Speaking before a press conference Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley addressed the problems of leaving Afghanistan in what was obviously an uncomfortable performance. It was also riddled with disinformation for which the secretary and the chairman should be embarrassed. The American people deserve the truth.
While former President Trump and President Biden may not agree on much, both understand the need to remove U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, where the nation has no serious strategic interest, a view that conflicts with many military leaders who are unable to deal with either the political or military reality of the situation — a bias built on two decades of failed policy.
After 20 years in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history, in an effort to defeat the hardline Islamist movement and communist party that ruled Afghanistan under Soviet control from 1979 to 1989 and still controls most of the country, it is long past time to depart. Remaining there to support the Afghan Security Forces (ASF) in a clearly failing effort cannot and will not solve the problem. Statements by both Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley that they are uncertain about what is likely to happen, or that it is still too early to say are just false and disingenuous.
These two leaders have access to the broadest set of intelligence and information possible on Afghanistan, and it is a sure bet that the Taliban will continue to overrun bases, checkpoints, and territory and will soon control all of the country. For better or worse, the Afghan central government currently controls little more than the capital at Kabul. There is nothing to support an alternate view that the ASF can reverse this.
In economic terms, the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan consumes over $38 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars annually, in addition to another $40 billion in reconstruction funds, much of which the inspector general finds has been stolen or used for nefarious purposes. The DoD is also reluctant to report that every year some 30% of the ASF defect, taking their U.S.-supplied weapons with them, often going to the Taliban.
Here Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley, both four star generals, reflect the continued reluctance of the military to leave Afghanistan, where many have served in a war covering most of their military careers — facing the reality that this war has been a largely useless enterprise. In reality, the U.S. has not been “defending democracy” or promoting any strategic interest. The Taliban do not threaten the U.S. or any regional ally, and have no ability to project force beyond Afghanistan.
From the outset, the U.S. defined its goals in Afghanistan in unrealistic terms and then it kept the goals, and never related ends, ways and means of achieving them. For two decades, America has held out the hope to people such as the women of Afghanistan that their lives could improve. Despite some limited progress, this is now threatened. As for solving the Afghanistan-source-of-opium problem, it remains the primary source of that nations GNP.
Most recently supporters of a continued U.S. presence have concocted a set of excuses, such as the critical role American forces here would play in the event of a China–Taiwan conflict. Unmitigated nonsense. Another is that this is an important staging area in case of some other regional conflict. As if the U.S. cannot bring in forces from elsewhere. More nonsense. Slightly more plausible are the tried and true arguments about terrorism and terrorist bases — as if they can’t go elsewhere in the region — like Iran.
The sad fact is that in terms of global geopolitics, Afghanistan is simply of no consequence. Since the Soviet Union ended their own ill-fated effort to govern that nation in 1978-79 it makes no real difference to the U.S. and its allies who governs. It is also fairly certain that as the U.S. depart the Taliban will soon come to control Afghanistan again.
For some time the U.S. negotiator has done the best job humanly possible and deserves great credit. In the end, however, no negotiation can displace the fact that the Afghan government and its forces simply cannot control the country. They have lost. Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley should have the fortitude to tell the nation the truth.
So what now? As the U.S. forces depart, decisions are being made as to what equipment can be bought back; what can be turned over to the ASF; and what needs to be destroyed. There is also the humanitarian problem of the Afghan translators and others who have supported the U.S. forces over the years — some 17,000 of them by one account — that should be rapidly relocated. If left in-country they will most likely all be killed.
While some object to using the fall of Vietnam as analogy there is much to be learned from this experience. The agreement which Henry Kissinger negotiated there, for which he received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, was largely a fig leaf covering the U.S. withdrawal at a time when it was known that the South Vietnamese government would shortly fall to the North and the Viet Cong.
Despite the best efforts of Mr. Kissinger and the Pentagon at the time the U.S. departure from Vietnam was in many was a mess. While the forces got out and prisoners released, many Vietnamese who supported the U.S. were abandoned.
Now it is essential that those in charge take these costly lessons to heart. The large cadre of contractors in Afghanistan, seldom mentioned, as well as local personnel who have supported American and allied forces for years need to be taken seriously — and not simply brushed off as Gen. Milley did on camera. They deserve better.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford and is the author of the recent book “Henry Kissinger: Pragmatic Statesman in Hostile Times.”