Domestic issues have largely occupied people’s political bandwidth during the Trump era. Foreign policy used to be one of the most polarizing agenda items while George W. Bush and Barack Obama were in office. Ever since Donald Trump was elected in 2016, foreign policy has almost become an afterthought. But it still remains an important issue and is nothing to scoff at.
For example, the U.S. military has had a presence in Afghanistan ever since the US government invaded it in October 2001, in response to the 9/11 terror attacks. The US was able to successfully topple the Taliban, the fundamentalist group in control of most of the country at the time. Fast forward to May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was taken out by the US Navy Seals who raided a private compound in Pakistan where he was residing. Following bin Laden’s death, a growing number of policymakers began to question the continued American presence in Afghanistan. By the time Donald Trump was elected in 2016, more elected officials on both sides of the aisle have questioned this nation-building experiment. Trump’s ostensibly "America First" foreign policy raised a strong challenge to the neoliberal/neoconservative status quo of foreign adventurism.
Now, the drumbeats for withdrawal are getting louder. The release of the Afghanistan Papers – a set of documents revealing how top military officials believed that the Afghan War could not be won – in 2019 further catalyzed Afghan war opposition in Congress. With an unclear mission in Afghanistan, elected officials such as Kentucky congressman Thomas Massie and Arizona congressman Andy Biggs have started expressing doubts about America’s desire to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan and also Iraq in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. They recently penned a letter directed to President Trump calling on the president to reconsider the occupation of these countries. "Throughout your entire presidency, you have worked tirelessly to Make America Great Again. We are confident you will repeat this feat again after this pandemic. However, the United States will not remain a great power for long if we stay engaged in perpetual warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan," the congressmen wrote in the letter.
Initially, Trump announced plans of withdrawing 4,000 troops from Afghanistan before the 2020 elections. The plan met the usual pushback from the likes of Liz Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney – who is always giddy about launching foreign excursions. Cheney’s daughter is faithfully following in his footsteps and believes that such a withdrawal would open up the floodgates of instability in the region and put American national security at risk.
As much as regime change fanatics clamor for a continued American presence abroad, there are legitimate policy constraints. The US can only take on so many issues and with its domestic politics getting more polarized. In turn, policymakers will have to make tough choices and prioritize certain policy items. Put simply, the US will eventually have to withdraw from Afghanistan. The US government has already spent $2 trillion on the Afghan conflict. Wars, however, don’t just incur financial costs but they also lead to a significant amount of loss of life. For example, America lost over 2,300 troops in the conflict while 42,000 civilians perished. As the US approaches nearly 20 years of fighting in this region, it must reassess its priorities. Through a withdrawal, the US can then reallocate resources towards the American people and focus on more pressing domestic matters. In the meantime, the US should let other countries in these respective regions pick up the slack and actually step in to stabilize the countries.
Republicans like Massie and Biggs should be commended. So-called conservatives who talk a big game about fiscal responsibility, should concede that foreign policy adventurism is a massive drain on America’s blood and treasure. Suffice to say, nation-building is a non-essential service (and immoral to boot) and should be on the chopping block during a time when the American national debt is approaching $27 trillion and Americans are suffering massive economic hardship due to COVID-19 related lockdowns. As Milton Friedman astutely observed, "there are no free lunches", and defense spending is no exception to this rule. America has many domestic problems as it already is and is in no way obligated to function as a global caretaker at a time when its infrastructure is imploding, and people are anxious about their economic prospects.
Afghanistan is likely not going to become a spitting image of America anytime soon. In effect, politicians will have a hard call to make. The ultimate function of statecraft is to serve the people, no matter how controversial the actions end up being. There comes a point where the American people’s, not the defense industry’s, interests come first. For that reason, wholesale defense cuts and withdrawals should be in order. We should have never engaged in these nation-building excursions in the first place, but with a full-blown pandemic on our plate, the time has come for all troops to be brought back home from these hotspots and attend to the domestic needs of the American populace. D.C. must come clean about the failure of the war in Afghanistan and make things right by allowing for a speedy withdrawal.