In 2005, during a dilemma typical to the War in Afghanistan, U.S. and Afghan law enforcement arrested Sher Mohammad Askhundzada, a Helmand warlord and opium trafficker on the Afghan government’s payroll. Almost immediately, Helmand province descended into violence. Privately, generals like Dan McNeill called his arrest a “huge mistake.” Akhundzada was later elected as a provincial senator, and thousands of his men joined the Taliban. Hundreds of Marines died trying to restore order.
In case the events of the last 18 years haven’t been enough, the recent story from the Washington Post chronicling the systematic deception that took place throughout the War in Afghanistan should seal it: the time to leave Afghanistan is now. From the early years, the war was cursed by corruption, mismanagement, and utter ineptitude.
The American strategy in Afghanistan has been listless, naive, and negligent, bordering on criminal. There was and is no pressing national security interest in maintaining a U.S. military presence there. While leaving has downsides, it is imperative that we extricate ourselves from this war-torn country.
FACING THE TRUTH
That’s the first thing the current administration needs to have the courage to admit. Any pending negotiations with the Taliban will certainly be a failure: why would the Taliban feel the need to negotiate when they are winning? They know the United States is leaving. Pakistani commentator Ahmed Rashid recently pointed out that the Taliban’s meteoric rise, fanatical faith, and total confidence in themselves has made them obstinate in negotiations. Even in the 1990s, when everyone who entered into conflict with the Taliban—Iran, the Central Asian states, Pakistan, Russia, the Clinton administration—was willing to ease up for the slightest concessions, the Taliban simply refused. This time will be no different.
The Taliban is not losing, it is not fragmented, and they will not capitulate.
The Taliban is not losing, it is not fragmented, and they will not capitulate. For any American raised on vivid memories of 9/11, this is a bitter pill to swallow, as it was for Britons reeling in the wake of the disaster of the First Anglo-Afghan War.
But it is just as pointless to deny reality in 2019 as it was in 1842.
Our exit needs to not only be immediate; it needs to be complete. Funding the Afghans after our departure would be silly; American aid to the country does very little good. In 2012, eleven years into the conflict, aid officials concluded that poverty in Afghanistan was due to “patronage, corruption [and] impunity.” There’s virtually no accountability for the American tax dollars poured into Afghan coffers.
In November of this year, SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) found that nothing has meaningfully changed over time. Even if military aid continued at 2012 levels—totaling out to nearly $1 trillion over the next decade—it would accomplish next to nothing. SIGAR concluded in October 2018 that it was near impossible to evaluate any claims of progress. There was a possibility that the Obama administration had a second chance in 2015 with the election of Arshaf Ghani, a hoped-for anti-corruption reformer, but it appears it has been squandered as well.
It’s time to face the facts. Our massive financial and military expenditure has bought us nothing. Any supposed national progress has been a total mirage. The American people were lied to for over a decade. Since 2001, the United States has spent nearly $2 trillion and has deployed over 700,000 Americans. Over 2,300 of those soldiers were killed, and another 20,000 were wounded. The 2,000 pages of interview notes from those involved in the war demonstrate that both the Bush and Obama administrations deliberately withheld the truth from the American people.
A FRANK DISCUSSION
What should this administration do? In lieu of pointless talks, the United States should simply set a schedule to leave. The ongoing talks have already offended America’s Afghan partners on the ground as they feel excluded from them. There is little else the United States can do at this point. The American people and the military are not interested in another 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
We’ve lost over 2,300 Americans and over $2 trillion. We will continue to waste American lives and taxpayer dollars if we remain—albeit at slower rates. It is maddening to realize, but it is an obvious fact.
But the American people are owed a frank discussion of potential costs.
After we leave, the Taliban will absolutely attempt a takeover, and they will almost certainly take more territory. But it may not be that simple for them. Even the extremely unpopular Soviet-backed Najibullah government lasted an additional three years when the USSR withdrew. Today, 92% of Afghans do not prefer to live under the Taliban. When the Taliban began its lightning campaign to take over the country in the 1990s, they were faced with stiff resistance from several ethnic and religious minorities. And though, despite their efforts to expand their support base, they have historically found their support almost entirely amongst the Pashtun people of the southeast, and the Taliban may quickly find it difficult to govern a country, rife with weapons and war veterans, where 92% of the population despises them.
While the Taliban may be too strong to defeat, they also may be too weak to take over the country. Recent setbacks in Taliban strongholds point to a people, while fed up with American mismanagement and bungling, are unwilling to submit to Taliban rule just yet. Instead of a Taliban takeover, the situation will likely settle into a stalemate. While this is not ideal for the U.S. and is an immense tragedy for the Afghan people, it will not result in a new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Secondly, it’s true that leaving would increase the risk of terrorism, when fighting terrorism was the primary reason we invaded, to begin with.
This, however, is not worth the current U.S. investment. In December 2018, the Department of Defense concluded that most jihadists in Afghanistan were not focused on attacking the U.S. homeland but rather domestically on Afghanistan. This mirrors the American situation, where terrorism experts find that our biggest threat is not in the mountains of the Hindu Kush but at home. None of this outweighs the necessity of a quick withdrawal. As Carter Malkasian, a former adviser to NATO in Afghanistan, notes: “The bottom line is that there is no threat out of Afghanistan that is so apparent, large and imminent that it would clearly merit an indefinite deployment of U.S. troops.” It’s time to leave.
Our campaign in Afghanistan had no chance of serious success due to mission creep, entrenched establishment deception, and bleak conditions on the ground. We’ve lost over 2,300 Americans and over $2 trillion. We will continue to waste American lives and taxpayer dollars if we remain—albeit at slower rates. It is maddening to realize, but it is an obvious fact.
More importantly, the U.S. has bigger issues to deal with. We face a new era of great power competition from major revisionist powers like the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. Unlike jihadists in the mountains of Central Asia, as dangerous as they are, these are actual threats to vital national interests. By comparison, jihadist terrorism is not an existential threat to America. Competing with these powers and maintaining the US-led balance of power will require investments both at home and abroad. A strategy that truly prioritizes American interests first cannot afford to bleed another $2 trillion over the coming decades.
WEIGHING THE COST TO CIVIC TRUST AND AMERICAN LIVES
Lastly, the war is a drag on domestic political legitimacy. Most Americans believe we need to leave.
While there will be costs, they are not worth more American lives lost.
The majority of Americans—and rightly so—do not see a clear strategic objective in our continued presence in Afghanistan. Recent leaks revealed that elements within the U.S. government lied to the American people about the progress of the war and the costs they bore. Wars like this are acids on the long term institutional viability of the American government, increasing pessimism and decreasing civic trust and participation. Muddling along with our failed strategy for years to come will not just be futile, but will continue to erode the average American’s belief in their government and whether it even works.
True, the Taliban may very well take over the country—as they came close to doing in 1996 when Taliban forces occupied the capital of Kabul. The Taliban may also play host to various jihadist organizations that seek to attack American citizens. But despite that risk, when faced with the evidence, and the mounting threats we face from Russia and China, there is insufficient justification to maintain our presence inside the country.
We should absolutely be realistic about withdrawal, and the costs involved. The Taliban are not freedom fighters or good faith negotiators. Afghanistan will not enjoy peace with our departure, as Afghan society continues to suffer from institutional fractures dating back decades, if not centuries. However, the mission simply is not worth the continued investment.
While there will be costs, they are not worth more American lives lost.