It’s time to withdraw from Afghanistan

November 18, 2020

William Ruger is vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and is the nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Rajan Menon is Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the City College of New York and senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute at Columbia University.

An Army soldier climbs a hill towards a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border in October 2006.

Arguably, the most important foreign policy pledge President Trump made during the 2016 campaign was to end the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. That promise appealed to broad swaths of Democrats and Republicans, though certainly not to the leaders of either party, who generally embraced the prevailing view that the U.S. military’s departure from Afghanistan and Iraq would have calamitous consequences. Today, nearly three-fourths of the public favor ending both campaigns — including a similar proportion of veterans and military families.

Washington has been abuzz with speculation that Trump plans to make good on his 2016 vow by ordering yet another drawdown of troops. In Afghanistan, where our post-9/11 presence has now lasted for almost 20 years, more than 2,300 U.S. servicemembers have been killed and many more wounded. The campaign in just this country has already consumed about $1 trillion dollars.

Successive U.S. administrations have sought to create a democratic Afghan government that can govern and secure the country without open-ended U.S. military support. Yet that scenario is nowhere in sight, nor is there any credible evidence that it will be if we stay the course.

It is, therefore, time to bring U.S. troops home. There is little reason to wait for some more perfect moment in the future. Moving with all due haste has the added advantage of making it more difficult politically to unwind.

Coalition forces and the Afghan army have killed some 20,000 to 35,000 Taliban fighters, including many senior commanders. But the Taliban remains a major force and now controls more territory than it has since its government was toppled by U.S. firepower in 2001. The Long War Journal estimates that the Kabul government now controls only a third of Afghanistan’s 407 districts. The rest are up for grabs (46 percent) or under Taliban rule (19 percent).

Our expansive war aims in Afghanistan include vanquishing the Taliban, fashioning an effective Afghan government and promoting human rights. All of these remain just as elusive as they were at the end of 2001 — despite the vast amounts of blood and treasure we have expended.

Yet, for all their differences, Democratic and Republican leaders remain convinced that a U.S. military withdrawal would destroy American credibility, demoralize allies and produce shock waves that will course through the region.

Yet those who make these arguments cannot explain how continuing the war will produce an outcome that could, even minimally, be described as a success. There is no chance the Taliban will make additional major concessions given that momentum favors them, and that cannot be changed without increasing U.S. troop levels. Though vastly outmatched in numbers and firepower, the Taliban has demonstrated the will to fight for longer and die in larger numbers than the United States is prepared to do. To assume that a few more years of U.S. effort will change this reality amounts to magical thinking.

The Taliban will figure prominently in whatever political order emerges in Afghanistan and will reject any substantial, long-term U.S. military presence. That leaves the United States with a stark choice: It can withdraw now or it can continue to fight, knowing it will eventually have to depart without having achieved its expanded objectives.

What of the claim that a complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan will enable al-Qaeda to use it as a base for organizing terrorist attacks against the United States? Think about this from the Taliban’s vantage point. Would it risk everything it has fought for by allowing terrorist plots to be hatched against the United States from territory it controls when that mistake precipitated its collapse in 2001?

Moreover, U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden and have weakened al-Qaeda to the point that Christopher C. Miller, the new acting secretary of defense and recent director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently acknowledged in The Post that “al-Qaeda is in crisis” and “is no longer capable of conducting large-scale attacks.”

Afghans have demonstrated time and again that they, not outsiders, will determine their country’s future. The peace deal between the United States and the Taliban agreed to in February creates the conditions needed for a U.S. exit and negotiations between the Kabul government and the Taliban. The United States and its allies can use diplomacy and economic assistance to encourage the interlocutors to make progress. But they cannot ensure a lasting political settlement.

Those who oppose ending the war in Afghanistan continue to claim that a better outcome remains possible if the United States persists. They have yet to explain how (let alone when) it will emerge, given the realities on the ground. This much is certain: When victory proves elusive, they will argue, against all evidence, that a few more troops, dollars and years will do the trick. They have offered such assurance before. The results are plain for all to see.

Americans are divided on many matters, but they will overwhelmingly welcome a decision to end the war in Afghanistan — regardless of whom they voted for on Election Day.

It’s time to withdraw from Afghanistan