” It isn’t. If the status of women was a casus belli for America, Saudi Arabia and Iran long would have been at the top of the Pentagon’s hit list.
Another emotional appeal is what economists call the sunk cost fallacy. At a recent meeting Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apparently cited “all of the blood and treasure spent” there, asserting that it was important to “honor the sacrifices that have been made.”
Alas, sacrificing more blood and treasure in the future would not redeem all that was sacrificed in the past. Other than the initial action to wreck Al Qaeda and oust the Taliban, the war has been a terrible mistake, and its costs have exceeded any benefits. Those who died have done so in vain. That is not their fault, but of U.S. policymakers, who should be held to account. Indeed, polls indicate that Afghan veterans are in the lead in supporting withdrawal, with nearly three-quarters in favor. The best way to honor the dead is to stop sending Americans in harm’s way for less than compelling causes.
Perhaps the worst but most common argument is that withdrawing from Afghanistan would leave a vacuum for terrorists. Even Trump was taken in by this argument, admitting that he abandoned his campaign promise for a speedy exit because his aides claimed that “if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here.” That is, unless America occupies, say, Lashkar Gah, Kunduz, or Kandahar in Afghanistan, a coalition of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and myriad other bad guys will be battling for control of Omaha, Dallas, or Boise. It is an inane claim.
The Taliban is an insurgency, not a terrorist organization, and is focused on ruling Afghanistan. Its fighters have no interest in the U.S. otherwise. They welcomed Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to fight the Soviets, the same reason America armed and funded similar fundamentalist Islamic groups in Afghanistan four decades ago. It appears that the Taliban was unhappy when its guests unexpectedly brought down America’s wrath upon them. Although Taliban fighters have fought alongside the Al Qaeda remnant currently in Afghanistan—most combatants, like the Allies in World War II, take help from anywhere they can get it—a Taliban government would be unlikely to tolerate future terrorist attacks which would bring the U.S. back militarily. Nor would Afghanistan’s neighbors, which also would suffer in the aftermath.
Anyway, geography is not destiny when it comes to terrorism. The 9/11 plot was concocted and organized almost entirely outside of Afghanistan. After America’s invasion of Afghanistan, Bin Laden simply moved next door to Pakistan, a nominal U.S. ally. In subsequent years the most effective Al Qaeda operatives were located in Yemen, where, ironically, the U.S. has spent six years aiding forces, including the legally recognized Hadi government, that have subsidized and armed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Elsewhere, too, the world has plenty of ill- and ungoverned spaces in which terrorists can operate.
Whatever happens vis-à-vis the Taliban, the U.S. will remain capable of mounting counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. Equally important, withdrawal would be an important step toward lowering Washington’s military profile in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Over the last two decades America has generated enemies faster than it has killed them. That is a losing long-term strategy.
Ultimately, fighting in Afghanistan makes America and Americans less safe. The conflict is a tragedy, but not one the U.S. can resolve. Despite the understandable desire to do good, Americans are not obligated to war forever to remake other societies. Our wealth and lives should not be Washington’s to sacrifice for anything other than defense of our own land.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.