National Security & Defense

Losing the War in Forgotten Afghanistan

Taliban chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (front) leaves after peace talks with Afghan senior politicians in Moscow, Russia, May 30, 2019. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)
The Taliban’s waiting game is finally about to pay off.

The media are struggling to fix the nation’s limited August attention on Captain Ahab (a.k.a. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler) and his quest to nab the great white whale of impeachment. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the United States of America, the world’s lone superpower, is about to lose a war to the Taliban.

You heard me right: the Taliban.

This would be the same ragtag gang of sharia-supremacists that harbored al-Qaeda — its enduring ally — while the terror network slaughtered nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001, the bloodiest attack by a foreign power on our homeland in American history. Worse even than Pearl Harbor.

The Taliban will soon be ruling Afghanistan again, just as it did in those years before 9/11. That is when al-Qaeda was encouraged to make Afghanistan the headquarters of its global anti-American jihad. In recent years, while we were fixated on ISIS, al-Qaeda became stronger, more resilient, and more battle-hardened. When the Taliban retakes control, al-Qaeda will be right back in business.

Lest we forget, its business is killing Americans.

American forces have been deployed in Afghanistan for 18 years. It may seem like an endless mission because of the half-hearted, ill-conceived way it has been executed. But is it an “endless war” — to borrow President Trump’s worst hyperbole (which is saying something)? If it is, that is only because our enemies have never stopped being at war with us, and we have never resolved to defeat them.

“Endless war” is exactly the wrong way to understand America’s last decades in the Muslim Middle East.

What have been “endless” are not military operations against our enemies but our futile experiment in democracy promotion. I began writing against this misbegotten project in 2004. My fear then, expressed many times over the years, is coming home to roost now: We were wasting the public support our government must have if it is to fight wars that actually need fighting.

The fundamentalist Islamic culture we were trying, with the best of intentions, to seduce with the blessings of liberty is deeply anti-Western. That is its preference. Sharia societies shun the West not out of ignorance but because they believe their way — authoritarian, discriminatory, and brutish — is superior. That was not going to change, certainly not for decades, if ever.

Meanwhile, it was not enough to say we had no vital national interest in whether these societies became democratic in the Western sense. It was affirmatively against our vital interests to try to convert them via military expeditions. Doing so changed the nature of the missions, which became hopelessly elongated and unwinnable. It induced us to support sharia supremacists, such as Muslim Brotherhood groups in America and overseas, in the delusion that they could become democratic allies. Worse, the effort to liberalize and democratize an anti-Western culture was prohibitively expensive in blood and treasure. It was certain to exhaust us.

This fool’s errand sapped the public’s will to support military missions. In our society, such missions require sustained political backing. The public must be convinced that American troops are being deployed because American national security and vital interests demand it. It has been a long time since Americans believed that about our engagements in Islamic regions. Yet, the threat to us from these regions has not been quelled. It was foreseeable, then, that a time would come when our national security called for military engagement, but the public will would be lacking.

We’re there.

No one has covered the sad saga of Afghanistan with more rigor and insight than Tom Joscelyn and Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal (a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies). As they have recounted, our government, led by the Trump administration’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, is in the midst of fantasy negotiations with the Taliban. We are pretending that we can afford to further draw down and soon extricate our forces because the Taliban has turned over a new leaf. These sharia-supremacists, who ruthlessly imposed their vision of sharia governance in the mid-to-late nineties, are purportedly giving us “counterterrorism assurances” that could make them a “partner” in facing down jihadists.

It’s a crock. There are no real assurances. The Taliban and its allies are committed terrorist enemies, not willing anti-terrorist partners.

It would be laughable if there were not so much American blood on their hands — with the extraordinarily high risk of more to be spilt. As Joscelyn reports, there are numerous studies, most recently generated by the U.N. Security Council, demonstrating that al-Qaeda remains closely aligned with both Taliban leadership and the most important Taliban elements — such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. At the same time, unsurprisingly, the Taliban continues to terrorize, and to deny the legitimacy of, the rickety, U.S.-backed government in Kabul — whose days are numbered once U.S. forces exit.

This is nothing new. It has been going on for years. It has never stopped going on, not since the aftermath of 9/11, when the Taliban was driven into insurgency and al-Qaeda’s leadership fled — many given safe harbor in Iran (and Osama bin Laden himself in Pakistan).

The Taliban is now poised to retake Afghanistan. And, as Joscelyn observes, al-Qaeda has “regenerate[d] its capabilities and extend[ed] its influence.” Bluntly, by pulling out of Afghanistan at this moment, we are enabling recreation of the conditions that obtained circa 1998 through 2001. That is when al-Qaeda repeatedly mass-murdered Americans, attacking our embassies in eastern Africa, our naval destroyer Cole, and, ultimately, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Ambassador Khalilzad is too smart a guy not to know this. So is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But President Trump appears stubbornly determined to galvanize his political base for the 2020 campaign by showing that he, unlike Presidents Obama and Bush, knows how to end “endless wars.”

To the contrary, it is easy to end an endless war — even more “easy” than winning a trade war. All you have to do is surrender.

Of course, no one wants to call it “surrender.” Indeed, Khalilzad spends his days figuring out how to spin withdrawal as success. But when you abandon the fight while the enemy is still fighting and still determined to attack you, what else should we call it?

You don’t like the word surrender? Too gloomy and pessimistic. Well, okay, maybe we can find a less harsh description . . . but don’t expect people to believe delirious drivel about how we are striking a meaningful “peace” and a “counterterrorism” settlement with the friggin’ Taliban. Not only are they utterly uninterested in accommodating us; they are currently stepping up attacks because they know the president wants to pull out. They want it to appear to the world, and especially to Afghans, that they are driving us out. As Roggio quotes their leader, they are in attack mode to “pave the way for the withdrawal of invaders and establish a true Islamic system.”

We did not go to Afghanistan because of the “endless,” thankless sharia-democracy project. We did not provoke this supposedly “endless war”; we were not itching to play savior. Our enemies attacked us. The war is “endless” because we have never committed to defeating them, while they are committed to continuing the fight.

As Joscelyn and Roggio have documented, the government over which President Trump now presides lost interest in Afghanistan long before he came along. The president’s “endless war” tropes are counterproductive, but they resonate precisely because there is no political will in the country for the ramped-up war effort that would be needed to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I would rather see the president use his bully pulpit to explain the stakes in Afghanistan — how we were attacked, how it is very different from Iraq, how we cannot repeat the mistake of allowing al-Qaeda safe haven. But if he is not going to do that, I cannot say it is unreasonable of him to calculate that it is better to get out than to endanger an ever-more-skeletal contingent of American forces in a stalemate.

Yet we should remember this: No matter how deft the diplomacy that papers over a pullout, wars are either won or lost. For years, the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies have vowed to outlast us and drive us out. Now, we’re getting ready to leave and they are getting ready to rule. What would you call that?

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