David French of The Dispatch wrote a compelling piece earlier this week on how the decision of President Biden (and before him President Trump) to pull all U.S. and NATO forces out of Afghanistan isn’t driven by U.S. strategical interests, but rather the flawed (but popular) narrative that our efforts there over the past two decades have largely resulted in failure.
He asks an important question, evoking the mindset of Americans on September 12, 2001, when many of us were just learning about Osama bin Laden, and had remained glued to our television screens for hours, watching and re-watching the horrors of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history:
“If I had told you then, at that moment, that the United States was about to embark on a military response that would, over the course of the next twenty years, 1) almost immediately depose the Taliban and ultimately kill Osama bin Laden, 2) defend our nation from enduring even a single further large-scale terror attack, and 3) cost fewer American combat fatalities in Afghanistan than were lost in a single day on 9/11, would you have thought, ‘sounds like we lost’?”
The answer, of course, would be no.
Yet, the failure narrative has become conventional wisdom among most Americans, even if they don’t really think about Afghanistan all that much these days. And that narrative, in the year 2021, has been preserved almost entirely from the premise of how long we’ve been there… not so much the mistakes of the past (of which there were plenty), and next to nothing to do with the current mission.
But that “endless war” meme is a powerful one, once parroted primarily by the likes of Code Pink and Michael Moore, before mainstream Democrats and Donald Trump adopted it years later for political purposes.
It hasn’t seemed to matter to many people that U.S. combat operations and casualties in Afghanistan have been pretty rare for some time now. In fact, no U.S. solider has been killed on an operation in over a year. Our role in the country these days is a supporting, stabilizing one. We’ve been helping to train and provide resources for the Afghan National army, as well as lend support to NATO troops.
Our presence in the country (that comes at a relatively small cost and small number of troops these days) has served as a deterrent to extremist groups. One can argue that such stability is fragile, but I’d call that an argument for staying, not leaving. We saw what happened when President Obama pulled our troops out of Iraq, against the advice of military leaders who are similarly advising President Biden not to pull out of Afghanistan. Jihadists (ISIS) predictably overtook the region, thousands were killed, and we had to send troops back in to a situation that was far more dangerous than when they’d left, to deal with the problem.
Shouldn’t we have learned something from that?
Staying in Afghanistan also provides a strategic advantage for going after bad actors in neighboring regions.
For example, the operation that killed Osama bin Laden and retrieved invaluable intel from his compound in Pakistan (which resulted in many more severe blows dealt to the al-Qaeda’s network), was launched out of Afghanistan.
Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who has served as a trainer for the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, wrote in a recent piece, “It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how the U.S. could have conducted that raid otherwise. And Biden’s strategy will make it only more difficult to launch special operations raids behind enemy lines in the future.”
I get that we’ve been in Afghanistan for a long time. I get that there’s a difference between having a prolonged military presence there, and having one in countries like Germany and Japan (though it’s not as profound of a difference as some make it out to be). I also get that over the past twenty years, we’ve made a lot of mistakes in Afghanistan, fueled by over-optimism toward what could be achieved culturally, democratically and militarily in the country.
But failing to meet certain objectives isn’t failure in and of itself. As French pointed out, we’ve succeeded in Afghanistan well beyond what any of us could have imagined 20 years ago. Withdrawing from the region now, based on an outdated perception, and not the realities of the current mission (nor the risks of ending that mission), can only squander or reverse those successes.
President Biden may be emboldened by the idea of getting his name in the history books as being the guy who said “enough’s enough,” but unfortunately for the United States and much of the world, Islamic extremists don’t exactly approach things that way. In fact, Biden’s needless withdrawal from Afghanistan will be interpreted by them as an enormous victory in what they view as the real “endless war.”
“Tens of thousands of jihadists around the globe are poised to celebrate America’s defeat in Afghanistan,” writes Joscelyn in his piece. “Their movement was given a large boost by the defeat of the Soviets a generation ago. Now, America’s defeat will be commemorated on September 11, 2021—the end date chosen by President Biden. It was a tone-deaf decision to select the 9/11 anniversary. Any other date would have been better. It means the jihadis can now remember how al-Qaeda brought the war to America on that date, and America completed its retreat from Afghanistan exactly 20 years later.”
If Biden’s so concerned with optics, perhaps he should pay closer attention to that one.
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