National Security & Defense

The Terrible Dilemma at the Heart of American Policy in Afghanistan and Syria

U.S troops at a base in Logar province, Afghanistan, August 4, 2018 (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
When political realities and national-security imperatives are at odds, political realities often win.

It appears the Trump administration is on the verge of an “agreement” with the Taliban that could represent the beginning of the end of America’s ground-troop presence in Afghanistan. Note well that I did not use the phrase that many in the media are using. I did not say that this agreement would “end America’s longest running war,” because it almost certainly will not. Instead, it will mark an American retreat in a war that will rage on for the foreseeable future, regardless of our wishful thinking.

America’s dilemma is simple: It’s facing a relentless political reality that is increasingly incompatible with its national-security needs. The American people want to end our long-standing wars and bring our troops home. But when and if we do retreat, our enemies rush to fill the vacuum, gaining prestige and restoring their strength.

The political reality is simple. Going into 2020, both major parties are likely to be united in their commitment to withdrawing from Afghanistan. The only question will be whether the desired withdrawal is total or leaves a very small residual “counterterrorism” force. The Trump administration is negotiating the current deal with the Taliban, and Trump has often expressed his desire to leave the Afghan war. Each of the leading Democratic candidates also wants out.

There’s a good chance that by next summer we’ll see substantial troop reductions, combined with competing vows to remove the remaining force as fast as possible. In other words, the American people are likely to get what they want. And that’s exactly what worries me. I fear that we’ve learned nothing from our nation’s misbegotten recent retreats. In our justified, virtuous, and completely understandable desire for peace, we’re forgetting that there can be no peace unless all sides stop their war.

In 2011, President Obama executed a politically popular but ultimately unwise withdrawal from Iraq. Rather than negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement, he pulled out. Three years later, with ISIS committing genocide, beheading Americans, and ultimately plotting and inspiring a wave of terror at home and abroad, we were back in combat. Soon enough, we were back in ground combat. And soon after that, we were in ground combat in Iraq and Syria.

Last year, President Trump abruptly declared his intention to pull American troops out of Syria. After Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned, Trump partially reversed himself, permitting a reduced troop presence. Already, we’re paying the price. The Defense Department’s inspector general warned last month that ISIS is reconstituting, and our partial drawdown has decreased our ability to assist our allies and monitor conditions in key locations on the ground.

Now the White House is contemplating our withdrawal from Afghanistan, which, as David Petraeus points out, would be even more dangerous than Obama’s Iraq withdrawal:

Iraq had largely been stabilized by the time the last U.S. combat elements left, with al Qaeda having been routed during the 2007 surge. In Afghanistan, by contrast, the Taliban are far from defeated, while some 20 foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and ISIS retain a presence in the region. It is unlikely that any will join a peace deal. 

We know that terrorists are far more dangerous when they’re able to create and maintain safe havens abroad. We also know that those safe havens are dangerous even when they exist in remote, tribal Afghanistan, because they served as the base of operations for the terrorists who planned and executed the 9/11 attacks. And we should be under no illusion that the Taliban will lift a finger to stop its terrorist allies from creating and maintaining more such safe havens once we leave.

The shame of this moment is that withdrawals are being pondered despite the fact that the actual commitment of combat power necessary to keep the terrorist threat at bay is a small fraction of what it was at its highest. By 2011, we did not need an immense, surge-level force to help keep Iraq stable. By 2018, we had crushed much of the physical ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq with a relatively small deployment of American might.

As for Afghanistan? Once again, our current troop presence is small compared to its peak level during Obama’s Afghan surge. And while these forces cannot destroy jihadists entirely (an extraordinarily difficult, elusive goal), they can and do prevent a recurrence of the nightmare of 2014 or the sanctuaries terrorists enjoyed before 9/11. They are part of a legacy of military deployments that have succeeded at their most fundamental job: keeping the nation far more secure than most Americans dared to hope when we pondered the future after the Twin Towers fell.

Moreover, while we mourn each and every life lost, our casualty rates have plummeted. The vast bulk of the American blood spilled in the War on Terror was spilled years ago, and the price to maintain the status quo has decreased to the point where far more American soldiers now die in training than in combat.

No one wants a “forever war.” But at the same time, national self-defense is a perpetual obligation. We simply can’t stop wars on our own, and to suggest otherwise is to give the American people false hope. Our nation is understandably weary of war, but that’s exactly when leaders should make the case for continued commitment. If there’s a way out of the current conflict between political realities and national-security necessities, it’s for leaders to make this case clearly and convincingly. In our long staring contest with the jihadists, now is not the time to blink.

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