Talks between the Trump administration and the Taliban have broken down. We should be happy they did not reach a deal, in part because an Iraq-style drawdown would leave a vacuum, and terrorists abhor a vacuum. Eventually, an ISIS 2.0 would have filled that vacuum and use Afghanistan as a launching pad for terrorist attacks on the US mainland and our allies around the world.
Most security professionals more or less agree this is the case. Knowing this, the question is whether we should then stay or go. The fact this is America’s “longest war,” as critics are wont to cite, does not carry a lot of moral weight. So what? Some wars are worth fighting for long periods of time. Many predicted that the battle with Islamic terrorism could go on for many decades. Whether we like it or not, this threat is not going away anytime soon, even if we draw down our forces.
The morally relevant question, if we move beyond the question of whether this war is just and being fought in a just manner, is a question of prudence and what we owe to the Afghans.
Many appeal to the price tag and loss of life without a final victory as a reason for pulling out. This is an effective emotional appeal, but I know of no way to tabulate the loss of life and expenditure of resources to decide whether the war is “worth it.” The Taliban government in Afghanistan provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda from which they planned and launched the September 11 attacks. We have prevented a further attack from being launched from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan since then. Since Afghanistan has the highest concentration of terrorists in the world, this seems like no mean feat.
Though people are understandably frustrated that the situation doesn’t allow us to bring the troops home, the conflict will not end in a clear victory and withdrawal. More than likely, American presence and resources will be required for the foreseeable future. Unlike other wars that have clear-cut victors, the war against terrorism will probably not achieve a clear and decisive victory anytime soon. But that is no reason to give up or throw in the towel.
Not every war that should be fought must be fought by us. Sometimes other countries should fight just wars. The forces in Afghanistan today are coalition forces, and we should never downplay the importance of acting in concert with our allies. But the US is doing the vast majority of the fighting. Americans, who are war-weary and view this war unfavorably, want to know why we are there. This is a completely understandable and responsible question. But our politicians, and presidents in particular, have failed to sell this war.
Two successive presidential administrations have failed to make the political case for Afghanistan to the American people because they both ran as “bring the troops home” candidates. Presidents cannot merely ignore campaign pledges, especially when they were central to their electoral appeal. But when in office, their promises forced them into the awkward position of supporting a policy they publically ran against.
Obama argued that the Afghanistan war was necessary, but publically talked about a timetable to pull out—a major strategic mistake. Trump also ran on a platform that advocated letting other countries handle their own problems. Whatever made him realize a deal with the Taliban would not work, being in a position of responsibility and seeing the Taliban threat undoubtedly contributed. Yet both presidents failed to publically rally the country behind this war, which, if it is a just war and is essential to core American interests, they should have done.
Leaving Afghanistan would have disastrous consequences. How do we know? The country is more reliant on the US than Iraq was for aid, military assistance, and intelligence. Further, the number of terrorists is larger. It does not take a whole lot of imagination to see what will happen if we take the pressure off these groups. Unmolested for a year or two, regions of Afghanistan now under Taliban control would easily become launching pads for terror attacks throughout the world, and the terrorists’ primary goal would be another attack against the US.
Further, there is the question of whether the Taliban can hold to a peace deal and engage in the political process in good faith. That seems unlikely. The Taliban is not monolithic and therefore cannot be controlled and kept from splintering off into other groups. If we consider the Taliban and its allies’ objectives, we should have even greater skepticism, as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently emphasized.
Some liken Afghanistan to Vietnam—a quagmire that will effect no real change and only waste valuable lives and resources while undermining our national interest. This is the wrong analogy. Colombia is a better one. America gave the Columbian government extensive military aid and support in its decades-long struggle against the FARC guerillas. That persistence paid off with a friendly, democratic government that eventually brought the conflict to an end. This is the model we should keep before us.
Of course we could still leave, like we did in Iraq, and deal with the consequences later, whatever they might be. This is an option that many would advocate for. But I am of the mind that an ounce of prevention is a pound of cure. The money and lives we have expended have been worthwhile, not because we reached a final end state, but because we prevented terror attacks on the homeland. The Afghanistan War is a major reason why. Thus, for national security reasons it makes straightforward sense.
Lastly, I do think America owes something to the Afghans. Saying we owe them nothing is both calloused and immoral. However, I don’t think we owe them democracy, capitalism, or a peaceful society. Afghans must ultimately bring their own future to pass. While Americans tend to think everybody in the world should enjoy our way of life, we must realize many people do not want it.
Still, I do think we owe the Afghans more than just an unstable deal with the Taliban. We owe it to them to stay the course and leave Afghanistan in the best possible position, keeping the Taliban at bay to maintain an orderly and stable society. If we cut and run only to let the Taliban regain control, we would fail in this obligation. The war is not over, and we need to see its end is not only the cessation of hostility but some sort of permanent and sustainable peace in which the Taliban does not gain a foothold again.