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Afghanistan and the Endless War Caucus

The immediate response to a story that U.S. forces were being targeted is to keep fighting a losing conflict.

Barbara Boland reported yesterday on the House Armed Services Committee’s vote to impede withdrawal of U.S. from Afghanistan:

The House Armed Services Committee voted Wednesday night to put roadblocks on President Donald Trump’s vow to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, apparently in response to bombshell report published by The New York Times Friday that alleges Russia paid dollar bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan to kill U.S troops.

It speaks volumes about Congress’ abdication of its responsibilities that one of the few times that most members want to challenge the president over a war is when they think he might bring it to an end. Many of the members that want to block withdrawals from other countries have no problem when the president wants to use U.S. forces illegally and to keep them in other countries without authorization for years at a time. The role of hard-liner Liz Cheney in pushing the measure passed yesterday is a good example of what I mean. The hawkish outrage in Congress is only triggered when the president entertains the possibility of taking troops out of harm’s way. When he takes reckless and illegal action that puts them at risk, as he did when he ordered the illegal assassination of Soleimani, the same members that are crying foul today applauded the action. As Boland explains, the amendment passed by the committee yesterday sets so many conditions on withdrawal that it makes it all but impossible to satisfy them:

Crow’s amendment adds several layers of policy goals to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, which has already stretched on for 19 years and cost over a trillion dollars. As made clear in the Afghanistan Papers, most of these policy goals were never the original intention of the mission in Afghanistan, and were haphazardly added after the defeat of al Qaeda. With no clear vision for what achieving these fuzzy goals would look like, the mission stretches on indefinitely, an unarticulated victory unachievable.

The immediate Congressional response to a story that U.S. forces were being targeted is to make it much more difficult to pull them out of a war that cannot be won. Congressional hawks bemoan “micromanaging” presidential decisions and mock the idea of having “535 commanders-in-chief,” but when it comes to prolonging pointless wars they are only too happy to meddle and tie the president’s hands. When it comes to defending Congress’ proper role in matters of war, these members are typically on the other side of the argument. They are content to let the president get us into as many wars as he might want, but they are horrified at the thought that any of those wars might one day be concluded. Yesterday’s vote confirmed that there is an endless war caucus in the House, and it is bipartisan.

The original reporting of the bounty story is questionable for the reasons that Boland has pointed out before, but for the sake of argument let’s assume that Russia has been offering bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. When the U.S. keeps its troops at war in a country for almost twenty years, it is setting them up as targets for other governments. Just as the U.S. has armed and supported forces hostile to Russia and its clients in Syria, it should not come as a shock when they do to the same elsewhere. If Russia has been doing this, refusing to withdraw U.S. forces ensures that they will continue to have someone that they can target.

The longer that the U.S. stays at war in Afghanistan, the more incentives other states will have to make that continued presence more costly for the U.S. When the knee-jerk reaction in Washington to news of these bounties is to throw up obstacles to withdrawal, that gives other states another incentive to do more of this. Because the current state of debate about Russia is so toxic and irrational, our political leaders seem incapable of responding carefully to Russian actions. It doesn’t seem to occur to the war hawks that Russia might prefer that the U.S. remains preoccupied and tied down in Afghanistan indefinitely. Prolonging our involvement in the war amounts to playing into Moscow’s hands. For all of their posturing about security and strength, hard-liners routinely support destructive and irrational policies that redound to the advantage of other states. This is still happening with the war in Afghanistan, and if these hard-liners get their way it will continue happening for many years to come.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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