Even the streets of Kabul, the capital city, on which I traveled safely a decade ago, are no longer secure.
All this despite combat support from allied forces ranging up to 140,000. For two decades. That’s longer than the Mexican–American War, Civil War, Spanish–American War, World War I, World War II, and Korean War combined — and with no end in sight.
Absent a U.S. troop withdrawal — the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban are best seen as useful cover for getting out — Americans could spend another 20 years dying as presidents keep pushing the tough decision to their successors. Washington is long overdue in ending another doomed nation‐building attempt to install a never‐before‐tried system of centralized governance and liberal democracy.
None of the common objections to departing make sense. One is that the U.S. is finally at the point when the stars have aligned and a bountiful future for Afghanistan is within reach. Sticking around just a little longer will unlock the dream as former enemies, however reluctantly, join hands. In contrast, leaving, as in Iraq, would toss away this opportunity and risk America’s forced return in the future.
Yet assuming success to be just a short time away is a pipe dream, repeated by every U.S. administration, allied military commander, and Afghan apparatchik. Even some advocates now exhibit doubt. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., co‐chair of the Afghanistan Study Group and one of the debacle’s many architects as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently opined, “If we take advantage of the opportunity we have right now then there is at least a prospect of achieving that end state [a U.S.-friendly outcome] even as we recognize how difficult it will be.” That’s it? There is “at least a prospect of achieving” a positive outcome? That is the justification for tossing away more cash and lives, potentially forever?
This presumes that sticking around — about 3,500 Americans and 7,000 Europeans are still in Afghanistan — would be simple and cheap. U.S. casualties are way down because the few troops there do little fighting and the Taliban did not target them during negotiations. Break the agreement reached by the Trump administration and all bets would be off: U.S. forces likely would be at the top of the target list in an attempt to drive them out. Yet 3,500 personnel aren’t likely to achieve what 100,000 Americans a decade ago were unable to do.
Nor was America’s departure from Iraq discretionary. President George W. Bush was unable to convince the Iraqi parliament to approve a status of forces agreement, necessary for any continuing U.S. military presence. And a small force could have done little to prevent larger social collapse without being placed in combat, which would have turned Americans into targets. Indeed, ousting America’s garrison was a shared objective of nationalistic Shia and antagonistic Sunnis alike.
Another claim is that America has invested too much to quit: $2 trillion in cash, more than 7,000 lives (about 6,000 U.S. service members and contractors and 1,100 allied soldiers), thousands more wounded, many grievously, and enormous effort and emotion. These costs must not end up being incurred in vain. The emotion behind this argument is powerful. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez observed, “I just am concerned that after so much blood and national treasure that we don’t lose what we were seeking to achieve.”
But this is the fallacy of the sunk cost. The money and lives are gone and cannot be returned or redeemed. The question is whether or not the endeavor is worth future costs. Afghanistan is not. The best, indeed the only, way to honor those sacrificed by a succession of myopic political leaders is to stop wasting more lives and money. This presumably is why the vast majority of Afghan vets back withdrawal.
No doubt the air will filled with complaints about lost resolve, trust, and reputation. A couple years ago several Rand Corp. analysts warned that leaving Afghanistan in defeat “would be a blow to American credibility, the weakening of deterrence and the value of U.S. reassurance elsewhere.” Such claims were constantly tossed at Donald Trump, who questioned the bloody conventional wisdom, by insulated, pampered Blob members who sent Americans from across the country to fight and die in multiple endless wars that damaged rather than advanced U.S. security.
The problem is not that America failed, however — the U.S. quickly dispersed al‐Qaeda and ousted the Taliban — but that Washington unrealistically expanded its objectives. Moreover, the belief that America must sustain every stupid, peripheral undertaking lest adversaries believe Washington will not keep serious, central ones ignores history and reality. No country can be forever bound by zombie commitments.
The U.S. has always “cut and run” when necessary, without causing a global cataclysm. Washington abandoned efforts to liberate North Korea in 1950, failed six years later to back its encouragement of Hungarians to revolt against the Soviet Union, fled South Vietnam with the last Americans escaping via helicopter from atop the embassy in 1975, and dropped support for various friendly dictatorships and insurgencies over the years. None of these actions left the Soviet Union in doubt that America would defend itself or Europe. Indeed, the USSR and other nations acted similarly — the Soviets, too, left Afghanistan in humiliating defeat.
Of course, these are all arguments against withdrawing. Inertia tends to dominate policy. What has always been must always be. Doing what we have always done seems safer than making changes. Indeed, that’s why the last three presidents pushed the problem to their successors. Let someone else make the difficult decision!
But it is time to ask: Are there any reasons for staying? No. Not any good ones, at least.
Imagine we were looking at Afghanistan on September 10, 2001. Who would have advocated an invasion and 20‐year occupation? Not even the neocon cabal pushing so hard to target other nations, such as Iraq and Iran. Even for Washington’s activist war lobby, Afghanistan made no sense. And that lack of enthusiasm persisted as the Bush administration rapidly shifted troops to the conflict that they really wanted: Iraq. Afghanistan was just a convenient sideshow, unexpectedly dropped in their laps by Osama bin Laden’s location.
So why invade Afghanistan? Not because it is critical for Washington to dominate Central Asia. Of course, Uncle Sam tends to think he is akin to God in the sense that he is interested if anyone anywhere is doing anything just as God is concerned if a sparrow falls to Earth. But while being a superpower means having interests all over, few are important — such as in Central Asia. It is too far from America and too close to several powerful states. What happens there is of interest to Washington, but not vitally so, and certainly not worth decades of war. In fact, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia all have reason to promote stability in Afghanistan even though they prefer the U.S. to handle the problem.
There is also the broader call for nation‐building as a positive good. For instance, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote about