Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that President Joe Biden is right to pull out U.S. troops from Afghanistan. You can find a counterpoint here, where Thomas Spoehr argues that Biden is making a costly mistake in withdrawing from the country.
The Trump administration signed an historic agreement in February 2020 in Doha, Qatar to fully withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by May 1 of this year. This isn’t going to happen due to President Joe Biden dithering in deciding whether or not to live up to the agreement. This risked putting the thousands of American troops still in Afghanistan back in harm’s way after no American troops have been killed in combat since the signing of the Doha agreement.
Fortunately for our troops currently deployed in Afghanistan, Biden eventually did the right thing and announced that the U.S. would start withdrawing all of its remaining military forces (save embassy staff) out of Afghanistan, with a deadline to complete the withdrawal by September. As a result, the end of our participation in the long-running war in Afghanistan is now in sight.
Americans of both parties should support Biden’s decision. Republicans should appreciate the move because it is a fulfillment of Trump’s call to end our endless wars. But the most important reason we should all hail President Biden’s withdrawal announcement is because it is fundamentally in America’s interests to bring our troops home from Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan stopped being necessary for our security long ago. It is well-past time to leave.
Critics will say that our counterterrorism interests can’t be met without a continued troop presence on the ground. But a permanent force isn’t needed to hit terrorist organizations with the intent and capability to harm our homeland or our forces abroad. We have the ability – using our intelligence capabilities, air assets, special operations forces and other means — to hit such groups across the globe regardless of whether we have troops permanently stationed in a country.
Others argue that we need to keep our military in place to continue nation-building efforts until a broad set of conditions have changed in Afghanistan. This assumes that after 20 years trying and failing to change Afghan institutions and culture, that more time, more money and several thousand American troops indefinitely staying in the country will lead to a different result. Frankly, that’s nuts. And the Taliban, of course, will get a vote with operational momentum and the balance of power shifting in their favor. Many more Americans would die. This adds up to an untenable status quo.
Of course, advocates of a conditioned-based approach might respond that we should increase our troop commitment. But that would be doubling down on failure without a real path to victory. Additionally, the troop levels required to even try – and the subsequent casualties we would undoubtedly sustain – are well-beyond what is politically feasible.
Some critics of withdrawal even go so far as to say that such a conditions-based approach will require a generational fight and an indefinite troop commitment along the lines of South Korea or Germany. But that comparison is laughable given that the Allies brutally defeated Germany and were able to impose their will on the country – not to mention that the country quickly came to welcome our troops in the face of Soviet power. Additionally, American troops in neither South Korea nor Germany face an active insurgency.
Others focus on the notion that we’ve spent too much blood and treasure to withdraw now, worry about foreign powers filling a “vacuum” or place particular emphasis on the status of women’s rights in the country. The first is a classic example of the sunk cost fallacy and only threatens to create more costs without any expectation of future success. The second begs the question of why we would care given that Afghanistan is a strategic backwater, neither politically nor economically of great value to the U.S. These powers could face the same problems that we, the Soviets and the British before them faced when trying to impose their will on this very independent people. And the last is an issue that is not a reason to go to war in the first place, so it fails to be compelling as a rationale to stay fighting one.
The purpose of U.S. power is to keep America safe and prosperous at home. American intervention in Afghanistan was required in 2001 on those grounds. It was necessary to decimate Al Qaeda, punish the Taliban and to kill Usama Bin Laden. We achieved all three goals long ago and should have packed up our shipping containers and come home. But instead we expanded the war aims beyond what was required to meet our vital interests and without any sound understanding of how to achieve those idealistic ends. It was no wonder that our leaders, as shown in the infamous Afghanistan Papers published by the Washington Post, had little clue how to win such a war.
President Trump decided enough was enough and worked to find a path to an honorable exit from this long war. He succeeded at Doha – and Biden almost let that gift slip away. Fortunately, Biden ultimately announced in clear terms that we were leaving and that it wouldn’t be conditions-based. Let’s hope that he follows through in the spirit of Trump’s withdrawal deal and we don’t end up having to fight Biden’s war. And for that the president should be praised.
William Ruger is the vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and was President Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Afghanistan.