Sunday January 16, 2022

Time to leave

November 21, 2020

According to the New York Times on Monday, the number of troops in Afghanistan would be halved from its current level of 4,500.

The legacy of the war in Afghanistan for Americans and for Afghans is somewhere between dismal and horrifying. Over 2,300 US military personnel and at least 65,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed. As of 2019, the death toll for Afghan civilians was approximately 43,074 and 2020 is on track to add 3,000 more. From 2001 to 2015, there were 833 major limb amputations of US military personnel serving in Afghanistan. Suicide rates among modern veterans is nothing short of a public health emergency. Despite this massive sacrifice, around 40 percent of Afghan territory remains contested or completely under Taliban control. The 2014 presidential election was contested and required US-led and UN-backed mediation that only put a temporary bandage on a deeply dysfunctional system. The 2019 elections again required a political settlement negotiated behind closed doors. Corruption is so endemic in the Afghan government that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found $19 billion in waste, fraud, and abuse in the last decade alone. Afghanistan remains the world’s number one producer of opium which is turned into heroin.

Even as the dysfunction that has characterized the war is widely recognized, few in the foreign policy establishment are willing to consider the possibility that its continuation no longer serves the interests of the United States. Indeed, rumors that the outgoing Trump administration might pull the plug on the war evoke a panicky response. A group of Obama and Bush era diplomats recently warned that such a withdrawal is an “impetuous, damaging, and risky course of action.” To them, a hasty withdrawal from a war that has cost the American people $778 Billion, over 2,000 lives, and reputational damage from an era of torture and strategic impotence will lead those who wish the US harm to “toast with champagne or tea”. Even as our coalition partners have largely watched from the sidelines since 2014, these former diplomats worry that a quick exit may prevent allies from joining future security efforts.

Granted, the Trump administration’s withdrawal plan is less a plan than an aspiration. The logistical challenges in pulling out the remainder of US forces by year’s end are daunting. But the only alternative offered by critics is to indefinitely hold our troops hostage to the outcome of a “peace agreement” that Washington cannot control. This replaces the unattainable objective of militarily defeating the Taliban with an equally evasive goal of a perfect peace deal in a country with complex ethnic, religious, and tribal cleavages. It is a prescription for remaining in Afghanistan forever.

In a letter published last year, some of the same former diplomats advocated against a date for a US withdrawal, explaining that “[a] fundamental mistake of the Obama administration was the constant repetition of dates for departure.” Ever-changing and dubiously credible withdrawal announcements aside, this assessment ignores the Obama administration’s three-year long surge which saw as many as 100,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, leaving 1,044 killed in action, 13,622 injured, and 8,693 Afghan civilians killed in the crossfire. A web of forward operating bases and combat outposts created the illusion of coalition control over large swaths of Afghanistan, but as soon the surge ended, the Taliban took back these gains. The obvious question is: When is enough, enough?

Excerpted: ‘Trump Demands Afghan Withdrawal and Washington Panics.

But It’s Time To Leave, Now.’