• Matthew C. Mai

Why I Changed My Mind On the War in Afghanistan

Scott Olson

America’s involvement in Afghanistan may be coming to an end with the recent peace deal signed by US and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. American troops are scheduled to withdraw over a 14 month period and the Afghan government will release 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 of their own personnel. The Taliban have also agreed to prevent terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda from using the country as a staging ground for their operations, a key sticking point for US negotiators that will inevitably be tested once the withdrawal of coalition forces is complete.

Last year, while the parties were still negotiating over the terms of withdrawal, I opposed the efforts of the Trump administration to move forward with what in my view was a precipitous and irresponsible exit plan. My objection to American forces leaving Afghanistan rested on the following three points:

  1. The Taliban have not “moderated” since they were removed from power or shown any willingness to lay down their arms in the years since.

  2. Afghanistan remains a safe haven for terrorists and there is no evidence that the Taliban have rejected Al-Qaeda as a partner or that they are intent on squashing an emerging ISIS threat.

  3. The United States has a moral obligation not to cede hard-fought control of the country over to a radical fundamentalist terror group that aided and abetted the orchestrators of 9/11.

I had been torn for a long time, as I suspect many Americans are, over our seemingly unending involvement in Afghanistan. But even before this agreement was signed I had begun to re-evaluate the merits of my position and consider the alternatives. For every time I heard or read about a servicemember dying in Afghanistan the only thought that crossed my mind was “For what?” When was the last time an elected official justified our continued presence in Afghanistan to the American people? Eventually, I concluded that it was unacceptable for our soldiers to continue to be put in harm’s way in the absence of a clear purpose and the political will necessary to defeat the enemy and end the war.

In the aftermath of 9/11, we had a clear objective and critical national security concerns to address in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was overthrown in a matter of weeks and Al-Qaeda scattered as their leaders were (and still are) methodically picked off one by one. In the years after, American forces, with the aid of a NATO coalition, waged war against the Taliban in some of the most inhospitable places on earth.

However, from 2011 to 2015, the number of US troops decreased from 100,000 to under 13,000 and NATO partners scaled back their involvement. The Taliban began sustained offensive campaigns to retake lost provinces while American troop levels remained roughly the same, an indicator that Washington wasn’t willing to commit any more resources to the war and was comfortable with a stalemate.

In 2017 President Trump said that he was giving his generals a chance to develop a new strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan by changing the rules of engagement. And while he called out Pakistan’s support for the Taliban as the reason for the group’s resilience, it never materialized into a sustained pressure campaign against Islamabad (though military aid was suspended in 2018). This is because like presidents Bush and Obama before him, Trump learned that having a working relationship with Pakistan guarantees some degree of regional stability which, in the strategic calculus, takes priority over Afghanistan. India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed rivals who on more than one occasion have engaged in hostilities. Therefore, disincentivizing further nuclear weapons development by both countries is a constant objective. Moreover, weakening the tenuous hold on power for the current government in Islamabad by way of a pressure campaign risks seeing their nuclear arsenal fall into the wrong hands.

So even as Pakistan supports the Taliban in Afghanistan to counter India, American policymakers have preferred to maintain working relationships with both powers as a way to reduce geopolitical uncertainty. While a thoroughly unsavory partner, an alienated Pakistan could be far worse for US interests and the region than the current status quo.

Then what are the prospects for success in Afghanistan if we are constrained in confronting the Taliban’s main sponsor? We’ve been killing terrorists rather effectively for nearly 20 years but, racked by corruption and tribal infighting, the Afghan government still cannot stand on its own. At this rate, the United States could spend another 20 years conducting on-the-ground counter-terrorism operations while Afghans fail to build the infrastructure needed for long-term stability. Our original mandate did not entail committing, in perpetuity, blood and treasure for a nation-building project. Afghans are responsible for taking care of themselves and running their own country. While it is regrettable that communities protected by our presence will be left to stand alone, our military is not an international police force.

However, are these costs worth bearing if it means promoting America’s national security interests? My prior opposition to ending our involvement was primarily rooted in this concern.

We know that the Taliban hold the same values and goals as they did in 2001 and have not publicly disowned Al-Qaeda. Yes, Afghanistan remains the “Harvard for Terrorists” but does that make it any different from Somalia, Yemen, or Iraq where the US routinely conducts airstrikes against Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others? The lesson of 9/11 wasn’t that we should deploy extensive military resources to every global hotspot but that we respond to emerging threats when there is actionable intelligence. For prolonged commitments, there must be a sustained will to win, a plausible path to victory, and a clear exit strategy. The war in its current state meets none of these criteria.

Therefore it is both politically and morally indefensible to continue sending men and women into a conflict where our leaders are not willing to do what it takes to bring it to an end. It goes without saying that the Taliban is a monstrous group and ceding to any of their demands is a bitter pill to swallow. But I am willing to overlook the flaws and imperfections of the new peace deal if it gives us a chance to bring our troops home. Addressing future national security concerns in Afghanistan may take the form of an airwar similar to the one in Somalia or by leaving behind intelligence assets. However, an open-ended commitment with thousands of boots on the ground is no longer justifiable.

We owe it to our men and women in uniform to bring our generational involvement in Afghanistan to a formal close.

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