Why the United States Might Never Leave Afghanistan

In autumn 2001, America’s initial purpose in Afghanistan—which made perfect sense—was to destroy or incapacitate al Qaeda and punish the Taliban government that hosted it. This was accomplished 11 years ago. Today, the purpose of the U.S. mission is ill-defined, but clearly involves nation building. What the coalition desperately needs is an achievable, realistic endgame, not an indefinite timeline that commits thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan until or beyond 2024.

A common argument is that America and its allies must create an effective Afghan state that can rule the country and prevent the return of the Taliban and, by extension, al Qaeda. Aside from the fact that al Qaeda can exist anywhere, from Hamburg to Los Angeles, it’s not at all clear that the coalition can either eradicate the Taliban or come close to creating an effective Afghan state.

As a Department of Defense Report declared earlier this year, “The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined with a significant regenerative capacity, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of [improvised explosive devices] and conduct isolated high-profile attacks that disproportionately field a sense of insecurity.”

Arguments that the coalition must eradicate the Taliban lose sight of what the term “insurgency” actually means. Guerillas typically fight when the opportunity is ripe. They can melt easily into a population, making it difficult for conventional troops to distinguish friend from foe. Combined with the Afghan insurgency’s ability to retreat to sanctuaries in Pakistan, coalition gains can be quickly undone by such systemic factors that make insurgents resilient. Additionally, reporters Dexter Filkins and Kelly Vlahos provide excellent analyses that draw out the ethnic divisions and political factionalism posed by Afghan warlords, many of whom are regrouping and could potentially touch off a civil war in the years ahead.

As for the common contention that America must stay until Afghans can police and govern themselves, the current state of Afghan institutions ensure that it would take a decade or more before coalition forces could withdraw, with little promise of success.

detailed report released last year by the Commission on Wartime Contracting found that the U.S. government contracted for dozens of clinics, barracks, hospitals, and other facilities that exceed Afghan funding capabilities. For instance, the $82 million Afghan Defense University will cost $40 million a year to operate, which is well beyond the Afghan government’s financial capacity to sustain, according to DoD officials. Long-term operations, maintenance, and sustainment costs for the Afghan National Security Forces could continue through 2025. Similar findings were uncovered by auditors at the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The expectation is that the United States will maintain a presence of some 10,000 personnel in Afghanistan after 2014, while the World Bank estimates that Afghanistan will need $3.9 billion a year through 2024 for economic development. Ironically, when foreign policy planners in Washington make clear that they never intend to abandon Afghanistan, it’s their ambition to create a centralized state that will perpetuate that country’s dependency on foreigners.