Washington’s bipartisan War Party, encompassing most Democratic and Republican foreign policy analysts, is horrified by President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint loyalists to the Department of Defense. No one seriously expects him to launch a coup attempt. Rather, they are afraid that he might end one of their cherished wars, without which, they fervently believe, America would not survive as we know it.
Mention the prospect of withdrawal from anywhere at any time and Washington policymakers immediately succumb to mass hysteria. The architects of past wars, under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as Republican George W. Bush, have fervently pushed a policy of constant war everywhere. So have congressional Republicans, their caucus filled with field marshal wannabes, many of whom, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, had "other priorities" when they were eligible to serve in the military.
The endless war caucus has dominated Washington since the Neocons took control during the George W. Bush administration. Their signature war was the Iraq invasion, a grand adventure – for them, at least – that killed thousands of Americans, left tens of thousands injured and maimed, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, displaced millions of Iraqi civilians, destroyed the historic Christian community, unleashed the Islamic State, and vastly expanded Iran’s influence.
The American people tend to view such consequences as a negative. However, in the mind of virtually every Republican politician other than Trump, the Iraq campaign was a glorious success. (Democrats, like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, have more readily abandoned their initial, and enthusiastic, support.) To the GOP mind, there admittedly were occasional glitches, but planners who had no idea what they were doing and blundered at every turn were not to blame. Rather, fault lay with the Obama administration for not imposing a permanent occupation against the wish of the Iraqi people. Trump attempted to rectify that obvious error earlier this year when he threatened to sanction the Baghdad government if it ordered American troops home. But we are there only because we want to "help" them.
Libya, too, remains an obvious success to most members of the Blob, the establishment foreign policy community, even if the civil war continues to rage a decade later. After all, if a few people have to die in order to create a liberal pro-Western future, so be it. The only problem in the minds of the Blob is that Trump demonstrated his irredeemable isolationism by not intervening again and bombing everyone – Turkey, Russia, France, Italy, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and whoever else might have entered – out of Libya. Endless war advocates prefer not to talk about how the ouster and killing of a dictator who gave up his nukes and missiles created a strong disincentive to any other dictator ever making a similar deal.
Five years after backing Saudi Arabia’s brutal aggression against Yemen, most Republicans remain fervent supporters of the murderfest. Tens or hundreds of thousands of dead Yemeni civilians are a small price to pay to pander to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with his billions to spend on U.S. munitions. Democrats, at least, appear slightly more chagrined about aiding Saudi war crimes. President-elect Joe Biden might change policy toward Riyadh, though the caterwauling from Republicans would likely be loud and frantic.
Finally, there is Afghanistan. Having entered Central Asia to destroy al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban government for hosting the terrorist group, US forces quickly achieved their mission. Then Americans stuck around a couple of decades more to impose a pro-American central government on a fragmented, tribal society traditionally ruled at the village and valley. The War Party is especially insistent that Washington should stay forever in a distant land bounded by India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China, a view shared by Afghan scholar Orzala Nemat: "A symbolic presence of international military forces balances this very weak position that Afghanistan is in the region, surrounded by nuclear powers." What better way to show that it is the American purpose to dominate the globe, irrespective of cost to Americans or anyone else, than to put a few thousand Americans in the middle of a distant continent surrounded by four, count them, four sometimes unfriendly nuclear powers? What could possibly go wrong?
Why, to leave now, 20 years after invading, would be "precipitous," claimed Michele Flournoy, an already once recycled Pentagon employee mentioned as the leading candidate to head the department under Biden. The bipartisan War Party grows nauseous at the mere mention of the possibility of ending even one war. But Flournoy would guarantee the triumph of the failed endless status quo.
The Blob is horrified by any suggestion of change. Imagine if the US military was not spending years or decades at war, directly or indirectly, in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. Bad guys would overrun America and the rest of the free world, a new Dark Ages would descend upon the planet, and life as we know it would end. Americans might as well surrender to, well, someone, even if it isn’t clear exactly who would conquer the world. But trust the folks who brought us the Iraq War – something truly terrible would happen if we ended that or any other conflict they started! Americans must remain forever at war.
It apparently is in response to the Pentagon’s resistance to his policies, most notably in Afghanistan, that Trump conducted his post-election purge. That he felt the need to do so unfortunately reflects his own fecklessness. His administration has been four years of lost opportunities.
He could have appointed serious people who either shared his vision or were nevertheless committed to implementing his policies. Instead, he surrounded himself with recalcitrant warhawks – for instance, H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, John Bolton, and Mike Pompeo. The latter two always stood at the extreme fringe. The military, too, resisted the president’s desired policy. Reported the Washington Post: "National security adviser Robert O’Brien and other aides have told Trump that [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark] Milley is not listening to them on troop withdrawals."
In the president’s defense for failing to act, officials involved in Afghanistan policy lied to him and the rest of us. The Washington Post offered a devastating appraisal last year called the Afghanistan Papers: "US officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it, an exclusive Post investigation found." During my two trips to Afghanistan a decade ago I routinely heard officials tell different stories on and off the record. "Someone is always selling you something," a Marine Corps captain warned me.
Indeed, the extraordinary level of calculated dishonesty and disloyalty by members of the War Party is illustrated by the discreditable James Jeffrey. He recently resigned as special envoy for Syria – after spending months doing his best to starve the Syrian people to force their government’s submission. After quitting he admitted that he and others misled the president to prevent the latter from ending Washington’s participation in that war. Jeffrey’s action was a crime against not just the president but also the long-suffering American people. Too bad he cannot be dispatched to forever patrol the Syrian oil fields illegally seized by US forces.
Now the imminent arrival of the Biden administrations risks a reversal of Trump’s withdrawals. Although Biden opposed the Obama administration’s double Afghan military buildup, he tempered his recent pledge to halt endless wars with the confession that he would preserve a smaller enduring presence – "narrowly define our mission" – for counter terrorism and other purposes. Those destined to top positions in his administration, such as Flournoy, have expressed their opposition to even a limited withdrawal. Moreover, the Kabul government openly expressed its hope that the Biden administration will take a more active military role and maintain a permanent garrison.
But with his recent personnel changes, Trump may force an end to America’s participation in the truly endless Afghanistan civil war. Douglas Macgregor, a fearless critic of constant intervention and advocate of an Afghan pullout has been brought in as a special adviser. The wailing and gnashing of teeth among members of the Blob has begun.
Why should the U.S. stay in Afghanistan?
Americans have fought there for two decades. The children of Americans who served there now are fighting there. Personnel who weren’t born when the 9/11 attacks occurred are now fighting there. The U.S. has been involved longer in Afghanistan than in the Civil War, Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and Korean War combined. For what?
Gen. Milley reflexively claimed that "US vital national security interests … are at stake in Afghanistan." No doubt, if the US was at war in, say, Eswatini, Paraguay, Fiji, Namibia, Oman, or Bhutan he would make the same claim. To him, there likely is no spot on earth which is not vital for America.
In truth, Central Asia does not much matter to the US It is the fulcrum of conflict for other great and regional powers. As Nemat noted, Afghanistan is surrounded by nuclear states – China, India, Pakistan, and Russia – as well as Iran. They will always have more at stake there than will America. They also have an incentive to simultaneously promote favored factions within and discourage conflict without Afghanistan’s borders. Washington should let them manage Afghanistan’s future.
Between 1979 and 1989 US policymakers cared about Afghanistan only because the Soviets did so even more. For Washington, the conflict was an opportunity to bleed Moscow. Unfortunately, the US worked through Pakistan, which promoted the most radical Islamist groups. Which is how Osama bin Laden got his terrorist start. One of the War Party’s more ludicrous claims is that America should have stuck around after the Soviets withdrew. However, the Mujahedeen were not interested in tutelage by the US and would have resisted American as well as Soviet imperial pretentions.
Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack forced a response, but Washington’s objective should simply have been to disable the terrorist organization and punish the Taliban for enabling the group’s operations. And then Americans should have left. Trying to occupy every spot of earth in which terrorists could locate is a losing game. Teach the lesson – governments which aid terrorists that attack America will not remain governments for long – and then concentrate on making fewer enemies by reducing needless intervention in other nations’ conflicts.
Having visited Afghanistan twice and met good people who desire to create a liberal society, I understand their appeal for Washington to help transform their country. But that desire does not justify America going to war. If so, is there anywhere on earth where the US military should not offer similar "assistance"?
Anyway, only Afghans can chart their future. Much of the population will resist outsiders wielding guns, no matter how well-intentioned the latter might imagine themselves to be. Consider how the American colonists would have greeted a French decision to stick around after the battle of Yorktown to teach the New World how to create a post-revolutionary government. Muskets would have come back down from hearths all over the colonies!
What other reason is there to stay? The Taliban are no friends of America, but they want to rule themselves, not attack others. The only meaningful security argument for staying is that al-Qaeda otherwise would again target the US If we don’t stop them in, say, Lashkargah the terrorists will overrun, oh, San Antonio or San Bernardino, or whatever other American city seems vulnerable to a siege by Islamic terrorists from Afghanistan. Or something else terrible. In fact, this is a profoundly silly claim.
Al-Qaeda operated in Afghanistan only as a matter of happenstance. After Washington invaded, bin Laden moved to Pakistan, where he acted until killed by a US raid. State affiliates around the world effectively took over the original group’s role; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, located in Yemen, was later considered to be the most effective knockoff, demonstrating that the world is filled with ungoverned spaces available to terrorists.
Indeed, even a pro-U.S. government in Kabul would not have sufficient national control to exclude al-Qaeda or other groups. Although the Taliban has cooperated with al-Qaeda against the US, the former would not welcome renewed terrorist attacks on America, which would again bring down Washington’s wrath. Notably, the Taliban has actively opposed the Islamic State with the covert assistance of US air and drone strikes. The Taliban are not friends of America, but with little interest in affairs beyond their own territory, they are not natural enemies either.
If not to prevent terrorism, then why fight in Afghanistan forever? Sloganeering about failure not being an option is common. But also stupid. Failure is the right choice when the costs of an action are greater than the benefits. As in Afghanistan.
Advocates of endlessly fighting futile wars often worry about America’s credibility. "We don’t have a single example where pulling the plug has gone well – Vietnam, Iraq. Not one," said Colin Jackson, who served in the Trump Pentagon. Actually, pulling the plug was the one step that did go well. It was the wars themselves that went badly, even disastrously. Which is precisely why a withdrawal is called for in Afghanistan.
The best way to protect against lost credibility is not to make unnecessary, counterproductive, and unsustainable commitments. Potential adversaries can distinguish between when Washington pursues vital and peripheral interests. In fact, world history is filled with political leaders eventually abandoning impossible commitments. Better to do so early, rather than waste manifold lives and much wealth in the pursuit of ultimately impossible ends. Doing the latter, thereby convincing the world that America’s leadership is foolish and irrational, is not to Washington’s benefit. In response adversaries will arm and friends will distance.
Further, the war forever crowd hides behind those whose lives were needlessly sacrificed – arguing that more troops should be sent to fight and die so those who went before do not die in vain. Tragically, the lost already have died in vain. Not through any fault of theirs, obviously, but because callous, selfish political leaders kept kicking the conflict into the future for their successors. The best way to honor the dead is to make sure no more Americans die without reason.
The War Party’s final argument is that America’s presence, down to about 4,500 troops, is small and the conflict no longer costs very much. That a rich nation like the US can survive a certain measure of waste is no argument for doing so intentionally, however. Is the effort worthwhile? Judged by results the price is still far too high.
The situation on the ground has been worsening on almost every measure, including the number of Taliban attacks and amount of territory under Taliban control. After nearly two decades of war the US government considers Kabul to be unsafe for travel by road to the airport, and instead uses a helicopter to transport embassy personnel. In contrast, when I visited a decade ago, with the war at full intensity, they as well as my group drove. Is this how Washington defines success?
Moreover, the US already has spent more than $2 trillion on the Afghan war. Today America is effectively bankrupt, having run up a deficit of $3.1 trillion in 2020 alone, with the debt set to rise uncontrollably over the coming decades. It is time to say no more.
Any military involvement also keeps Washington entangled in an unnecessary conflict and makes American personnel a convenient target. The claim that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban for killing US troops proved baseless, but Americans will remain vulnerable so close to two nations with which Washington has launched cold wars, Russia and China, and another state against which the US has launched military strikes, Iran.
Evelyn Farkas, a former Defense Department official, argued: "It is irresponsible to make troop reduction your entire political objective. If you withdraw irresponsibly, you put strategic objectives and military lives at risk." This is wrong in every particular. The strategic goals, weakening al-Qaeda and punishing the Taliban, were accomplished almost immediately. Having fulfilled those purposes nearly 20 years ago, the objective became withdrawal. And leaving an unnecessary conflict would save lives.
The Trump administration has been negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban, but diplomacy’s only real purpose today is to enable an American exit. The negotiation that counts is between the Taliban and Kabul government. The Afghan people must settle a civil war which has been running for more than 40 years.
Americans, including Afghan vets, want out of Afghanistan. It is time to bring the troops home. Before Christmas, Mr. President, as you promised.
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.