FEBRUARY 23, 2021
Nothing alarms hawks in the foreign policy establishment more than the prospect of an end to U.S. involvement in a foreign war.
U.S. wars can drag on for years or decades without any protest from hawkish pundits and former officials, but the moment that U.S. troops might be brought out of a war zone they swing into action to denounce the “retreat.” We saw this in the collective bipartisan panic over the possibility of withdrawal from Syria in 2018 and 2019, and we are seeing it again as part of a concerted effort to delay the withdrawal of the last 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1.
The opinion editors at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal may not agree on much, but they are both determined to oppose bringing forces out of Afghanistan as our war there approaches its 20th anniversary, raising the specter of “withdrawing irresponsibly.” Meanwhile conservative establishmentarians like Washington Post columnist Max Boot, and his cohort on the center-left side of the dial, David Ignatius, as well as Madeleine Albright, make common cause for keeping troops in Afghanistan as Biden’s “best option.” Today’s “stay” advocates, which include Republicans like Lindsey Graham making the media rounds, may all be coming from different plot points on the Washington political grid, but keeping the United States committed to a desultory, unwinnable conflict unites them. Their messages are circulated and amplified by social media and establishment friendlies, and among big cable news outlets. Thus, a consensus is born.
There is perhaps no better illustration of the groupthink and reflexive hawkishness of the so-called foreign policy Blob in the U.S. than the intense resistance from political and media elites to the possibility of ending our longest war. But as they are on so many other issues, the Blob is wrong about Afghanistan, and Biden would be wise to ignore their recommendations.
The president should honor the agreement made by his predecessor and withdraw the remaining troops by the start of May. Refusing to do this would expose U.S. forces to renewed attacks, and would do nothing to change the course of the war or make an eventual Taliban victory less likely. The United States has already demonstrated that it cannot win in Afghanistan when it has more than 100,000 troops in the country. Keeping a few thousand troops there in violation of the agreement that the U.S. has made will at best delay the inevitable, and it puts their lives at risk for no good reason.
It is taken as a given that Biden has “no good options” in Afghanistan, but there are clearly some that are worse than others. Keeping U.S. troop numbers at their current level past the deadline would be the wrong choice. Choosing to send more troops back in (a total of 4,500) as the Afghanistan Study Group recommends, would be the worst by far. It would not only invite new attacks on U.S. forces, but it would represent a useless escalation of U.S. involvement that is not sustainable. As Adam Weinstein has stressed on these pages, the least bad option under the circumstances is to stick to the agreement that has been made and pull out the remaining troops on time because the Taliban is unlikely to agree to an extension and unilaterally breaking the agreement would invite fresh attacks.
NATO has several thousand troops in the country and the U.S. should coordinate its withdrawal with them, but Washington’s decision should not be contingent on allied approval.
Opponents of withdrawal warn that Afghanistan will suffer from civil war if U.S. forces leave, as if the country hadn’t already been wracked by civil war for the last forty years. If the Taliban are in a position to win after almost 20 years of U.S. intervention, that is the clearest proof of all that the war is draining lives and resources, and cannot be won. Rather than continue this losing strategy, it is time the United States accept that we have lost and come home. It is commonplace for opponents of withdrawal to condemn it as “reckless,” as if continuing a policy that has resulted in a sharp spike in civilian casualties from airstrikes in the last few years should be considered responsible.
When he was vice president, Biden was one of the few Obama administration officials to oppose the “surge” of troops in 2009. Subsequent events have fully vindicated Biden’s skepticism about that policy, which was based on an exaggerated belief in the success of the Iraq “surge” and misplaced faith in the efficacy of counterinsurgency as a way to win the war. More than 10 years after the Obama Administration sent 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan we can see that the U.S. cannot prevail militarily at an acceptable cost, and the public has no appetite for prolonging a war that has been going twice as long as the war in Vietnam.
Hawks argue that Afghanistan will once again become a base for terrorist groups if the Taliban prevail. While this is a possibility, the risk is exaggerated and it doesn’t follow that U.S. withdrawal is a mistake. We should be reassessing the assumptions that have undergirded the war there for all these years. The “safe haven” myth has persisted even though it has been debunked thoroughly many times. The war in Afghanistan has long been justified in terms of protecting the United States from future attacks, but the truth is we do not know whether the threat to the U.S. homeland will actually decrease once we are no longer operating there, stationed and conducting and/or assisting deadly airstrikes — operations which dramatically increased under the Trump administration.
Supporters of continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan insist that any withdrawal be “conditions-based,” but this amounts to saying that there should be a permanent American military presence and open-ended mission in Afghanistan. Judging from the experience of the last 20 years, there will never be a time when conditions are good enough to meet the Blob’s standard, and there will always be some instability or violence that can be cited as a pretext for staying. If the Afghan military and government are incapable of resisting the Taliban now after the extensive training and the enormous amount of equipment that the U.S. has provided, that confirms that they never will be ready.
Hawks always denounce every withdrawal as “reckless,” but prolonging U.S. involvement in a war that really has nothing to do with our security is the most irresponsible thing that our government could do with the lives of American soldiers. Our leaders need to heed the wishes of the public to end our involvement and acknowledge that we lost our longest war a long time ago.