US goals don’t require having troops in Afghanistan
More than eight months since the U.S. and the Taliban signed an agreement in Doha, Qatar, Afghanistan still remains at war. With the exception of a weeklong reduction of violence in February and a multiday cease-fire in July, the fighting is as lethal as it has ever been. Recently, Taliban fighters have conducted attacks in 24 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
Nobody should be surprised that the Taliban are escalating operations across the country. Yet some high-profile Afghan watchers, including several former U.S. ambassadors, are now citing the violence as a reason to slow down the ongoing U.S. troop withdrawal. This, however, would be a fundamental mistake. Diving into Afghanistan’s domestic problems and tying a U.S. troop departure to the successful completion of intra-Afghan peace talks will do nothing but extend U.S. participation in a civil war that the American public — and U.S. veterans — rightly want to end. This applies no matter whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden ends up sitting in the Oval Office next January once the long vote counting process is resolved.
Unfortunately, decisionmakers have not yet arrived at that view. One of the most prevalent arguments against withdrawal is that U.S. troops provide the Afghan government with considerable leverage at the negotiating table. Remove those troops, the logic goes, and the Taliban have no reason to compromise. While there is some merit to this argument, it misses the much more important point: While a successful peace negotiation would no doubt be in Afghanistan’s own interest, the United States doesn’t need peace breaking out across Afghanistan to defend the homeland from terrorist attacks.
U.S. troops have been fighting in Afghanistan for so long that policymakers and pundits in Washington have conflated U.S. and Afghan interests. It is often taken as fact that what is good for the Afghan government must be good for the U.S. In reality, this is the type of dangerous thinking that often leads to bad policy. By confusing what we need for U.S. security with what we want, U.S. policymakers set up the U.S. military to fail. In effect, connecting a U.S. troop withdrawal to the intra-Afghan talks provides the Taliban with veto power over U.S. national security policy. It also gives the Afghan government a major incentive to toughen their demands at the negotiating table. If Kabul knows in advance that a breakdown in the peace process will keep U.S. troops and dollars floating into the country, why would it bother to negotiate?
But all of this is beside the point. The truth is that whether Afghans have the ability to make peace with themselves is immaterial to whether the U.S. can protect its people from anti-U.S. terrorist groups. It should be obvious by now that the U.S. retains the most sophisticated, professional, and technically proficient terrorist-hunting apparatus in the world and has demonstrated on countless occasions over the last decade that its reach extends everywhere. Yemen, for instance, is hardly a nation awash in peace and tranquility, yet this hasn’t stopped the U.S. from utilizing its counterterrorism machinery to find, pinpoint and neutralize high-profile terrorists — like a number of senior al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula leaders — who threaten the homeland. Regardless of what transpires in Afghanistan or what form of government the Afghans live under, the U.S. will continue to possess the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and quick-strike capability to do precisely the same thing. None of this is contingent on the ups and downs of Afghanistan’s internal contest for power.
As the violence spikes, some will make the claim that the U.S. has a moral duty to ensure Afghanistan doesn’t completely fall apart due to the high sacrifice and large investment Washington has devoted to the country over the last two decades. But this argument is based more on emotionalism than any sense of cold, hard reality. Continuing to put Americans in uniform in high-risk situations and spending money to preserve a failed status quo is hardly an appealing option. Such a mindset is the sunk-cost fallacy at work, where people refuse to change course simply because so much time and dollars have already been spent on the problem. The usual result: The investment grows, but the problem remains the same.
One can only hope the Afghan government and Taliban officials are able to exhibit the open-mindedness, fortitude and long-term vision to end four consecutive decades of civil war. But U.S. policymakers shouldn’t fool themselves: Peace in Afghanistan is ultimately the responsibility of the Afghans, not the U.S. military. As difficult as it is, the U.S. withdrawal should proceed as scheduled until all ground troops are out of harm’s way. After two decades, it is time for Afghans to find a way to live with each other.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.