Fight or Flight?

The case for not abandoning Afghanistan to a brutal fate under the Taliban.

America’s precipitous withdrawal from our combat mission in Afghanistan continues apace. Make no mistake: our rapid evacuation from Afghanistan is an abrogation of our duty, a failure of our will, and a gift to wannabe totalitarians and terrorists across the globe. It is clear that our current administration (and, frankly, the prior two which preceded it) has no conception of America’s permanent interests in Central Asia, and is more than willing to cede our hard won gains of the last 20 years at the altar of temporary political expediency. Our mission in Afghanistan was not only positive for the Afghan people, it was also – when properly conceived and executed – good for America’s long-term national security and geopolitical interests.

President Joe Biden gave a speech on July 8 that was meant to describe our policy in Afghanistan and the steps going forward; it was not only wrong on several key points, it betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of America’s role in the world and the consequences of US inaction and withdrawal. It is worth touching on some of the egregious spin and outright falsehoods that characterized the speech before delving into an affirmative defense of American involvement in Afghanistan and Central Asia more broadly. The first thing which practically leapt off of the page when reading Biden’s speech was the blatant unwillingness to accept the reality of the enemy: the Taliban. Biden stated that “we’re going to engage in a determined diplomacy to pursue peace and a peace agreement that will end this senseless violence.” This is pure fantasy. The Taliban has repeatedly said that their objectives are to retake control of the country by force, re-establish their Islamic Emirate, and destroy all Western influence in Afghanistan – including neutral legal principles, human rights, and education. This isn’t at all a secret, so pretending that the Taliban is a potential negotiating partner for “peace” is the hallmark of a fool. (I also thought the Trump ‘negotiation’ with the Taliban was incredibly stupid, so this isn’t a partisan thing.) The Taliban shows their hand on a daily basis; they have been assassinating Afghan Air Force pilots, murdering Afghan government soldiers in the process of surrender, and calling for ethnic cleansing of populations who stand in the way of total Taliban dominance. Does that sound like the potential ‘peace partner’ that the Biden administration has been talking about?

Another issue mentioned by the President was our evacuation from the country and how it is “proceeding in a secure and orderly way.” I’m not sure what the President means by “secure and orderly”, but our withdrawal has been nothing of the sort. Not only has the messaging as to final withdrawal been all over the place, with dates changing constantly and very little transparency as to our process and plans, but the manner in which we have brought our troops home has been embarrassing. For instance, the American departure from our largest base in Afghanistan – Bagram Airfield – was an utter disgrace that makes the US look weak and unfaithful to our allies. According to the Associated Press, “The U.S. left Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield after nearly 20 years by shutting off the electricity and slipping away in the night without notifying the base’s new Afghan commander, who discovered the Americans’ departure more than two hours after they left.” Does that sound “secure and orderly” to you? Why would other nations and peoples trust us to live up to our commitments and work closely with them when they see the example of us fleeing in the middle of the night, destroying 16,000 pieces of equipment, and not telling any of our supposed allies in the process?

President Biden also spoke in his speech about how “it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” This is one of the most absurd, tone-deaf contentions made by the administration in foreign policy thus far (and there is a lot of competition!). Could you imagine an American President saying that about the West Germans in 1945 or the South Koreans in 1950? It’s not much of a choice when a heavily-militarized, totalitarian group is knocking at the doors of your house; when Afghanistan falls to the Taliban once again (and yes, that’s a when, not an if), it won’t be because of the “right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future,” it’ll be because of superior military force and greater will. But won’t the Afghan security forces fight the Taliban off? After all, the President said they were provided with “all the tools, training, and equipment of any modern military.” If you believe this, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention; the Taliban has captured significant portions of Afghanistan without much of a fight, as Afghan soldiers see the writing on the wall. Without American troops as a deterrent and a backstop, the armies we train don’t have the greatest track record in internecine fighting; just look at the melting away of the Iraqi Army in the face of ISIS just a few years ago. When the Taliban has significant backing from Pakistan (the worst-kept secret in international relations) and is more than willing to commit atrocities against civilians and soldiers, they have the upper hand.

Even if you accept that, there’s the argument (mostly from isolationists on the right) that if the Afghans can’t even hold their country after us having two decades on the ground, they deserve their fate. That’s not only immoral, it flattens a lot of history; the last three US Presidents (Biden included) have campaigned on evacuating Afghanistan entirely, which clearly shows a lack of political will to remain. That is demoralizing to our Afghan allies and emboldening to the Taliban. In his speech, Biden argued that the fact that the Taliban is more militarily powerful than anytime since 2001 means that our occupation has been useless; that ignores the fact that we have obviously and repeatedly said that we would be leaving Afghanistan entirely at some point, which allowed the Taliban to play the waiting game, marshal its forces, and bide its time until the US left. Now that that’s what is happening – entirely unsurprisingly for anyone who has studied military history or this conflict in particular – our government is acting shocked and disclaiming responsibility. That’s unacceptable.

I know that these arguments against the Biden speech may not be convincing or compelling for anyone who is firmly in favor of withdrawal; those of us who oppose the evacuation of Afghanistan must make an affirmative case for our position in favor of the so-called “forever war”. First, it is worth debunking this specious and unserious term that seems to have gained purchase throughout American society. The major phase of the war in Afghanistan was over within weeks of our initial intervention in the country. We destroyed the Taliban as a governing and military force within Afghanistan and replaced it with a government that was more liberal and representative, one which didn’t harbor terrorists who attacked our nation. Since then, the ‘war’ has been far more akin to an occupation and administration than a kinetic war. We have had troops in Germany and South Korea for over 60 years now, but nobody thinks of those as “forever wars”, even though the Korean War is still technically only in a ‘temporary’ armistice. Those nations have been stabilized by US presence and – though they didn’t start off this way – are now fully democratic states with roaring economic success. What changed? Well, our culture has; we no longer seem to have the stomach for long-term planning and many in our society see American engagement in the world as a bad thing instead of as the bulwark for freedom, economic liberty, and peace that it historically has been. Since the end of the Cold War, we have become a far more parochial, inward-looking people who seem to project our internal political divides on the rest of the world. In better days, the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge” meant something; now, politics never stops and each side of our partisan divide seeks advantage through manipulation of foreign policy. That’s a recipe for disaster, as it subsumes long-run strategic concerns into short-term media and political cycles.

America has long-term permanent interests in global engagement. This isn’t 1850, when we could safely sit in our country and declare world events off-limits for the US, with little impact here at home. This is 2021, when the US acts as something of a global hegemon and the world is more interconnected and ever-present than at any previous time in human history. The lifestyle we live, which is the envy of the world, is only possible due to the safety and stability offered by a US-led international order which respects property rights, promotes trade, and allows for peaceful self-determination. We cannot go back to being an isolationist nation that doesn’t care about what happens abroad; that ship sailed in 1917 and won’t ever be coming back.

Not only do we have permanent interests abroad generally, we have them in Afghanistan and Central Asia specifically. As we found out in September 2001, ungoverned spaces, or those governed by groups which detest and seek to overthrow the US-led world order, can be dangerous to our homeland. The Taliban will absolutely reopen Afghanistan for terrorist business once we have left. Given the fact that our only major airbase in Central Asia was just evacuated, we will not be able to project power in the ways necessary to stop terrorists from training and planning attacks in Afghanistan. That part of the world is heavily resource-rich, from fossil fuels to rare earth minerals; these resources will be used to support terrorism and enrich our enemies. The people of Afghanistan, who would greatly benefit by the wealth extracted from their lands, will receive none of the rewards; the Taliban leadership and its supporters in Pakistan and other countries will. Central Asia will be an influential and important 21st-century region, as it is bordered by several countries with which the US has long-term concerns and rivalries: Afghanistan borders both Iran and China, as well as being close to Russia. Those three nations are in the process of aligning against the US, and allowing them to exert a full sphere of influence over all of Central Asia will endanger US interests in the region, as well as harm potential allies like India. The region has been key to trade and commerce since time immemorial, being the main drag of the Silk Road, and has the potential to become globally-important once again. We cannot deliberately remove ourselves from this region as a key player if we wish to defend the global position we currently occupy. A democratically-transitioning Afghanistan, supported by American troops, would offer a counter-example to the authoritarian states of Iran, China, and Russia, as well as providing the US an important regional power foothold.

But what about the cost of staying, in lives and dollars? Well, the US has not suffered a combat death in Afghanistan since early 2020 and the trend was continually on the decline. As the US shifted to a more secondary support role – which would be all that was necessary had we not decided to leave, come what may – casualties and deaths would continue to be low. The Taliban, if it decided to continue to attack American forces, would be met with the overwhelming firepower we have always brought to bear on our enemies. The force necessary to keep the Afghan government in power is not large, numbering only a few thousand troops engaged in non-direct combat roles. This isn’t 2010, when we surged troops into the country to defeat a resurgence of the Taliban that came after another planned withdrawal (see a pattern here?). In terms of cost, the issue is even smaller. By the time of this writing, the US was spending about $50 billion annually on the military occupation, far less than we were spending at the height of the conflict. Those who quarrel with the US presence in Afghanistan would call this a staggering sum that would be better spent here at home. But they would be wrong: $50 billion is less than seven percent of our annual defense spending and just over one-half of one percent of our total annual government spending. Those are mere drops in the bucket in terms of American government largesse, especially when the Biden administration has proffered an actually staggering $6 trillion of new spending on top of our usual budget figures.

We have troops stationed around the world in current and former conflict zones to both keep the peace and defend American interests on the ground. This is part and parcel of being a world superpower, and is a responsibility that we should take seriously. Does that mean unthinking intervention into every single conflict space on Earth? No. Does it mean that we should keep our promises and defend the gains which we have won? Yes. And those gains are not small, especially for the people of Afghanistan. Despite the ongoing conflict, the life span of Afghans has risen from 56 to 64 years since 2001, maternal mortality was cut in half, literacy has increased, clean water access in cities has risen from 16% to 89%, the number of girls enrolled in school doubled, and child marriage has declined 17%. Those are real accomplishments that have made the lives of Afghans markedly better than they were under the Islamofascist tyranny of the Taliban. Now that the Taliban is returning to power, those gains have already begun to evaporate: women and girls are again being oppressed as strict Sharia law is being imposed at gunpoint in the areas invaded by the Taliban.

In his speech, President Biden claimed that we had achieved our objectives in Afghanistan by killing Osama bin Laden (an operation Biden opposed as Vice President) and degrading “the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.” That second objective, you might notice, is not one which can be permanently achieved without long-term American presence. After all, why wouldn’t the Taliban – a group very comfortable with an existence as a pariah state – allow its territory to be home to Islamic extremists? They believe the very same things that those terrorists do and seek the same objectives: establishment of Islamic rule over as much of the world as possible, and destabilization of the Western powers they see standing in their way. By removing our military presence and ceding Afghanistan back to such a terrible group, we are only allowing terrorism to flourish again. I hope I am wrong, but I fear that we will heartily regret this decision in the coming decades, both as terrorism raises its ugly head once again and as our global enemies – China, Russia, and Iran – exploit Afghanistan and exert control over all of Central Asia.

If we seek to honor the sacrifice and bravery of the men and women – American, Afghan, and Allied – who gave their lives, their limbs, and their dedication to overthrowing the evil Taliban regime and fighting the scourge of terrorism, we should remain in Afghanistan, not allow it to be overrun by the very forces we sought to destroy 20 years ago. Anything less would be a betrayal of our values and of the Afghan people who supported us in our intervention. The Germans and South Koreans are great friends of the United States after decades of American presence; we should only hope for the same positive outcome for the Afghan people. Unfortunately, our political elites lack the foresight and conviction to stay the hard course and do the right thing.

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