To be sure, America’s partners bear responsibility for sidling into bed with us. They come with their own tortured histories, calculated subterfuges, unrealistic goals, and cultural complications. But in the end, we must ask ourselves whether we want to truly be the shining city on the hill or just a Potemkin village. We must ask if we are a people who mean what we say and can seal a deal with a handshake, or whether we are geopolitical hucksters who yell, “You should have read the fine print!” over our collective shoulder as we shimmy down the hawsers and sprint toward the next shiny object.
War is where we find ourselves truly illuminated. Do we like what we see? If the answer is to be yes, we must acknowledge that there is a duty of care when asking fellow humans to take up arms on our behalf. That is not to say that any and all interventions must end in a Marshall Plan. Take for example a rare success in America’s small war history: Ronald Reagan’s bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in April 1986, in response to the Libyan bombing of La Belle Disco in West Berlin. The heinous bombing of the nightclub by Libyan agents killed three people, including an American serviceman, and injured 229. The operation in response spanned seven hours from first launch to final recovery of all U.S. combat aircraft involved. Two American F-111 pilots were killed in the operation with a reported sixty Libyans killed. There was no occupation of foreign territory, no partisans, partners, or proxies, and ultimately no entanglements to unravel. It was a success not to be repeated over the course of the post-WWII era.
In all of our past small wars, and all those contemplated for the future, there must be some acknowledgment of an implied duty of care after some point in a prolonged relationship. A CIA paramilitary officer recounts entering a remote Afghan village in 2002 and being asked if he was a returning Russian. Explaining that he was from America, he was shocked that the man to whom he was speaking had not heard of the United States. One imagines if the Russians return in twenty years they will certainly be thought to be Americans. Had the United States departed Afghanistan by October of 2002, having brought the justice of fire and destruction to Al Qaeda and effectively dispersed the Taliban, it would have been wholly righteous. We could have, in clear terms and actions, told the Taliban masters and Afghanistan “This is what we do when you give us cause,” and then left. The “Mission Accomplished” banner then-President George W. Bush hung aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 could have been moved up a year and actually been accurate. But we didn’t leave. We stayed and poured trillions of dollars into trying to build a unified nation where one has never stood and at some point, we implied a commitment to the future of a nation that we’ve never bothered to understand. To betray it now is to invite another generation of blood debt.
There now exists an entire generation of Afghans who have never known a nation without an American presence. The median age of Afghanistan is 19.5 years, almost precisely the length of our presence there. There exists an Afghan National Security Force structure we have made in our image, particularly ironic for our nation given that we are yet to reckon with the reality of our own predominant style of warfighting. Flying over Kabul at night one sees electricity, neon lights, bustling traffic. None of this existed in any significant measure at the start of this century. We must at least tacitly acknowledge that none of it will exist in ten years if America abandons its partners. That is not an argument for staying in Afghanistan; it is simply a statement of highly probable fact. It is a measure of the blood calculus with which we must reckon if we are to be true to the national character with which we believe ourselves imbued. It is simply a question as to whether we will fulfill a duty owed to our partisans, partners, and proxies and whether a morality born of blood bonds is not an essential component of what it means to be American.
In 2010, an Afghan colonel, somehow simultaneously hopeful and cynical said, “I hope you stay here forever. I want to be Germany or Japan. If you don’t, there will be rivers of blood.” The same year, then-Vice President, now President, Joseph Biden claimed that the United States would be out of the country by 2014, “come hell or high water.” Two election cycles later, on January 15, 2021, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced that America had achieved troop levels of 2,500 personnel in Afghanistan and 2,500 in Iraq. While declaring that further withdrawals would be conditions-based, he specifically noted that troop levels could conceivably be at zero by May 2021.
We’ve been here before. Alas, so have the Afghans.
Milton Bearden is a Distinguished Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for the National Interest. His highly decorated thirty-year career at the Central Intelligence Agency included service as chief of the Soviet and East European Division in the Directorate of Operations, and as head of the CIA’s covert support to mujahedeen fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
Russell Worth Parker is a United States Marine Special Operations Officer retiring to write and teach. His more than twenty-seven years of service included infantry and special operations assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a member of two separate special operations task forces, he worked with all elements of the Afghan National Security Forces.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Special Operations Command, the United States Marine Corps, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the United States government.