The U.S. has been in Afghanistan since I was in pre-school. The costs of the war have been staggering. 2,350 American lives lost. 20,095 wounded. $1.07 trillion spent. At the same time, the results have been…disappointing: a fragile and corrupt state that cannot protect the security, prosperity, and basic liberties of its citizens and a ferocious, ongoing insurgency. Early optimism and widespread international support for intervention have given way to disillusionment. Should the U.S. continue to hemorrhage blood and treasure in the pursuit of uncertain objectives in a country known as the Graveyard of Empires? I, along with a plurality of Americans would answer “No” to that question. After 16 years of disappointing results at unacceptable cost, I support a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
And yet, they remain.
President Trump recently advocated sending thousands of more troops to Afghanistan in order to “fight to win.” But, what would “winning” entail? It has long been clear that establishing a free and secure democracy is not in the cards. Fully eradicating the Taliban is likewise impossible barring a much larger increase in troop numbers. No one in power is pushing for that kind of major escalation.
Current U.S. objectives are far more limited, and focused on preserving the status quo. Navy Capt. William Salvin, spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, has warned that diminished U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would lead to intensified conflict and instability. Afghanistan would once again become a “terrorist haven,” jeopardizing American lives stateside. Furthermore, and this concern often goes unspoken, if the U.S. leaves now then the whole enterprise will have been a terrible waste.
This unspoken concern falls prey to the classic sunk cost fallacy–the U.S. shouldn’t continue to squander lives and dollars in Afghanistan simply because so many have already been lost. The former concern about Afghanistan becoming a terrorist haven that could pose an existential threat is also dubious. While the Taliban doesn’t shy away from terrorism, all of it has been domestic. Even if the security vacuum left by the U.S. did draw other terrorist groups, those groups would find it extremely difficult to get through increased U.S. border security post-9/11. It’s telling that no foreign terrorist organization has successfully orchestrated an attack on U.S. soil since. Further bolstering border security and preventative intelligence is a much cheaper way to mitigate the terrorist threat than continued occupation of a single country.
The U.S. military is not in the business of implementing decades-long stabilization projects when doing so does not advance vital U.S. interests. If that were the case, the U.S. would be spending $45bn and losing twenty lives a year in the D.R.C., Libya, Somalia and various other failed states. Instability in Afghanistan poses little threat to Americans. The desire to avert it cannot justify another 16 years of involvement.
The upshot is that arguments for remaining in Afghanistan are weak at best, and arguments for withdrawing are strong–doing so will likely save hundreds of American lives and billions of government dollars. In fact, pursuing a “grand bargain” to resolve the conflict might be more stabilizing than continued military involvement. Pakistan, Russia, China, India, and Iran each have a direct interest in maintaining stability in Afghanistan, but have essentially been free riders on U.S. assistance. Bringing the major players in the conflict to the negotiating table–the Afghan government, the Taliban, and those regional powers (i.e. Pakistan et al)–while taking on a lesser role, may very well force them to pick up the slack and work toward a lasting peace. It may not result in a liberal, democratic Afghanistan. But, neither will perpetual U.S. military involvement. What a “grand bargain” might do, and what military involvement has failed to do since I was four, is promote an acceptable level of stability.
We, American citizens, should not be seduced by the fantasy that more resources, more troops, more blood, more treasure are what it takes to “win” in Afghanistan. There is no viable future outcome that is worth the deaths of more young men and women. After 6,000 days, it’s time to bring the boys and girls home.