Editor’s Note: This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
The United States is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan on May 1. And all over Washington, there is talk of extending the stay of U.S. troops, with some in the Biden administration recommending six more months before making another decision. If the U.S. does keep troops in Afghanistan beyond the agreed-upon deadline, there can be little doubt that before long we would be having the same debate again.
Here is how events stand: The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. In 2009, President Barack Obama came into office and, having felt pressured into it by the military, decided on a troop surge to rescue what was already seen as a failing mission. At that time, the U.S. had already concluded that the al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan was all but non-existent. In response, instead of declaring mission accomplished, Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s advisory group made sure that the terrorist organization was mentioned in a document selling the continuation of the war. American casualties went up, as that decision ushered in the bloodiest and most expensive years of the conflict.
To what end? In 2015, a New York Times headline read “More Than 14 Years After U.S. Invasion, the Taliban Control Large Parts of Afghanistan.” By 2020, things had gotten worse, and the Taliban was said to control more territory than at any time since they were overthrown. In recent months, reports are that the Taliban moves around securely in regions under its control, and is in high spirits as it anticipates victory after an American withdrawal.
To try to keep us in Afghanistan, it is not simply that the same arguments are being recycled over and over again. Rather, they are being made by the exact same people.
In 2012, John Allen was the head of the NATO mission in Afghanistan during the Obama surge. That summer, he gave an interview in which he said recent events had been a “game-changer” in accelerating the progress of Afghan security forces and requested no drawback in the 68,000 troops that would soon be in the country. In the Washington tradition of ‘failing upward,’ Allen is now the president of the influential Brookings Institution, which regularly releases reports on how the United States still can’t leave.
One of the most prominent writers working on Afghanistan at Brookings is Michael O’Hanlon. In 2013, he wrote a glowing profile of Allen, who had supposedly brought “stability and steady progress to the mission in Afghanistan.” In late 2020, Allen had become his boss at Brookings, and together they wrote an op-ed arguing that “we need patience in the peace process.”
On the contrary, “patience” has been the problem.
The American people have listened to a professional class with an ideological and career interest in endless war for 20 years. They have accepted shifting explanations for what the war is about, and have shrugged as a supposed counter-terrorism mission was transformed into an open-ended struggle for democracy and women’s rights. When their past predictions have proven wrong, members of this same class have moved through a revolving door through which they alternate between government, the defense industry, and the think tank world. They repeat the same over-optimistic analysis at each moment a decision needs to be made, hoping that the next time public attention turns towards Afghanistan, the rest of the country has forgotten their abysmal record.
In the early days of the war, the U.S. tried a light footprint in Afghanistan. Obama ran on the idea that the U.S. had taken its eye off the ball by going into Iraq, and increased the American commitment. We are back to a light footprint again, with the only debate being about whether we should take it down to zero. It is time to face the fact that it is not simply a matter of the U.S. having chosen the wrong strategy. Rather, the mission — to create a functioning, stable democracy in a country that is as poor and geographically and culturally distant from the U.S. as any nation can be — was based on false premises.
In his recent memoir, former President Obama wrote that when his administration was debating whether to increase its commitment to Afghanistan, “among the principals, only Joe Biden voiced his misgivings.” Twelve years later, we are having the same debate, with the only difference being that the Taliban now controls more territory.
The U.S. has signed a deal in which that organization has agreed not to attack American forces on their way out. If Washington fails to honor the withdrawal agreement, we could return to the days of regular U.S. casualties. It is time, once and for all, to stop listening to those who have been wrong for two decades and finally bring American forces home.