Providence executive editor Marc LiVecche spoke with contributing editor and Georgetown professor Paul Miller about President Joe Biden’s plans to withdraw all remaining US military personnel from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. While opposed to the withdrawal itself, Paul has no illusions about the mistakes made in Afghanistan. At the same time, he is cognizant of the goods that were achieved and laments the risks that a US pullout poses to the ability of those goods to endure. He reflects on the human costs of the war, its impact on US foreign policy, and offers a nuanced vision for how American Christians should think about it.
Some of the resources mentioned in the discussion include:
“A Christian Declaration on American Foreign Policy” by Paul Miller
“Fight to Win: A Lesson from the Great War” Marc LiVecche
LiVecche: Hello everybody, I am Marc LiVecche. I am executive editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, as well as Stockdale Center fellow at the US Naval Academy for this year. I am here with a good friend and colleague Dr. Paul Miller for a conversation about the upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan. Paul is an eminently qualified discussant on this subject. In 2002, he served with the US Army in Afghanistan. He is presently professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University. He has written a number of books, most recently, Just War and Ordered Liberty, and he worked as the director of Afghanistan and Pakistan on the NSC staff in the White House, among much else. So, Paul, thank you for being here. It’s good to see you again.
Miller: Thank you, Marc, thanks for having me on the zoomcast. I appreciate it and look forward to our conversation.
LiVecche: Absolutely. To just tee us off, by September 11 2021, President Joe Biden will have fully withdrawn the United States from Afghanistan. Can you give us the background of that? Practically speaking, what does it mean? What’s the context? What do we need to know about that?
Miller: Well, the first thing I’d want to say is that the United States has been leaving Afghanistan since about 2009. President Obama, when he announced his initial surge over 10 years ago, in the next sentence he said, “And by the way, they’re coming home.” And almost every year of his presidency he then announced another withdrawal or a timetable, and the American troop presence dropped from about a hundred thousand at the height in about 2010 all the way down to just 2500 today. So, this final withdrawal is really just the final sort of nail in the coffin. It’s the final step in a long process of gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan. It has more significant because once we draw down to zero it makes it very hard for us to do anything, or it makes it difficult to re-intervene if that becomes necessary. I do think this is a mistake. I think, Marc, you and I are going to talk about that throughout this conversation, but that is the background here. After 20 years, we will finally end our military intervention in Afghanistan that was triggered by the terrorist attacks of 2001. In my view, we have not yet really achieved our basic national security interest of denying safe haven to al-Qaeda and preventing their reemergence in South Asia. And so, this withdrawal is I think ill-timed.
LiVecche: That’s right. Okay, very good. Just for clarity’s sake, is there a consensus as to whether or not the seven thousand NATO troops that are also there, will they be gone by September 11? Is it a complete pull out?
Miller: They will. In fact, the very afternoon, yesterday after President Biden gave his speech, NATO released a public statement. It’s very clear to me that the United States had coordinated this with its European allies some weeks ago for NATO to have a public PR statement ready to go like that. And they announced that yes, they indeed will also be withdrawing their military forces. So, there will be no international military force as of September of this year.
LiVecche: Okay. And on the one hand, this isn’t sort of new news right. Former President Trump was going to have a troop pull-out, an agreement made with the Taliban, to pull out US troops by May. So, next month. That’s apparently not going to happen. If you’re opposed to this pull out, presumably you would be equally opposed to a pull-out next month. But what are the complicating factors of that? The Taliban, as I understand it, agreed not to shoot at us on our way out if we left in May. We’re not leaving in May. If it’s a bad idea to pull out, is it a better idea to go ahead and pull out early and on time according to the Taliban agreement or is it better to wait and try to consolidate, if one can within a short period of time, some of the gains? How do you assess that?
Miller: Back in 2014, President Obama said we’re pulling out within two years. Within a year, the Taliban resurged, and they actually took over the city of Kunduz. It’s the fifth largest city in Afghanistan. That was a dramatic demonstration that Afghanistan wasn’t ready for us to leave. And so, President Obama reversed himself, to his credit, and stayed and said my successor will take care of this. President Trump said we’re getting out by May 1, 2020. That was the deal he struck with the Taliban. I’m sorry, 2021. So, I think that was also a mistake. I don’t think Afghanistan is ready for it yet. I will say this, if the president, whoever we’re talking about, Obama, Trump, Biden, believes that this war is not worth fighting, we shouldn’t wait until September, right. We should leave immediately. I think there’s kind of a moral imperative to not put our people in danger for the sake of a cause we don’t believe is just or required. I do think it is just and required for our security. So, I think it’s worth staying there. But if the president actually believes we’re done, then we should get on plane tomorrow. Absolutely.
LiVecche: Right. No, that’s well said. I appreciate the nuance of that. Maybe put on a different hat for a moment, if it requires this. What are the positives of getting out now? What are the pros?
Miller: Very few. I think the president is aware of the cost of the military presence there, which in my view is not actually that high. But it’s some billions of dollars every year. In the grand scheme, it’s a relatively small military intervention. When you compare it to the war in Iraq, it’s smaller than that was. When you compare it to the Spanish-American War, it’s a relatively small military action. I hesitate even to call it a war anymore. At its height, you could say it was a small-sized war, but it’s more like a police action these days. An American has not been killed in combat for 14 or 15 months now, I think because our presence is so small. Anyway, I do think that President Biden wants to minimize the cost and to minimize the risk to the United States. He seems to believe that there’s widespread domestic opposition to the war. There are a few public opinion polls that say Americans think it’s time to go; however, I respond, Americans don’t actually care that much. They just don’t. I don’t think Americans, there’s no strong pro-war sentiment. There’s no strong anti-war sentiment. Americans just don’t care about Afghanistan. And I know this because I care about it a lot, and I’ve followed it very closely for 20 years. And I can tell you most people just don’t care about this war. And so, I think President Biden is responding to public pressure that really isn’t there. I think it’s an unpopular war generally, but it doesn’t motivate strong passions in any sense of the word.
LiVecche: Yeah, that’s right.
Miller: And finally, I think President Biden wants to free up some bandwidth. He wants to refocus our attention, our energy, on Great Power Competition, on China, recovering from the pandemic, and so forth. There’s some logic there, right. Once again, I’d respond that the word Afghanistan isn’t an alternate to Great Power Competition. It’s actually part of Great Power Competition. It is an arena in which we compete for influence and try to make friends and influence people. I think the war in Afghanistan is a very important part of our relationship with India, for example. They will be very honest if we walk away and leave chaos in their backyard. So, that’s a small response there.
LiVecche: I think that’s great. And again, I think the nuance is rare and incredibly appreciated. So, thank you for that. Jean Elshtain used to say that the broad contours of American foreign policy are fairly straightforward: do no harm, help where you can, do good where you’re able. Pretty basic. Over 20 years in Afghanistan, contrary to what some might say, surely there were some good things achieved. Surely there are some things that we can look on with satisfaction, and maybe even pride. Are there some goods that have been obtained over two decades in Afghanistan?
Miller: Yes, absolutely. Let me start right off by saying, as I’ve often said, that the United States has never missed an opportunity to make a mistake in Afghanistan. I will never cite Afghanistan as an example to follow in how to do interventions or state building, because we’ve been pretty ham fisted and we’ve kind of fumbled all over ourselves. Nonetheless, we’ve achieved some islands and pockets of success. I wrote an article in Foreign Affairs 10 years ago highlighting many of those successes. The Afghan Constitution is a great success. It enshrines the principles of democracy and human rights that are pretty popular in Afghanistan. There are some real problems with how they implement it. There’s a lot of corruption. So, we can certainly complain about that rightly. Yet the fact that the constitution is there and has persisted for 20 years is a success. Contrary to widespread opinion, the Afghan economy has grown pretty strongly. In 2002, the first year after the Taliban’s rule, the Afghan economy grew by 28 percent. I mean, this is kind of incredible. And even today it’s one of the faster growing economies in Asia, from a very low base. So, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s one of the poorest countries in Eurasia, but let’s not overlook the fact that it does have a fast rate of growth. And that’s a good thing. You could point to the existence of girls schools, which wasn’t the case 20 years ago. Their construction sector, the telecommunications sector, has done pretty well. Rates of immunization are up. Life expectancy is longer. Infant mortality is lower. I could go on and on and on and say that yes, there are good things here worth being proud of. And now to answer your next question, no, very little of it is self-sustaining. So, walking away from it now means that we’re going to endanger the good things we’ve accomplished. Many, most, maybe even all, of these successes are very fragile because Afghanistan today is still one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. It’s deeply unsafe and unstable. And so, all of these good things are imperiled. To answer your next question, if they’re so fragile, what have we been doing? How can we call this a success if everything is so fragile? And I’ll just say there that we have not been trying to do the same thing for all 20 years we’ve been there. If we’d been actually trying to do state building for 20 years and failed, then I would say time to go. But in fact, for the first five years all we were doing was playing whack-a-mole with terrorists. We were drone bombing and doing night raids and whacking terrorist leaders, and that’s pretty much all we were doing. In the midst of the most failed state in the world that we just left failed. We started to put out a small effort at state building around 2007, and we gave up around 2012. So, for the past nine years we haven’t been doing any state building at all, and for the first five years we didn’t do any state building at all. It was a pretty narrow window when we actually tried to do some of this stuff. And I think we actually have some successes to show for that. But the fact that we haven’t tried consistently for 20 years, that explains why the record looks as bad as it does. Why we don’t have more to show for our efforts. Because we haven’t been trying that hard. We’ve mostly been just killing terrorists.
LiVecche: And is there an explanatory key for that? Why haven’t we been more diligent about doing those things that were, I would think, obviously working? Why did we stop?
Miller: For the same reason that perhaps many of the listeners right now are asking like why would we bother building roads and schools and hospitals, aren’t we just there to kill al-Qaeda? And that’s the very same question the policy makers ask themselves, and that’s why we tended to focus only on killing bad guys, on killing al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Because that’s the obvious reason we’re there, and it’s the easy short-term victory. Yeah, we can always brag about how many bad guys we’ve whacked. It’s a little bit harder, takes a little bit more effort, to explain why state building in Afghanistan is part of American national security interests. You have to explain and say well, we don’t win just by killing al-Qaeda, we win by denying safe haven to al-Qaeda and its allies and affiliates, not just today but tomorrow and the day after we’ve gone home. We still want them to have no safe haven in Afghanistan. For that to happen, there actually has to be something in Afghanistan capable of governing its own territory and denying safe haven without us. And so, that means we have to do a little bit of state building. I know most people don’t like to hear this and state building is pretty unpopular, but it’s part of our counterterrorism goals. We need to build a partner that is capable of going after al-Qaeda and its allies without our help in the long term. That’s how we win, and that’s why state building is part of our mission there. And that’s the part we have not accomplished yet.
LiVecche: We had a really good writer that you remind me of some years back when Providence first got started. He wrote a declaration of Christian foreign policy for us. And he said something about the liberal international order, and maybe we can put a little caveat or bracket, where at least stable partners contribute to the outer perimeter of US security, right. Remember that guy?
Miller: I couldn’t put it better myself.
LiVecche: Very well done. We’ll put that link in the program notes. There have been costs, obviously. 2,300 US deaths; over 20,000 US wounded. Broken lives, broken homes, lost limbs, tremendous costs in maybe treasure, but more importantly blood and human lives and American flourishing, at maybe a national but certainly at an individual level. After 20 years, how do you even begin weighing up the goods that were obtained with the costs that it required? How would you counsel someone who wants to think through these issues? How would you counsel them to do?
Miller: I think the first thing I want to say is by no means should we minimize what those costs are. Speaking of someone who has attended the funeral of a friend who was lost in Afghanistan, those losses are very real. They’re permanent. And they are deep. The costs are not borne by Americans alone. There are pretty steep costs, much steeper costs, on the Afghans. Many of our Afghan allies and partners. And they’re going to have to live those costs and live with the reality of it I think much longer than we will. And they experience it as a nation whereas we experience it often as individuals and families, because it’s not affected our society the way the war affects theirs. So, those costs are real, and let’s recognize that they are in some ways global and particularly fall on the Afghans. You didn’t quite ask this, but some people may be asking is it worth it? And that’s a very difficult thing to judge, because we don’t quite know how it’s going to end up. I, again, I’m pessimistic because of the withdrawal. I fear that many of our successes and gains will prove to be fragile and will not be sustained, in which case it’s hard to understand how it was worth it. We’ve kept America safe from another 9/11 attack, and that is a success. And I’m very grateful for that. If you remember 20 years ago, we all believed that another attack was imminent and that we couldn’t do much to stop it. So, I’m profoundly grateful that we have not borne that additional cost. Will there be another one in the future? Maybe so. I hope not. These costs are not fungible. You can’t translate lives into dollars into security into honor. There are different kinds of costs, different kinds of benefits, and right now it seems to me that we’re trying to minimize our money and our risk to lives at the expense of our relationships with allies. Even I’d say our honor and our commitments to others around the world, and that does make me sad.
LiVecche: Yeah. That’s, unfortunately, very well said, because yeah, I agree with that. I’m reading a very good novel right now called 2039. This isn’t a plug for the book, although it could be a plug for the book. But in that book, there’s a brief conversation with an Indian army officer who makes the comment that it used to be that America didn’t start wars but they finished them, and nowadays you start wars and you never finish them. What do you think? First, there are all sorts of complicating qualifiers for that quote, but what do you think this ought to teach us about America and war and the deployment of power overseas? What are the lessons that we ought to take from this to do better next time?
Miller: There’s a real irony here. Many people have criticized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere as forever wars or endless wars. President Biden actually called it that in the speech yesterday. He called it the forever war. And look, I don’t support forever war. Our friend Eric Patterson has talked about the morality of victory and the morality of finding a conclusion to war in order to return to a regular just political order which involves stability and peace. And that’s absolutely true. When I observe what America has done in Afghanistan for 20 years, forever war is a feature not a bug of our strategy, precisely because we have not done state building. In my view, state building is exactly how we end the war. You build a partner and then you can leave while the partner maintains the line without our indefinite presence. It’s precisely because we have not done that that we’ve been stuck in this forever war that has gone on for 20 years. And by the way, it’s definitely going to continue after we leave. The forever war is not going to end; it’s just going to end for us. It will continue for the Afghans. That war is not going to end. If Americans want to end wars, they need to understand what the cost is to end a war, and that’s a cost you pay militarily with decisive combat. It is also a cost you pay through peace building afterwards, something that we I think understood after World War II by reconstructing Germany and Japan, which we had failed to do after World War I. We won World War I and lost the peace because we did not build peace in the aftermath. The Civil War, we won the war and we essentially lost the peace by walking away from Reconstruction after a decade. And America today is the worst for it. So, we need to rediscover the ability and willingness and will to do what is necessary to win the peace after these wars.
LiVecche: That’s right. Another really smart guy wrote an article for Providence on decisiveness as an implication of the Just War tradition. He was a clever guy, too. Maybe you could look into his heart. Something you said provoked a thought and the thought is now unfortunately, oh no, I know what it was. You said a couple of times on the zoomcast “nation building.” You neglected to say “democratic nation building.” Was that an oversight?
Miller: Yes. All else equal, when we have the opportunity, we should definitely put our thumb on the scales on the side of freedom, democracy, and human rights. In Afghanistan, I think we tried to do that early on. Again, they still have a democratic constitution. I recognize that it’s pretty hard to do this, and you try too much and it can come off as imperial bullying, and that’s counterproductive. So, that’s why I say just kind of put your thumb on the scale rather than kind of go in guns blazing. And in Afghanistan today I really hope that they sustain the democracy we’ve tried to help build there. But it really is I think going to be in their hands from here on out.
LiVecche: Yeah, I think that’s well said. We can end with a tweet that you tweeted, I don’t know what the past tense of tweeting is, but you said something to the effect of observing your student body over the last two decades, that somewhere after 2001 to about 2010 the students that you taught had a general disdain for interventionism. And post-2011, more open to it but a little bit chastened and just a different, more nuanced, approach to foreign policy. Can you explain that tweet a little bit and how the last 20 years have formed the truth of what you noted?
Miller: Yeah, so, it’s because of the war in Iraq. The folks who went through college between 2003 and 2011 really I think absorbed an almost instinctive or knee-jerk anti-interventionism, and we see that embodied now in some new institutions like the Quincy Institute. And there’s also the Burke Institute for Responsible Statecraft or something like that, and like Cato. The only thing they ever say is the United States should not intervene anywhere or do anything, and it really is kind of a neo-isolationism. But I’ve seen since 2011, or really 2014 since the rise of ISIS, there’s been a renewed, nuanced approach to this. You don’t see many straight up hawks, but you do see some students, I see some students, who recognize that vacuums of power are very dangerous. There are bad people in the world and there are authoritarian countries that don’t believe in the liberal international order. And I think these students understand we have to fight for the liberal order. We have to fight for the free world. It’s not self-executing. It’s not self-sustaining. It doesn’t just automatically happen. You need people, you need policy makers, you need voters who believe in it, who understand that it’s good and that it wasn’t always this way. Prior to 1939, the world was a pretty nasty place, and we’re quickly rewinding the clock to get there. but if you want the world that we live in today to persist, you need to be part of it and you need to fight for it. And I do see some of that awakening in my students today, and I’m encouraged by it.
LiVecche: Very good. From your lips to God’s ears. Paul Miller, professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, Providence friend and contributor, and a personal friend, thank you for your insights and really for your nuanced, careful, non-binary thinking about all sorts of things. So, good luck in your work and I look forward to chatting with you again.
Miller: Thank you, Marc. I appreciate it.