When President Donald Trump addressed a joint session of Congress last month for his second State of the Union address, he made a poignant observation that triggered rousing applause from many in the chamber: “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”
And yet, regrettably, the United States is doing exactly that in Afghanistan. It is past time for Mr. Trump to follow his instincts and end America’s involvement in this war.
Over a span of three different administrations totaling nearly 18 years of combat, training, advising, and spending trillions of dollars, the United States remains entrapped in a conflict disconnected from American security.
Diplomacy presents a potential exit route, but the U.S. imperative to leave stands regardless of diplomatic outcomes. The peace talks with the Taliban led by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad may or may not produce an agreement that ends Afghanistan’s four consecutive decades of internal conflict. We should all hope Mr. Khalilzad succeeds in pulling off the seemingly impossible. But even in the event a deal is not on the table and the negotiations break down, the United States should not spend a single additional day fighting in Afghanistan.
Too much has been lost already — in lives, taxpayer money and strategic attention to bigger priorities in a fast-changing world increasingly characterized by a renewal of great power competition. The American people have long tired of the war and recognized U.S. involvement in Afghanistan for what it really is: A waste of precious resources.
Fully 57 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of military veterans, support removing all U.S. troops from the country. Some lawmakers, including Sens. Rand Paul, Kentuck Republican, and Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, have introduced legislation to do precisely that.
Such a withdrawal is overdue. The facts are indisputable and have been obvious to Americans for years, even if many in the foreign policy elite continue to deny it: The United States has already won in Afghanistan.
The original objective of U.S. military operations in the country was narrowly circumscribed and totally justifiable: To annihilate the terrorist group that killed nearly 3,000 of our citizens on 9/11 and punish the Taliban regime that harbored them. The U.S. military accomplished this task almost immediately, uprooting al Qaeda’s training camps in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and forcing beleaguered and exhausted Taliban fighters to flee for their lives.
In a few short months, Osama bin Laden’s group of al Qaeda militants was holed up in the mountains of Tora Bora, unsure if they would make it out alive. The same Taliban officials who once ruled Afghanistan with an iron fist were now confronted with a choice to either surrender, hunker down in Pakistan or die.
At that time, the United States should have done the prudent thing and declared the mission over. Instead, the George W. Bush administration expanded the mission from counterterrorism to counter-insurgency, which required nation building, long-term occupation and democracy promotion. The objective no longer was strictly confined to protecting America, but rather social engineering fantasies about reshaping Afghanistan in our image.
As al Qaeda and the Taliban were preparing an insurgency across the border in Pakistan, U.S. officials were focused on constructing a new political system from the ground up and nurturing the establishment of a modern, Western-influenced nation-state in the heart of Central Asia. Despite good intentions, the change in focus turned out to be a monumental blunder.
After the United States spent $132 billion in reconstruction assistance, $83 billion in support to the Afghan national security forces and years of counter-insurgency operations at a very high cost, Afghanistan remains in a state of perennial stalemate and civil war. If anything, the U.S.-subsidized Afghan government has only gotten weaker and more corrupt as the conflict has gone on.
President Trump recognizes how absurd Washington’s policy in Afghanistan has been and how unattainable and unnecessary it was beyond the original mission. It’s abundantly clear that — staffed with supportive, competent advisers — he would withdraw every last U.S. soldier from the country, dramatically adjust U.S. foreign policy resources away from peripheral conflicts, and stop throwing taxpayer money down a rat hole.
Conventional wisdom in Washington, however, has thus far disabused him of making this decision. In the Beltway’s alternative universe, where perception is often given more weight than reality, there’s always a reason to continue our “endless wars.” Like Mr. Trump, the American people recognize the U.S. military exists to defend Americans, not to defend Kabul.
Ultimately, Afghanistan’s long-standing political turmoil and economic inadequacies can only be addressed by the Afghan people themselves. This is not an American responsibility, nor is our military suited for the job. The U.S. national security establishment should face reality and stop pretending that it is.
The only national security interest the United States has in Afghanistan is protecting the American people from transnational terrorism, which can be done without a permanent ground force. The United States can monitor and eliminate direct threats to America anywhere in the world — there is nothing unique about Afghanistan’s soil.
If President Trump was serious about transitioning the United States out of endless wars, he would end the war in Afghanistan and pull out all U.S. forces. The United States can protect our people, defend the homeland and snuff out transnational terrorists without stationing American soldiers in Afghanistan forever. Anything less is more of the same and will only prolong an extravagantly expensive and utterly discredited strategy.
• Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.