Cutting Our Losses in Afghanistan

The top three arguments for staying in Afghanistan—and why they're wrong.

Breaking faith with foreigners is hard to do, but breaking faith with our own military is even worse. This week saw another grim milestone in Afghanistan: two thousand U.S. combat deaths. It is well past time for America and our few remaining allies to cut our losses and return home.

Yes, a full withdrawal would mean backing out on any number of good and honorable Afghans that have staked their reputations and future on our willingness to stand by them. But the sad truth is that much of the current Afghan government is corrupt; the Taliban are ruthless and willing to fight beyond any timeline in our national interest; and the only thing most of the tribes and clans agree on is their hatred of outside intervention.

We can’t afford the economic or reputational damage of continuing to fight this costly and unending conflict. Besides, we have lost any element of negotiating power by already announcing that we are leaving soon, clearly admitting that Washington has lost its appetite for the costs required to build Afghanistan into a country with a chance to stand on its own—much less something one could describe as modern, free and democratic.

Many pundits will criticize this as cut-and-run weakness that will leave the Taliban claiming victory and a humanitarian disaster in the making. They are correct about the potential outcomes. But those problems are secondary in terms of our grand strategic interests as a global superpower. In contrast, the many economic, political and military costs of our current flawed policy do add up to significant grand-strategic relevance. Still, some may not be convinced. Specifically, the champions of further war will primarily draw upon three arguments, each of them compelling—but each of them wrong in important ways.

First, some will say that if we leave Afghanistan will become the breeding ground of the next 9/11, the base for a terror attack on our homeland. This is certainly an important consideration, but it is flawed. The global terrorism threat has metastasized such that any failed nation can serve that purpose, including Yemen, Somalia or nearly anywhere else. In our interconnected world, geography does not constrain global terrorist attacks any more than oceans prohibit transatlantic travel. Besides, consider the sums we are spending today and the toll on our troops and equipment. It will be cheaper, as required, to defend against attacks and reengage with drone strikes and special-operations raids than to try to stay in Afghanistan and build a future that not enough of the locals want or are empowered to create.

Next, others will say that our departure will embolden Iran and make it even stronger in the region. But no realistic assessment of the facts on the ground leads one to believe that more training will have a magical impact on the fledgling Afghan forces, much less the failed civil institutions and local law enforcement. Indeed, what can we hope to achieve when we can no longer even train side by side because too many of the local forces have turned their weapons on our forces? We already have shown that we are leaving; the reasoning about emboldening Iran will be no less true upon an eventual departure, and it is only timing that is being determined. Why not come back now and save many billions of dollars and untold numbers of American lives?

Finally, and perhaps most tragically, a few advocates will say that a quick withdrawal is a disservice to those who have already died, brave soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who already paid the ultimate price while serving in the defense of our nation. Yet as every warfighter knows, it is the welfare of the man or woman next to you that you fight for—and no soldier would want another soldier’s blood to be shed only to further chase an elusive and ultimately impossible victory. Instead, it stands to reason that our fallen comrades would rather their brothers and sisters in arms return home now, with dignity and with honor, and have a chance to prepare for the next fight. For with all the Middle East’s ongoing sectarian strife and the intra-Islamic struggles for national and regional supremacy, the next conflict is surely just around the corner.

These strategic arguments are not calls for a retreat from the world or for a policy of nonintervention. Indeed, the use of force is a necessary and important means of protecting our core national interests. But a sober and realistic assessment of Afghanistan shows that after more than a decade of conflict, the facts on the ground have left us with a choice between bad alternatives and harsh realities. It is time we act in our own national interest by bringing the troops home.

One can only hope that if enough of us start saying this aloud, whoever wins the election come November will take heed. The president must make the right decision as soon as the political silly season of the election is behind us.

J. Michael Barrett, CEO of Diligent Innovations, is a former director of strategy for the White House Homeland Security Council, naval intelligence officer and Fulbright scholar to Ankara, Turkey.

Image: Defence Images