McConnell’s Statement on Afghanistan

Yes, it's complicated, but it is also time to stop relying on cliches.

There is no denying that withdrawing from Afghanistan is a complicated decision. At a minimum, the US will not leave behind a stable regime and there is a very real chance of increased extremist activity. There is no doubt that a lot of forward progress in various areas, most specifically in regards to the rights of Afghan women, will backslide if not be lost altogether. Of course, these truths do no obviate the fact that staying simply means spending more money and putting US citizens in harm’s way for unclear gains.

But, of course, any move by this president is likely to be opposed by the leader of the opposition at the moment, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. His comments on the subject struck me as nothing more than tired cliches.

For example:

Conflicts do not simply ‘end.’ They are won or lost. America and American administrations must be in the business of winning. Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic terrorists have not yet been defeated.

The reality is, actually, the “winning” and “losing” are often nowhere near as clean-cut as armchair generals make it out to be. What would “winning” even look like at this stage of the conflict? If it is a liberal democratic ally governing from Kabul and zero threat of extremist movements emerging, well that could be a very long wait.

Look, it is not unfair to say that we actually lost more than we won (whatever those terms really even mean in context). Americans seem set on World War II as a model, with grand surrenders and massive re-alignment of defeated powers. But that is far more an aberration than the reality. What conflict since WWII has ended like that? Even the first Gulf War, which had a definitive goal (ousting Iraq from Kuwait) hardly had a storybook ending.

It is fair to say that we “won” the “route al Qaeda and oust the Taliban from power” part a while back, but we have “lost” the nation-building part because we cannot guarantee that the Taliban or a Taliban-like set of actors won’t return to power. All that, therefore, raises not a “how do we win?” calculus and instead raises a “how much more talent and treasure needs to be squandered to try and create victory out of what will likely continue to be a loss?” situation. How many more trillions need to be spent? How many lives lost? How many decades wasted? Sometimes, in fact, conflicts do need to just end.

Further, it is frustrating to listen to McConnell complain about domestic infrastructure spending and the national debt while he remains willing to pour money down a hole in Afghanistan. For context, a 2019 study from Brown University political scientist Neta Crawford estimated that the wars in the Middle East sparked by the US response to 9/11 cost the US government $6.4 trillion:

Since late 2001, the United States has appropriated and is obligated to spend an estimated $6.4 Trillion through Fiscal Year 2020 in budgetary costs related to and caused by the post-9/11 wars—an estimated $5.4 Trillion in appropriations in current dollars and an additional minimum of $1 Trillion for US obligations to care for the veterans of these wars through the next several decades.

The fiscal cost alone is staggering, especially when McConnell and his allies are likely to be talking at great length until at least January of 2025, if not longer, about the evils of deficits and debt.

The phrase that really frustrates me is embedded in the following quote:

Foreign terrorists will not leave the United States alone simply because our politicians have grown tired of taking the fight to them. The President needs to explain to the American people why he thinks abandoning our partners and retreating in the face of the Taliban will make America safer.

I will confess that at one point, maybe until around late in Bush’s first term, I was persuaded by the “fight them over there instead of over here” logic. There was a time when it was not entirely unreasonable to assume that the 9/11 attack was the beginning of a larger wave of terrorism aimed at the United States rather than what it turned out to be, the apex of such actions.

The notion that “Foreign terrorists will not leave the United States alone” assumes a global reach of groups that does not exist, on balance. But, moreover, even if there is a group that does, maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan won’t stop them. If there is a modern-day bin Laden out there plotting an attack, it isn’t like his only choice for a place to plan from and to train in is limited to any specific part of the Earth. The world is a big place and the notion that the US can control enough of it to stop terrorism now and forever is folly.

After all, if Afghanistan and the Taliban had never existed it isn’t like the mostly Saudi Arabian group that downed the World Trade Towers couldn’t have found another base of operations.

I know the power of the phrase “make America safer.” I know that we, as a country, like to believe that deployed troops abroad are always accomplishing that feat. But the plain reality is that while yes, we are currently helping Afghanistan maintain some level of stability (a tenuous level, to be sure), but it is highly unlikely that US safety is increased by any appreciable amount by a continued presence.

I think one of the things that strikes me about McConnell’s statement is that is really is built out of tired rhetoric that is roughly two decades old and it reflects not one iota of thoughtful consideration of either the material costs nor the human toll of this policy. And it is heaping helping of the sunk cost fallacy that often haunts US foreign policy.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Mitch McConnell, National Security, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Mikey says:

    America and American administrations must be in the business of winning. Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic terrorists have not yet been defeated.

    Well, shit, if that’s the criterion for leaving Afghanistan, we will be there forever.

    I think one of the things that strikes me about McConnell’s statement is that is really is built out of tired rhetoric that is roughly two decades old and it reflects not one iota of thoughtful consideration of either the material costs nor the human toll of this policy.

    And unfortunately there is a far-too-significant number of Americans who are right there with him in 2001, and equally thoughtless of the price in blood and treasure of continuing to wage a fight nobody could win.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Yup, Afghanistan is the only place that terrorists can hide and organize. Harboring al Qaeda didn’t workout very well for the Taliban the first time, why would they allow them or other groups to organize in the country again?

    When the Taliban regain power, there will be an out cry, when they do something abhorrent to the populous there will be a out cry, but that’s it. Giving safe haven to terror groups, risks an attack, keeping terror groups out, allows Afghanistan to return to the 16th century.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    If one glances at a map, one very quickly sees that every single thing we do in Afghanistan can be vetoed by Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan or Tajikistan because: geography. Iran won’t be helping us again, obviously. Our bases don’t get a drop of fuel or a single bullet without it going through one of several problematic nation states.

    IOW, right now Pakistan has us by the balls, at a point where we either need to pivot hard to India, or we’re going to need a hella bigger navy. We want India as a counter to China. On a 1 to 10 scale of strategic wish lists, a strong Indian navy and air force is probably an 8. Pakistan will not like this idea, not one bit. We need to be able to cut Pakistan loose. We have bigger fish to fry. And we cannot distance ourselves from Pakistan so long as we have to fly over Pakistani air space or ship through Pakistani ports.

    The other ‘Stans aren’t as important immediately, but will be increasingly important in dealing with China’s Belt and Road initiative. We cannot deal with these countries from a position of weakness.

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  4. Scott F. says:

    Not one iota of thoughtful consideration beyond owning the libs is kind of the entire shtick of the opposition of the moment, is it not?

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  5. JohnMcC says:

    The withdrawal of US soldiers from Iraq began in Dec ’07, after the ‘surge’ ended. By then the war in Iraq was opposed by a majority. GWBush negotiated a status of forces agreement that specified our withdrawal by Dec ’11. Pres Obama was unable to get the Iraqi gov’t to extend any deadlines. So he abided by the agreement signed by Mr Bush.

    Guess who was tarred and feathered by the Republicans for surrendering to terrorists?

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  6. Gustopher says:

    I will confess that at one point, maybe until around late in Bush’s first term, I was persuaded by the “fight them over there instead of over here” logic. There was a time when it was not entirely unreasonable to assume that the 9/11 attack was the beginning of a larger wave of terrorism aimed at the United States rather than what it turned out to be, the apex of such actions.

    But, what made 9/11 the apex? There were definitely attempts after that. The shoe bomber, for instance, was in December of that year, and the underwear bomber was a Christmas Present for our cultural vernacular in 2009.

    The “flypaper theory” — provide targets (soldiers) in other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan) so the terrorists will strike far away rather than here — might be entirely correct.

    It’s also morally questionable, at best. Putting other people at risk to protect ourselves.

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  7. Joe says:

    I am struck considering how the Taliban have hung on and hung around through the American (excuse me, NATO) invasion and occupation. We can control government and insist on a different set of cultural mores, but the minute we are gone, those new mores are gone. It reminds me of . . . hmm . . . where have I read about this: oh, the post Civil War Reconstruction. The North was able to invade and defeat the South and impose a different set of cultural mores on the South, but as soon as Reconstruction ended, those old mores took back over and we have been trying to modernize the South (and much of America) ever since.

    I think it is naive to think that military power can create lasting cultural change. Cultural change happens, if at all, only over generations. “Imposing” cultural change will work only as long as you are willing to occupy that culture. Ever.

  8. @Gustopher:

    The “flypaper theory” — provide targets (soldiers) in other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan) so the terrorists will strike far away rather than here — might be entirely correct.

    I once had some serious sympathy for the “flypaper” theory but it presupposes that the terrorist we fight abroad would otherwise have been attacking the US homeland. I don’t think there is much reason to believe that. Moreover, as we fight “over there” we radicalize the populations “over there” and they are inspired to fight back (as does some segment of any country under occupation). Indeed, it strikes me as more likely to inspire groups to try and target the US because we are over there f’ing up their homes.

    I think 9/11 was the apex because a) it was hard to top, and b) the US and its allies starting turning its intelligence capability into overdrive to address further threats.

    I am not saying that terrorism ceased after 9/11, I am just saying that it was the outlier event, not the face of a new kind of activity.

  9. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Moreover, as we fight “over there” we radicalize the populations “over there” and they are inspired to fight back (as does some segment of any country under occupation). Indeed, it strikes me as more likely to inspire groups to try and target the US because we are over there f’ing up their homes.

    The “flypaper theory” is a very short termed plan, and depends on blasting them often enough “over there” that they have more direct concerns than us “over here”. But, if we keep it up, we can keep kicking the blowback down the road.

    So long as we provide soft-enough targets right in their backyard and those targets are more directly the problem, the “terrorists” are much more likely to strike the soft-enough targets — our troops, our allies on the ground, etc. Especially if we are causing enough damage to disrupt long term planning.

    I’m not sure our troops signed up to be bait, and it is a truly awful thing to do to our allies on the ground, and… but it seems to work. And as Stalin said*, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

    Peace is harder and braver than war.

    I hope we have gotten better at detecting and disrupting plans, but I expect that we will have some terrorist attack here (even if it is just some guy in a truck running people over), and people on the right will be pointing to the Afghanistan withdrawal as the cause and saying that Biden is weak on America because he’s not blowing up enough people over there.

    —-
    *: Pretty sure he never said this, but he seems like the right kind of person to be quoting in support of the flypaper theory. “You can’t make borscht without crushing a few beets!”

  10. flat earth luddite says:

    You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia’ …'”

    My general impression is that the majority of Afghans (and the rest of the ‘Stans) are perfectly content being 16th (or 11th or 9th) century feudal enclaves, and will be happiest if left to their own devices. They might respond to being a satrapy, but only if the rulers stay far away. Given that as civilized humans we can’t turn the ‘Stans into a glowing glass plain, maybe it’s time to say, “oops, sorry, wrong door,” take our collective troops (along with anyone who wants to live in civilization) and go home.

    There was an interesting opinion piece by Bobby Ghosh that posits that our withdrawal may adversely impact China. Not sure I agree with him, but given that the British, Russia, and the US have all broken their teeth in the area, let’s let the Chinese have a try.

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  11. Gustopher says:

    @Joe: We left the wealthy plantation owners in power during the Reconstruction. We kept them out of official power for a few years, but we left them with all their wealth, and wealth translates to power pretty quickly.

    Had we split up the plantations, and given the land to the slaves, we might have made more of a difference.

  12. Ken_L says:

    One would rightly be dismissed as a lunatic if one suggested America invade and occupy Sudan or Somalia or North Korea, create a friendly puppet government, and earnestly set about improving the lives of the locals, remaining indefinitely until progress could be guaranteed to be permanent. Yet that is effectively what the naysayers are demanding America do in Afghanistan, to somehow validate a series of poor decisions going back to 2002. Just because the invade bit has already been done.

    The whole sorry project will serve as a wonderful example of sunk cost fallacy to generations of future students.

  13. Richard Gardner says:

    Iran is the gorilla here – they hate the Taliban. The number 1 customer for heroin is Iran – not forbidden in the Quran. I’ve read my Kipling (Kim) – the great game continues. Us Westerners need only to stand away.