The Phony Arguments Against Withdrawing From Afghanistan
The arguments against withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan are becoming weaker and weaker.
Late last week, the Editors of The Wall Street Journal argued against the idea of withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan, the site of the longest war in American history:
President Trump won applause in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address when he declared that “great nations do not fight endless wars.” It’s a resonant line in a country that has been fighting in parts of the Middle East for nearly two decades. And, in a literal sense, the statement is true.
Yet the risk of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric is that it encourages a public belief that America can abdicate its responsibility to work with allies to preserve the peace. History shows the great danger in failing to distinguish between fighting wars and deterring them. That’s especially true now that the authoritarian nations of Russia, Iran and China are seeking to dominate their regions and sometimes join forces against U.S. interests.
One lesson is that keeping troops abroad is often cheaper than bringing them home. An unwavering commitment to the defense of Western Europe under NATO prevented the Cold War from becoming a hot one. Some 300,000 U.S. troops across Europe deterred Moscow for decades until the Warsaw Pact imploded.
The same strategy has preserved the peace in North Asia, to the benefit of the American homeland and economy. Strategic commitments to Japan and South Korea, bolstered by some 80,000 American military personnel, have partially contained the North Korean threat while creating space for both countries to become thriving democracies.
This is an argument one hears any time some suggests removing American troops any time there is a suggestion that we should consider removing American troops from some part of the world. It came up when President Obama followed through with the plans put in place by President George W. Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq. It came up again when President Trump announced his plan to remove the small contingent of American troops currently on the ground in Syria, although he is apparently committed to leaving American troops in Iraq to “watch Iran,” notwithstanding the fact that the Iraqi government has rejected this idea. And, now, it’s coming up as the President considers resuming the policy first put in place by President Obama to draw down American forces fighting what amounts to the longest war in our history notwithstanding the fact that the original reason for that deployment, and the original mission, have clearly been forgotten.
In addition to citing these alleged dangers, these critics inevitably bring up examples such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea to argue against the idea that we should decline to establish an effectively permanent military presence in a place like Afghanistan. As Dave Schuler argues, though, Afghanistan is not Germany:
They can’t seem to get their heads around the idea that Afghanistan is not Germany. There has never been a cohesive modern state in Afghanistan. We aren’t detering the Russians or Chinese there. We’re trying to pacify the Afghans themselves. A bare handful of American soldiers were killed in Europe after the conclusion of World War II. More of our soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan practically every year since 2001. If we’d experienced the kind of resistance in Germany we’re experiencing in Afghanistan, we’d’ve left there, too.
Those who cite examples such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea also neglect the fact that those three nations represent situations where an American military presence was, at least originally, meant to deter attacks from other nations. In the case of Germany, of course, the threat at the time World War II ended was coming from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, which had its own military forces stationed on the other side of the border between West and East Germany and where the prospect of a third land war in Europe since the start of the 20th Century was, at least for a time, thought to be a realistic possibility. Additionally, the American military presence in Germany is also meant to be part of the NATO alliance’s overall collective defense. In more recent years, that presence has proven useful as a pre-positioning and support area for American and NATO operations elsewhere in the world.
One can make the same arguments regarding Japan and South Korea.
In Japan’s case, of course, the military presence was necessary to support the post-war occupation of Japan and aid in its transition away from the Imperial-ruled nation to the stable representative democracy it is today. Some might argue that it this makes it similar to the situation in Afghanistan, but they would be mistaken. Unlike Afghanistan, Japan had been, to borrow Dave’s phrase, a “cohesive modern state” long before World War II. While it lacked a strong democratic tradition in 1945, the Japanese proved themselves to be eminently adaptable to that form of government in a relatively short period of time. Additionally, as was the case in Germany, the United States did not face significant resistance from within Japan to its presence or to the efforts, led primarily by General Douglas MacArthur, to democratize the nation. One can certainly not say the same thing about Afghanistan, where much of the nation remains in control of tribal warlords and the United States faces continued resistance from Taliban forces that have managed to hold off complete eradication for the past seventeen years. If we haven’t defeated them by now, another seventeen, thirty, or forty years isn’t going to make much of a difference except to turn Afghanistan into a bizarre inter-generational war where Grandsons are fighting the same battles their Grandfathers did.
The situation in South Korea is much the same as in Japan, with the added caveat that there is an active threat not only to the Republic of Korea but the entire region on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone. Additionally, while it has been the subject of invasion and occupation by Japan and China for centuries, Korea is as much a “cohesive modern state” as the others, and while its transition to democracy was bumpier than what happened in Japan, something in part caused by the war with the DPRK, the fact is that South Korea is now not just a stable representative democracy but among the crown economy jewels in all of Asia.
One can simply not say the same things about Afghanistan.
American forces in Afghanistan have been involved in combat in some form or another on a non-stop basis for seventeen years, and that doesn’t even count the activity that may have been engaged in by Special Forces or CIA assets during the Soviet occupation and the years leading up to the September 11th attacks. If the WSJ editors and other critics of the idea of drawing down forces in that country have their way, that would continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. And this would be notwithstanding the fact that, as Dave puts it, Afghanistan is of no real strategic value to the United States and our continued presence there serves no useful purpose other than to allow the troops to continue to be a target for Taliban and other forces fighting against the government in Kabul. There comes a time when we just have to tell the Afghans that we can’t do this anymore, that they are going to either have to either resolve their differences at the peace table, or continue fighting a civil war that, effectively, has been going on since the Soviet occupation in 1979, and there seems to be no better time than the present. We’ve done all we can in Afghanistan and more, it’s time to come home.
Let us be totally honest here, Afghanistan and the war in the Middle East did not pay off the way those wanting the war planned. You know we get the oil in the area. So yes we need to pull out of the Middle East ALL of it. It is nothing but a major drain on us in money, manpower and equipment.
But no one in their right mind can not see where this is going. The troops come home, right, sure they are, for how long? not long the money grubbers see a rich oil area called Venezuela. They want that oil for they are greedy little besiegers. They need the forces out of the Middle East for they do not have the needed sustainable military assets to head out to the great (V) for oil. Thus, out of Middle East into the big (V) and done for now without a DRAFT which is not a very popular venture.
But far as a DRAFT is concerned never doubt if the continued mass migration out of the military by officers and recruitment goals continue to fall short it will happen for the greater search caused by greed by the rich and powerful guarantees that.
There was from 1919 to 1978.
When you’re looking for an excuse to continue a failed policy, any port in a storm. There is never a perfect time to withdraw troops following a conflict, because nothing goes as planned. The Afghan government has been given ample support and training to make a stand against the Taliban, yet continually they suffer defeats. At some point, such as the current moment, Afghanistan needs to assume responsibility for its own future.
Dave Schuler’s most compelling argument is one I agree with and amounts to: look at the map. Do you see an Afghan sea port where we can ship men, weapons and fuel? No. Which means we have to go on playing patty-cake with Pakistan so long as we stay in Afghanistan. Pakistan can throttle us whenever it chooses, which means Pakistan can dictate the limits of US involvement, and Pakistan is the godfather of the Taliban.
We are only as powerful as the American people will allow us to be. In theory we could topple the Pakistani government, seize Karachi and the rail/road links to Afghanistan and have our way with them. Would the American people support that? Not a chance in hell. There are ‘solutions’ but none that the people would support, therefore there are no solutions. And that’s not even getting into the titanic wave of blowback a drastic step would cause.
I think we leave. And we say the next time we are attacked by any group harbored by Afghanistan we will be back, and not with Predators but with B-52s and B-1s and with the intention of inflicting catastrophic casualties on the Pashtuns. Not proportional response, a deeply stupid approach, but a 100 to 1 response. We should lay that out there publicly as a predicate: if you do X we will do 100X. If we advertise the punishment in advance the American people will be much more open to inflicting it.
And before someone sternly lectures me about morality, we did the moderate, proportional, nation-building thing with careful pinpoint targeting and school-construction and elections, and it’s meant 17 years of war, which we have lost, at a cost to our soldiers, our treasury and our reputation, and at a huge cost to the people of Afghanistan. If you have to go to war – and make no mistake, had George W. Bush not hit back hard after 911 he’d have been dragged out of the White House by furious mobs – the idea is to win. Tecumseh Sherman knew what he was talking about, war is hell and it must be hell to work. The American military is the world’s biggest hammer, it is not a scalpel, it’s never going to be a scalpel, we will never be good at counter-insurgency, we will never be good at guerilla warfare, we suck at training indigenous forces, and we have won exactly zero wars with proportionality. What we do have is a massive hammer.
Any comprehensive analysis of why we remain in Afghanistan needs to include a discussion of why we are there in the first place. We are there because the Taliban played host to Osama Bin Laden and OBL’s organization staged an attack on us on September 11, 2001. Some response was necessary.
That doesn’t explain why we continue to pursue a counter-insurgency strategy there 17 years later that still shows few signs of progress. In theory a counter-insurgency strategy can work. In practice it can only work when those prosecuting it believe they have a right to remain forever, cf. the British in Malaya. Malaya was a British colony and the British planned to remain there forever.
I wonder whether we would have pursued the same strategy in Afghanistan as we have had the American people been aware that we would need to remain there over a protracted period, taking casualties all along the way?
We have the additional problem in Afghanistan that it is very difficult to supply our forces without Pakistan’s cooperation and the more effective our efforts there are, the less cooperative the Pakistanis are. It’s like juggling jello.
Not exactly. You’re referring to a city-state. It controlled Kabul and its vicinity.
Somewhere here at OTB are several posts — from James, Dave, and myself — all of which touch on the issue of how our continued presence in Afghanistan has required us to coddle the regime in Pakistan, which in many respects is more of a potential headache and problem than Kabul or the Taliban. Basically it’s as you put it, because of the map, there are a limited number of ways to get supplies into Afghanistan and the route via Pakistan has been the one that we’ve had to rely on the most even though the Pakistanis have proven time and again that they can’t necessarily be trusted. As long as we’re on the ground in Afghanistan, that’s not going to change.
We’ve hit on many of these issues here at OTB in the past. I recall a series of article that you, James, and I wrote on this topic back in 2011, part of which included the debate between a counter-insurgency and a counter-terror policy in the region. In the end, President Obama decided to follow the advice of General McCrystal and others and go all-in on counter-insurgency, with the increase in forces that required during his first term in office. In retrospect, it was not a wise or prudent decision.
We went into Afghanistan originally for the purpose of hunting down al Qaeda and its supporters and we ended up fighting Afghanistan’s civil war. If we’d stuck to the original purpose of the invasion, we should have withdrawn forces long ago. In retrospect, I think Joe Biden had the right idea. Instead of keeping forces in Afghanistan, we should have planned for a counter-terror strategy that would keep American forces in the area, such as at sea in the Persian Gulf, prepared to strike if there were signs of renewed al Qaeda activity.
Simple question: if we pull out, what is the chance that Afghanistan again becomes a terrorist safe harbor? I’m no expert so I don’t know the answer but the issue is a legitimate concern.
We don’t need to keep forces in country to have an effective counter-terror policy in Afghanistan.
After 9/11 when I was one of the few people arguing against an invasion of Afghanistan for all the well known reasons, time and again I heard, “It will all be over in just a few months. This is America!”
17 years later those same people have developed a strange communicable form of amnesia.
@Doug Mataconis: It is my understanding that one reason the drone war against terrorism has been successful (despite civilian casualties) is because the bases in Afghanistan. I doubt the logistics will work as well from naval ships and certainly we should not count on Pakistan.
At that point, how are we any different than Al’Qeda? We would be deliberately causing disproportionate civilian causalities in hopes of terrorizing them into political concessions, most of which the direct victims have no actual control over.
My point is that the “Afghans are simply barbarians who are inherently incapable of forming a civilized society” narrative exists primarily as a way of outside powers avoiding any responsibility for the degree to which their past meddling is responsible for the current chaos.
@Michael Reynolds: I think we leave. And we say the next time we are attacked by any group harbored by Afghanistan we will be back, and not with Predators but with B-52s and B-1s and with the intention of inflicting catastrophic casualties on the Pashtuns.
Air power is generally ineffective without ground forces. The enemy simply disperses and digs in. You can inflict economic damage, but that would be limited in an undeveloped country already devastated by decades of war.
17 years later those same people have developed a strange communicable form of amnesia.
October 21, 1964…nine months later…July 28, 1965
The final body bag count: 58,220.
There are effective vaccines that stop fatal disease.
I’m not so sure that the amnesia you cite can be prevented.
We are still in Afghanistan because no President wanted to be the one who “lost” Afghanistan and no President wanted to risk Kabul falling or a major terrorist attack staged from Afghanistan on his watch. I expect Trump to pull out clumsily and create preventable problems, but if he’s willing to take the risk, let him.
My only objection to pulling out is the fear that Trump will manage to make the whole sorry quagmire worse. Honestly, I’d rather just run out the clock at this point. With luck, America’s role on the world stage could finally interest enough voters once it comes time to elect the next president.
@Michael Reynolds: The country certainly needs fresh ideas, even if I’m not so confident of the one you proposed. But what we really need is to start laying out just what success means, and what constitutes failure. As @OzarkHillbilly said, too many of us suffer from amnesia. I want generals (and presidents) to tell us how much time they need to accomplish their goals. Should they fail, I want tearful apologies à la japonaise followed by a swift exit from public life. We could do the same with legislation: those tax cuts didn’t pan out? Bye bye, faithful public servant.
Better yet legislation should have metrics and timeframes and be self-repealing.
Agreed, as long as I can still watch the tearful apologies.
A timely, and interesting, piece from War on the Rocks.
Coming to Terms with America’s Undeniable Failure in Afghanistan
This start should surprise nobody, since he’s right. We’ve accomplished little of what we set out to do in Afghanistan, and it’s abundantly clear at this point that it will take about five minutes after we leave for whatever we did manage to accomplish to devolve into a steaming pile of dogshit.
What makes the piece interesting is where the author chooses to place a large part of the blame: not on strategy handed down from On High, but on the choices made by the military itself.
His view is that Americans hold our military in such high regard that we are self-blinded to where and how it has failed in Afghanistan, and therefore risk learning little from our failures there.
And certainly, it knocks some sizable holes in the argument against withdrawal.
@Michael Reynolds: Michael, you and I ave sparred over the effectiveness of bombing before. Earlier I was just tired of the pointlessness of all the arguing. but after contemplating this phrasing:
I can only say, “Yeah, that worked so well with the N. Vietnamese.” and Cambodia, and Laos.
@Mister Bluster: I don’t see a cure.
@Kit: trump could fuck up a wet dream. The question becomes, could he do more damage by staying in? Or by leaving?
ETA: and I hate to say it, but I’m not sure. (and I really want to get us out of there)
@Dave Schuler: “Any comprehensive analysis of why we remain in Afghanistan needs to include a discussion of why we are there in the first place.”
If I remember correctly, we began back in the 1980s, by supporting the anti-communist Muslim Afghan fighters (mujahideen) against the Soviets. And then the Taliban took over, imposed harsh new laws, and attacked US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. After 9/11, when the group we had supported turned on us, we attacked Afghanistan.
Maybe, if we had kept our hands off in the beginning, we wouldn’t have this problem. Of course, that applies to a few other countries/situations, too
@Lynn: Well, yes. But “too soon old, too late wise” is sort of an ongoing theme in humanity at large, but particularly in US foreign policy.