National Security & Defense

Afghanistan: Exit . . . but No Strategy

U.S. soldiers conduct a joint foot patrol with Canadian and Afghan National Army troops in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
We’re now seeing the result of fallout from the futile sharia-democracy promotion project, both in Afghanistan and America.

This is not the way it’s supposed to work. Not ever . . . but especially not after sacrificing 20 years of effort, losing the lives of 2,300, caring for over 20,000 wounded, and watching a trillion dollars circle down the hopeless Afghan sinkhole.

We are down to a provocatively paltry force presence in Afghanistan: Too few troops left even to defend themselves adequately, much less to execute combat operations; yet enough that their withdrawal can be exploited for propaganda purposes, enabling the Taliban and its enduring al-Qaeda ally to make it appear that they are chasing yet another humiliated superpower out of their country.

The point should not be to pull our remaining troops out by a symbolic date (and, under circumstances where leaving will be portrayed as a defeat, the Biden administration’s insistence on making that date September 11 is perverse). National security is about facts on the ground. A proper “exit strategy” would thus assess what the remaining national-defense mission is and then deploy the forces necessary to accomplish it, fully withdrawing only when that mission is accomplished — which may mean not withdrawing if a continuing presence and capability are necessary to sustain our security.

Understand where I am coming from. I don’t want a single one of our young men and women in Afghanistan one second longer than national security requires.

I was in the counterterrorism business, prosecuting jihadists in the justice system, eight years before it dawned on most Washington politicians that there was a nexus between jihadism in Afghanistan and security in the United States. For the better part of two decades, I’ve been a harsh critic of the sharia-democracy project, which had no chance of succeeding but was certain to sap the political will of the American people to support actions that are actually vital to our defense. For years, I have contended that the frustrating impasse at which we now find ourselves is an inevitable function of pretending that the Taliban was a potential solution to our security problem, rather than an incorrigible component of it — one that, like Afghanistan itself, is not worth the effort conquest would take . . . as our British friends and Russian rivals could have told us.

All that said, our forces are now being withdrawn despite the lack of a viable strategy to address the challenge that stubbornly remains — the only challenge that justified invading in the first place: How do we ensure that the ruling Afghan regime does not permit its territory to be a launch pad for jihadist attacks on the United States, including our interests, installations, and allies in the region and beyond?

Let’s check at the door the “forever wars” claptrap so popular on the Islamist-apologist Left, which sees jihadist rage as a reaction to American policy rather than America’s existence, and the Trumpist Right, which incoherently demands that we annihilate our enemies and retreat from fighting them.

And on that last point, can we please remember that we’ve been fighting them in a conflict they started and continue to wage. Iraq was a war of choice. Afghanistan never was. If it’s “forever,” that’s because the aggressor’s will has never been broken. If we leave with no security plan, the war isn’t “over”; the jihadists just retake the platform from which they launched it.

Moreover, we have not been in a war in Afghanistan, in any realistic sense, for years. We’ve instead wasted years, precious lives, and resources propping up a corrupt joke of a government and training armed forces that, after two decades, won’t last six months once we’re gone. But let’s not pretend there’s been no upside. It has enabled us to deny jihadists the safe haven from which they carried out a series of atrocities, culminating with an attack on our homeland more lethal than Pearl Harbor.

Obviously, the nation-building effort is, and has always been, a fool’s errand; but the counterterrorism mission is, and has always been, vital. The challenge is to throw off the yoke of the former while maintaining what is responsibly necessary to execute the latter.

The solution to this quandary, we’re told, is quick-strike counterterrorism assets. But the infuriating reality, after all this time, is that we don’t have them in Afghanistan. We’ve put all our eggs in a single basket-case — the government in Kabul that the Taliban is already sweeping away.

To be effective, a quick-strike counterterrorism strategy depends on the acquisition of actionable, on-the-ground intelligence, and the ready availability of assets that can hit what needs hitting. We will soon have neither.

We have had intelligence in Afghanistan because of our troop presence. We are now evacuating in a manner that, in short order, will leave in charge a hostile regime, which will brutalize Afghans believed to have cooperated with the Americans. When we are fully withdrawn, our ability to collect intelligence will be negligible.

Even if that were not true, we do not have quick-strike assets.

Just a few weeks ago, the top U.S. commander in the region, General Frank McKenzie, candidly told Voice of America that, once the pullout is complete, there will be no American airstrikes to stave off the Taliban takeover. The nearest usable bases are “thousands of kilometers away,” McKenzie explained. Short of a dire emergency, where we have reason to believe an attack on our homeland or interests is imminent, Afghanistan is simply not worth the logistical hurdles of a sustained campaign.

Understand: It is on those remote bases that we’ll rely in order to gather intelligence and surveillance and, as McKenzie put it, “keep the pressure up” on terrorists in Afghanistan. To be charitable, that’s farfetched.

When forced kicking and screaming to discuss Afghanistan and its imminent takeover by the Taliban, President Biden and administration officials lapse into trendy blather about our “over the horizon” counterterrorism strategy. Notice: They never get around to telling us what that is. To the contrary, McKenzie grimly observed that “it’s a long haul to get forces, aircraft into Afghanistan from over the horizon” — not “impossible,” but “very difficult.”

We should not be under any illusions.

Al-Qaeda is not just back; it never left. The Taliban refused to abandon its alliance with the jihadist network in 2001, when it could have remained in power by doing so. The two organizations have fought us shoulder to shoulder for 20 years. And here’s some recent history from the Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio, covering the time during which we were deluding ourselves that the alliance could be frayed by some magical diplomacy:

Al Qaeda, which was never defeated in Afghanistan, has also played a key role in the Taliban’s success [i.e., in addition to the roles played by Pakistan and Iran]. Al Qaeda has fought alongside the Taliban both before and during the current offensive. But more importantly, it provided the Taliban with military and political advice (including strategy sessions on talks with the U.S.), and helped the Taliban integrate regional jihadist groups to fight under its banner. In the north, Al Qaeda helped the Taliban organize groups such as the now-defunct Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jamaat Ansarullah, Kataib Imam Bukhari, and the Turkistan Islamic Party to fight in the Taliban’s ranks. In the east and south, groups like the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen have aided the Taliban’s offensive.

That is to say, al-Qaeda already has not only sanctuary but operational running room in the increasing swaths of Afghanistan under Taliban control.

What the Biden administration (like the Trump and Obama administrations) delusionally assures us is: Don’t worry, because if Afghanistan reverts to a terrorist safe haven after our troops withdraw, we will maintain the quick-strike capacity to destroy those safe havens. But Afghanistan is a terrorist safe haven right now, and we’re leaving, not striking. And our top commander concedes that the mere existence of terrorist sanctuaries, in the absence of intelligence that a massive attack on us is coming, would not be sufficient to warrant the enormous effort military strikes would entail.

I have maintained since I started writing about this subject many years ago that the worst fallout of the futile sharia-democracy promotion project was that it would sap the public’s will to take necessary actions in America’s defense. What we’re now seeing is the result.

Let’s say we had toppled the Taliban and routed al-Qaeda, then declared the mission accomplished by 2003. Let’s say we had spent the ensuing years building up political and military relationships with Afghanistan’s neighbors rather than taking on the gargantuan, futile enterprise of trying to build Afghanistan into a functioning democracy with Western-style civil-rights protections. No one would now be spouting “forever war” nonsense. The public would have endorsed the maintenance of a small troop presence in and around the country, including any combat operations necessary to deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda and its progeny. Not to “promote regional stability,” as the diplomats like to say; to prevent jihadists from mass-murdering Americans.

Alas, we have squandered the political support needed for such a mission. Regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, no one trusts this government, which forged a nation-building project the public never wanted; spent years telling us the Taliban was not the enemy (indeed, resisted branding the Taliban as a terror sponsor); and spent the last few years telling us we could leave confidently because the Taliban had promised, cross-their-hearts, not to let al-Qaeda operate.

Still, the lack of political support for what we need does not change the stubborn fact that we need it. When you leave while the enemy is still committed to attacking you, that doesn’t “end” a war; it is a defeat that only emboldens the enemy, making you more vulnerable.

After a trillion dollars and thousands of Americans killed and wounded, all we have to show for 20 years of effort is the naïve hope that another September 11 is not brought about by the same forces that are stronger today than they have been at any time since September 10, 2001.

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