The Case against Afghanistan Withdrawal Is Weak

Even in these divisive times, political leaders in Washington are beginning to converge on at least one issue: it’s time to end the longest war in American history and withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. President Trump said in the Oval Office last month that “it’s ridiculous” that we’re still there after almost two decades of stalemate and he reportedly wants to pull out by the 2020 election. His challengers on the Democratic side seem to agree.

Although in 2017 Trump authorized a small surge of troops and left the military strategy essentially unchanged, his special envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has made significant progress in direct negotiations with the Taliban. Daunting obstacles remain, but a political settlement that could include a U.S. withdrawal is at least within reach.

This has advocates of the “forever war” unsettled. Gen. David Petraeus, who once commanded forces in Afghanistan, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, with the Center for a New American Security’s Vance Serchuk, arguing that “under no circumstances should the Trump administration repeat the mistake its predecessor made in Iraq and agree to a total withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan.” Notwithstanding the Taliban’s stated promise not to host al Qaeda or other foreign terrorist groups, Petraeus and Serchuk insist that “common sense dictates the U.S. must retain its own means to pressure extremist networks plotting against the American homeland and U.S. allies.”

In making their case for indefinitely extending America’s 18-year quagmire in Afghanistan, they commit three analytical errors. The first is to fault Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq for the rise of ISIS.  The second is to assume that a withdrawal from Afghanistan will, as in Iraq, result in the emergence of a rapacious terrorist army prone to spectacular atrocities and harboring vast territorial ambitions. Their third mistake is buying into the safe haven myth – that is, the claim that the presence of terrorists in Afghanistan represents a major security threat to the United States. In a new Cato Policy Analysis, my colleague John Mueller and I address all of these (and more).

First, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq didn’t trigger the rise of ISIS; the invasion of Iraq did. As we point out in the paper, ISIS is an outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which emerged from the Sunni insurgency that rose up to fight occupying U.S. forces. Its leadership consisted of veteran AQI insurgents and former Baathists in the Saddam Hussein regime. It never could have filled the vacuum left by the United States’ withdrawal without the initial spark provided by the invasion. In any case, the Obama administration merely complied with the Status of Forces Agreement signed by the Bush administration in 2008, which permitted U.S. forces to stay until the end of 2011. Baghdad refused to grant U.S. forces legal immunity beyond that date. Even if the White House had pressured Iraq more, the small contingent of U.S. counter-terrorism forces it was considering leaving behind would never have been enough to prevent the rise of ISIS.

Second, Petraeus and Serchuk fall into a cognitive bias that political scientists call “failure salience.” According to Dominic D. P. Johnson and Dominic Tierney, failure salience refers to the “tendency to remember and learn more from perceived negative outcomes than from perceived positive outcomes.” Negative experiences have a profound impact on the psyche. Citing the rise of ISIS may be a psychologically potent way to scare policymakers away from ending the war in Afghanistan, but it is an argument based on a misunderstanding of a separate case with entirely different actors, dynamics, and context.

Third, the safe haven argument is based on the ill-founded assumption that the presence of al-Qaeda leaders in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the lead up to 9/11 was essential for the success of the attacks. In fact, it seems to have had little, if any, operational utility (beyond luring the United States into the graveyard of empires). Al-Qaeda operatives planned and coordinated the 9/11 attacks not just in Afghanistan, but in Germany, Malaysia, and inside the United States. Technological innovation and increasingly widespread access to the Internet has only made instant communication across borders, oceans, and time-zones easier in the ensuing years. A territorial haven in remote, land-locked Afghanistan isn’t much help to jihadists plotting to attack the west. In short, “fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here” is a clever slogan, but it isn’t based on the facts.

Anyone predicting Afghanistan will be all hunky dory after a U.S. withdrawal isn’t properly assessing the risks inherent in a society that has endured 40 years of war and whose leadership is still bitterly (and violently) contested. But the question for Americans is whether we are really made safer by stubbornly clinging to the same failed strategy in Afghanistan. We aren’t.

For further scrutiny of these and related questions about the war in Afghanistan, check out our new Policy Analysis here.