The 20th Year of the Afghanistan War Should Be America’s Last
U.S. national security interests do not depend on the outcome of the peace talks. It’s time to come home.
When the United State’s war in Afghanistan began, 19 years ago last week, Americans across the nation were reeling from the worst terrorist attack they had ever experienced. The airstrikes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban were designed with one goal in mind: punish and destroy the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
It is unlikely the architects of the war could have predicted that thousands of U.S. troops would remain on Afghan soil two decades later. Yet this is precisely what has occurred as the mission lost sight of its original goal. It’s time to come home.
The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for so long that it’s easy to forget why Americans decided to get involved in the first place. After 9/11, the U.S. intelligence community assessed almost immediately that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network was responsible. Three weeks later, the Bush administration began what would be a months-long campaign of intensive airstrikes and ground operations that missed bin Laden but drove him into Pakistan, destroyed al-Qaeda training grounds, and forced tens of thousands of Taliban fighters into the countryside. By early 2002, the U.S. objectives of routing al-Qaeda and punishing the Taliban were achieved swiftly and with minimal American casualties. Unfortunately, rather than recognizing success and withdrawing forces before the counterterrorism mission turned into an occupation, Washington entrapped itself in what has become an indefinite, fruitless stability operation on behalf of a weak and ineffective Afghan government.
The results of this misguided mission creep speak for themselves. More than 2,400 U.S. troops died. Over 20,000 Americans in uniform have been injured. The attempt to turn Afghanistan into a stable, functioning democracy has cost U.S. taxpayers at least $2 trillion, or 15-times more than what the United States invested in the Marshall Plan. Since 2002, the United States has devoted more than $35 billion to support governance and economic development in Afghanistan. Still, corruption remains the lifeblood of Afghan politics. Transparency International ranks Afghanistan 173 out of 180 on its corruption perceptions index. Washington has cut checks totaling $10 billion for counternarcotics operations, but Afghanistan continues to source 90 percent of the world’s opium supply. Despite spending $86 billion to build an Afghan security force that is both effective and self-sustainable, Kabul remains entirely reliant on the United States for everything from funding to close-air support to ward off Taliban offensives. By now, about three-quarters of Americans and roughly the same share of veterans would support a decision to bring U.S. troops home, recent polls show.
Fortunately, this year has brought some good news. After a 7-month delay, the Afghan government and the Taliban are finally speaking to one another directly. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani traveled to Qatar last week to meet with Kabul’s negotiating team. Actually achieving a peace deal will require patience by both sides, a willingness to compromise, and a calculation from Kabul and the Taliban that they can gain more at the conference table than on the battlefield.
U.S. national security interests do not depend on the outcome of the peace talks. Establishing a comprehensive peace in Afghanistan is an Afghan-led and -owned affair that should not be confused with the U.S. objective of defending the homeland, which Washington can accomplish without a permanent deployment of American ground forces on Afghan soil.
U.S. homeland defense, counterterrorism, and special operations have greatly improved over the last 20 years. The United States is very good at tracking and killing high-value terrorists around the world. Some of the most successful counterterrorism operations against high-profile targets have been the product of impeccable intelligence work more than permanent troop deployments. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was found and killed in a November 2019 raid by special operations troops staged inside Syria, but it was made possible more so because the CIA was able to recruit a mole inside Baghdadi’s inner-circle. The January 2020 killing of Qassim al-Rimi, top leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, had less to do with the U.S. force posture in Yemen (which is minimal) and more to do with the CIA’s talent in compiling sources and acquiring information from informers on the ground. The same can be said with the operations against Sayyaf al-Tunsi and Khaled al-Aruri, two al-Qaeda affiliated commanders whose plots against the West were upended this year when Hellfire missiles from a Reaper drone killed them inside Syria. Despite northwestern Syria being an inhospitable place for U.S. troops, Washington’s counterterrorism reach remained wide enough to take out both individuals.
The United States also has shown it does not need to rely on bases in Afghanistan to conduct airstrikes against al-Qaeda or ISIS targets. With the help of KC-10 and KC-135 refueling aircraft, U.S. fighters and bombers have the range to conduct missions on Afghan soil taking off from al-Dahfra Air Base in the UAE and al-Udeid in Qatar when absolutely necessary. The Pentagon also has the option of placing additional assets at Manas Air Base in Turkmenistan. Alternatively, it could dispatch an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, which would provide the flexibility of conducting offensive operations without being exposed to the costs associated with a permanent, on-the-ground presence.
Granted, the United States should not move an aircraft carrier or scramble long-range strike aircraft whenever an al-Qaeda fighter rears his ugly head. But if the war on terrorism has told us anything, it’s that targeting low-level fighters is not necessarily the most efficient way to address the problem. If it were, the war would have been over a long time ago.
The trick, rather, is to prioritize senior-level terrorists who possess transnational ambitions from those lower on the totem poll more concerned with local objectives. The former are ripe targets for U.S. counterterrorism forces. The latter is best tackled by local and regional powers, all of whom share a collective security interest in preventing Afghanistan from degenerating into a global headquarters for foreign terrorist groups. Pursuing both groups with similar vigor strains U.S. intelligence resources and disincentivizes the very local actors who should be taking point.
As long as the U.S. military can surge special forces into the theater for intelligence collection, preserves a flexible off-shore defense posture, and is able to tap any number of weapons platforms at its disposal (B-52, B-2, F-16, and unmanned Reaper aircraft to name a few) in the event a high-profile target makes itself known, U.S. officials can be confident about defending U.S. interests without having to settle for long-term ground deployments.
While the United States can support intra-Afghan talks, policymakers should avoid tying a full U.S. military withdrawal directly to the ability of Afghans to make peace with one another.
The 20th year of the war should be America’s last.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.
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