Recently, President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to conduct a review of the U.S. military footprint around the world, and a May 1st deadline for complete withdrawal from Afghanistan is less than certain.
It is urgent and important for President Biden to fulfill his pledge to “end the forever wars” and – despite the recommendation of the Afghanistan Study Group to extend the May 1st deadline – bring troops home from Afghanistan as scheduled. This would make for a major milestone for the new president’s first 100 days.
To begin, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force approved by Congress on September 14, 2001, was “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” In other words, Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the then-Taliban-led government in Afghanistan because it gave safe haven to bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
That mission has long since been completed. The Taliban was driven from power in a matter of weeks. Al Qaeda’s senior leadership was decimated and scattered over the next several months. And if there was any doubt about achieving closure for 9/11, Osama bin Laden was eventually found and killed by U.S. Special Operations Forces in May 2011.
Instead, what was originally a counter-terrorism operation in response to the September 11 attacks quickly morphed into nation-building and a counterinsurgency war to protect a US-installed Afghan government. But such a war was not then and is not now a war of national survival. The Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan are internal threats to the Afghan government and part of a power struggle over who controls the country, but are not direct (let alone existential) threats to the United States. And however desirable a representative, multiethnic, democratic government in Afghanistan would be, it is not an absolute necessity for U.S. national security. All we need is for whatever government controls Afghanistan to understand that the United States will not tolerate support for or the harboring of any terrorist group with global reach that directly threatens the United States – which is the essence of the terms of the path to a peace agreement brokered in February 2020.
Yet the Afghanistan Study Group clings to the belief that an ongoing U.S. military presence is necessary to create conditions for an acceptable peace agreement. This despite
acknowledging the fact that “the Taliban have signaled publicly that if all international forces are not withdrawn by May 2021, as envisioned in the Doha agreement, they will resume their ‘jihad’ against the foreign presence and will withdraw from the peace process.” More pointedly, the harsh reality is that – nearly 20 years in – the U.S. military presence has not been able to ensure peace in Afghanistan. So why would keeping them there longer result in something different?
To be sure, withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan will not magically result in peace breaking out. But neither will keeping them there because the U.S. military presence is part of what fuels Afghanistan’s violence. The reality is that U.S. troops are a foreign occupation force that breeds resentment with the population (not just with the Afghans but also the larger Muslim world) – regardless of our intentions, just as would happen if a foreign military was ensconced in America.
Furthermore, the violence in Afghanistan represents a long-standing civil war within the Muslim world. It is not America’s war to fight or win. Only Afghans can determine the outcome.
The appropriate analogy is America’s experience in Vietnam – another insurgent war unnecessary to U.S. national security. Peace only came after the U.S. military withdrawal. And over the ensuing decades, the result has been a socialist country pursuing increasingly capitalist economic policies and normalized relations with the U.S. and other Western countries. Not necessarily the outcome the U.S. would have envisioned if it was up to us to engineer – but it wasn’t and we couldn’t; it was up to the Vietnamese people. And even if it isn’t perfect in the eyes of the U.S., it is good enough for U.S. national security – which is the paramount concern. The lesson is that we shouldn’t let a quixotic quest for perfect be the enemy of good enough in Afghanistan.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than thirty years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un—War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.