The War in Afghanistan is Bad Politics and Bad Foreign Policy

By John Dale Grover and Jerrod A. Laber

October 7, 2018

On Sunday, the U.S. war in Afghanistan will turn 17 years old, with no end in sight. President Obama called Afghanistan the “good war” — drawing a comparison to the one started five months later in Iraq — but nearly two decades in, little if anything good remains. The conflict serves no strategic interest and is representative of a corrosive politics. The U.S. shouldn’t spend a single penny more on this tragicomic conflict. It’s time to come home.

The Afghanistan war is indicative of a politics turned upside-down. War-making is the greatest power a state possesses. Since World War II, though, America has largely refused to commit to the wars it fights. Instead of mobilizing the necessary resources and galvanizing support for any given conflict, we have chosen to fight limited wars that can be put on the credit card and kept out of the public eye.

This has blurred the line between peacetime and wartime, and allowed the government to skirt around the political issues of engaging in unpopular conflicts. It’s why we don’t raise taxes to pay for these adventures. Taxes would bring political pressure on Congress and the president to justify the increased expropriation.

Instead, Congress has consistently abdicated its oversight mandate in an effort to avoid political consequences, and the average citizen understandably never thinks about how the military is being used in her name, because she feels no personal effects from it.

Afghanistan is particularly pernicious in this regard, because the strategy is open-ended. The Trump administration will not put a timeline on when U.S. forces will come home, but the goals of the intervention are unachievable. In 17 years, we have been unable to build an Afghan government that is capable of providing for its own security. There is no reason to believe that will change.

So, what we have essentially created is a situation where a war can rage on without end, with no enduring progress, and no one cares enough to stop it. That’s a bad spot for a liberal democracy to be in.

This corrosiveness seeps into other areas of domestic life as well. The Global War on Terror, of which Afghanistan is the oldest child and main event, has ushered in an era of continuous alarm, paranoia, and mock security theater. Fear of terrorism has fed the nativism, populism, and demagoguery that defines the current political climate. Our post-9/11 politics has turned liberalism on its head.

The unending war in Afghanistan isn’t just bad politics. It is bad foreign policy too. The entire purpose of foreign policy is to pursue what is best for the country. After the horrors of 9-11, America rightly fought back against terrorism and defended itself. However, there is a difference between retaliation on the attackers and undertaking a nation-building project. It was possible to have fought the Taliban and Al-Qaeda—such as through the Northern Alliance that America supported in Afghanistan—without trying to also remake that country in our image.

Instead, the lack of clear national interests in nation-building and the absence of clear mission objectives proved devastating. The war has killed at least 2,269 and wounded 20,362 more, according to a September report from the Department of Defense. Additionally, a study from Brown University estimates that the war in Afghanistan, along with supporting operations in Pakistan, has cost about $926 billion.

Today, there are 14,000 to 15,000 American troops deployed to Afghanistan. U.S. spending on the war will surpass $1 trillion in the coming years. The toll in lives and taxpayer money has not brought us anywhere close to victory. These losses could have been avoided had America’s leaders been content to limit their objectives to ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan. How much more are we willing to sacrifice?

Every country’s primary interest is physical security. Striking back against Taliban and the safe haven they provided to Al Qaeda was just and proper. However, it is unclear how rebuilding and democratizing Afghanistan at any cost makes Americans any safer at home.

Good intentions are not a replacement for strategy. Vital national interests, such as security and prosperity, are. Rebuilding Germany and Japan after World War II was an incredibly complex project involving hundreds of thousands of troops, massive expenditures, and a multigenerational commitment. Attempting the same in a country as complex and different as Afghanistan was done without serious deliberation.

Ultimately, President Trump should keep his campaign promise to bring American forces home. U.S. intelligence services can continue monitoring terrorist intentions and America can still defend itself. Withdrawal would honor voters who elected both Obama and Trump under the impression they would stop the war. Doing so would signal a return to real strategy based on clear interests and objectives. The war in Afghanistan is politically and strategically unsound; let’s end it.

By John Dale Grover and Jerrod A. Laber // John Dale Grover is an Assistant Managing Editor at The National Interest. He is also a writer for Young Voices and a fellow at Defense Priorities. His articles have been published in Fox News, The American Conservative, and Real Clear Defense. // Jerrod A. Laber is a DC-based foreign policy writer and journalist, and contributor for Young Voices. His work has been published in outlets such as The National Interest, the Columbus Dispatch, and The American Conservative, among many others.

October 7, 2018