The U.S. is approaching its 20-year mark in the Afghan civil war. Intervening after 9/11, Washington speedily crippled al-Qaeda and ousted the Taliban. Alas, three successive administrations found it much harder to bring strong central government and Westminster-style democracy to Central Asia. So American military personnel remain on station. Like in the Hotel California, it appears that Americans can check out but never leave.
Even many hawks gave up justifying the war on humanitarian grounds, preferring to talk about the importance of staying to fight terrorism or achieve other ends. However, Ronald E. Neumann, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, took up the challenge of justifying nation-building. He asked: "At this time, when so many young Afghans are dying to build the kind of society we preached to them, have we no moral responsibility to sustain what we helped build?"
This claim has enormous emotional appeal. But it cannot justify America’s indefinite, and likely permanent, participation in someone else’s endless (civil) war.
To start, the US government’s principal responsibility is to its own citizens. Of course, as Washington operates in the world it has an obligation to act ethically, taking into account the consequences of its actions. However, the federal government ultimately rests upon its people’s financial contributions and military service. Since Washington is entrusted with their welfare, its international policies should begin with their protection and not put them at risk as individuals for reasons other than ensuring their security as part of their larger political community.
Yet staying in Afghanistan makes Americans less safe. The Taliban wants to rule the country, not fight the US Once American forces have gone, the group would simply ignore Washington, hoping to foreclose further US intervention.
What about preventing renewed terrorism from al-Qaeda? The Taliban would have an incentive to prevent such activity in whatever territory it controlled after an American withdrawal, since the Taliban would not want to trigger US retaliatory redux. In any case, Afghanistan is not an intrinsic magnet for terrorism. Osama bin Laden was there to fight alongside Washington-subsidized Mujahedeen forces against the Red Army.
Moreover, there are plenty of other ill-governed spaces around the world within which terrorists operate. After all, Osama bin Laden absconded to Pakistan, where he continued to promote terrorist activities until the arrival of a US SEAL team. Finally, Afghanistan’s neighbors, most importantly Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia, would feel increased pressure to pick up the burden of stabilizing a land traumatized by four decades of war.
Further, leaving the Afghan war offers the best chance to boost Pakistani stability. A nominal ally, Islamabad long has underwritten the Taliban and provided the latter’s forces with sanctuary, making a US victory, however defined, nearly impossible. Decades of combat in Afghanistan have set multiple political and military fires across badly divided neighboring Pakistan. The best hope to end the fighting which has proved to be so destabilizing is an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving the war’s resolution to the Afghan people. If combat continued, at least the combatants would be local, rather than including a distant global superpower with its own very different and self-serving agenda.
Moreover, continued participation in the war means the government would waste more money, on top of the roughly $2 trillion already squandered on the Afghan misadventure. Worse, more Americans would die. In addition to the more than 5000 US service members and contractors who have been killed. About 1100 allied foreign soldiers also have died. Civilian casualties, too, remain high.
Neumann pointed out that current costs are low and the number of US deaths is down—in fact, no Americans have died in combat in over a year. He insisted that his humanitarian claim: "is not a case without limits. It is not a reason to shed thousands of American lives or spend trillions more dollars. But thousands of Americans are not dying in Afghanistan." However, the paucity of casualties is artificial, the result of the Taliban’s decision to halt attacks on Americans while Washington was negotiating an agreement which provided for a US withdrawal by May 1.
If the Biden administration tears up the Taliban accord, rather like President Donald Trump tossed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and indicates its intention to stick around to enforce the agreement, then the group is likely to ramp operations back up. In which case US forces would be overstretched and vulnerable. If an American troop presence which peaked at 110,000 in 2011 couldn’t deliver victory, then the 2500 US personnel there now certainly couldn’t do so. As the Afghan security situation deteriorated, President Biden would have to choose between embarking upon a massive military buildup and retreating under fire. Neither would be a congenial option for him.
Of course, Neumann hoped for a different result. "The purpose of the U.S.-Taliban agreement was not simply to remove our troops," he argued, but "It was to start serious negotiations among the Afghan parties." However, if an otherwise unsustainable pact is reached based on the presence of an American garrison, then it can’t be sustained without their continued presence. Which the Taliban would not accept. Meaning full-scale war could/would flare again.
Neumann also worried about the perception of US faithlessness. He noted that "In Afghanistan, we are the ones who held out the vision of freedom and a changed society. We educated young Afghans and promised repeatedly to support these freedoms. We helped build a free press, TV and radio." And more. All true, which he believed obligated him to seek official US support.
However, for years Americans spent lavishly and died promiscuously to back those objectives, even though these goals had little to do with US security. Nothing more is required. American support was never a guarantee of success. Nor did Washington’s promises indicate that it would continue intervening, forever if necessary, until success was achieved. If Neumann and others like him wish to devote his own wealth and risk his own life on behalf of the Afghan people, he should do so. However, he has no warrant to spend other people’s money and risk other people’s lives.
I visited Afghanistan twice, during which time I met many Afghans who desired to create a liberal democracy, one that protected people’s lives, liberty, and dignity. Alas, their understandable desire for a better world is not sufficient to make that objective possible. Nor do Afghan aspirations, fueled by US promises, impose a duty on Washington to make Afghanistan into what it never was. US lives are not more valuable than Afghan lives. But Washington has a higher responsibility to Americans, including those now serving in Afghanistan.
US personnel in Afghanistan should be brought home. By May 1, certainly. Even better sooner, much sooner.
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.