The Corner

National Security & Defense

Ending Wars Always Looks Easier from outside the Oval Office

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

Michael Brendan Dougherty asks, fairly, why anyone should think that Elizabeth Warren would “end our endless wars” when our past three presidents have campaigned on either a “humble” foreign policy or similar dovish themes . . . and then ended up having great difficulty keeping those promises.

A lot of doves choose to believe that these presidents mean well, but shortly after they get into office, they all suddenly get Jedi-mind-tricked by “the generals” or “the Washington foreign policy establishment” into keeping U.S. troops in war zones. It would be a remarkable coincidence if the American people kept electing similarly gullible figures, cycle after cycle, of differing parties.

No, the other explanation that is probably more frustrating to the doves is that once a man gets into the Oval Office, the consequences of enacting those policy changes look riskier and more dangerous. The United States did withdraw all combat troops from Iraq in December 2011 — and then by 2014, ISIS had taken over Fallujah and Mosul. Today’s much-desired withdrawal with honor can turn into tomorrow’s regional catastrophe.

There’s one element of the dovish argument that doesn’t sit well, and that’s the occasional unwillingness to accept that the other side’s recommendations to stay are made in good faith. The voices in the Pentagon who urged presidents Obama and Trump to stay in Afghanistan and keep some minimal-but-still-effective presence in Iraq and Syria didn’t have malevolent motivations. They’re not warmongers, they’re not ill-informed, and they’re the opposite of callous about flag-draped coffins returning to Dover Air Force base. These are their men and women in harm’s way. The various past Secretaries of Defense and members of the Joint Chiefs and U.S. Central Command and all the rest looked at a complicated situation of risk and concluded that keeping some U.S. military presence in those places for the foreseeable future was the best option to keep Americans safe. They could well be wrong; the record in Afghanistan suggests that the situation on the ground doesn’t change much from year to year, and military leaders can be in denial about how their mission has evolved into nation-building, despite policymakers’ insistence that it is nothing of the sort. But our military leaders didn’t reach their conclusions willy-nilly.

This was my one nagging doubt in hearing the argument from the leaders of Concerned Veterans for America, as they pushed for an end to the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

A slogan like “end the endless wars” sounds appealing, but it glosses over the consequences of that withdrawal. A much more honest argument would go something like:

When we leave, the Taliban are going to start throwing acid in the faces of girls going to school again. You will see those pictures of those girls on your television, and you will hear Afghans blaming us for it happening, because we chose to leave. There will be Afghans who hate us because of our decision to leave – just as there were and are Afghans who hate us for our decisions to invade and stay for 18 years.

The return of the Taliban’s wanton cruelty will be an appalling tragedy. But until the Afghan people incubate in their own young men the belief this is not the way to react to a young girl getting an education, the country will not change. We cannot change their culture for them. We have done our best, for nearly two decades, to help those who want a free Afghanistan with human rights and respect for others. We will continue to use diplomacy, trade, and foreign aid to help those who want to build a better future for that country. But the good Afghans have to stand on their own, and they have to win this fight on their own, if Afghanistan is ever going to change.

After we depart, the Taliban will claim they won the war. They did not, in the sense that just about everyone who was running the Taliban when they hosted al-Qaeda is either dead or imprisoned. U.S. military invasions do not come with a guarantee that the invaded country will turn into Germany, or Japan, or South Korea. Our primary interest in Afghanistan is that it never again become a home base for terrorists who target Americans. We hope to never come back. But if we need to, we will again – and next time we are unlikely to be willing to spend two decades trying to help the Afghan people build a better future.

Withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is going to mean a lot of innocent people are going to die. Let’s be clear-eyed about the consequences of this course of action. Sometimes the least-bad option is still a bad one.

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