Over the last 17 years of war in Afghanistan, hundreds of senators and members of Congress have traveled to the conflict zone to thank U.S. troops for their service, meet generals for briefings, and converse with Afghan officials about what is going right and wrong in their country. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, led the latest congressional delegation to Afghanistan this week.
Unfortunately, his bottom-line conclusion is woefully off the mark. Speaking to reporters after his trip, Reed talked about the need for an “enduring [American] counterterrorism presence” in the central Asian country, as if preserving Afghanistan’s stability whatever the cost were the responsibility of the U.S. military. “We can’t assume that anyone other than the U.S. forces and our allied forces can be a successful counterterrorism instrument going forward,” Reed said. “The stakes are too high in terms of the potential of either ISIS-Khorasan or [an] Al-Qaeda element to regroup.”
There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind about what this recommendation would require of the United States. It would consist of nothing short of a total, unconditional, and long-term American military investment in a country overrun by violence, governed by a kleptocratic government riddled with corruption and nepotism, and synonymous with civil, tribal, and proxy war for half a century. For the large plurality of Americans who hope policy elites in Washington will concentrate more time and energy on addressing problems at home, continuing to expend U.S. lives and tax dollars in Afghanistan makes no strategic sense.
It is also completely unnecessary. Washington does not need to maintain thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to keep the American public safe from transnational terrorism. If troops were the answer, the problem would have been solved a long time ago.
Terrorism is not an existential threat to the U.S., and the foreign policy establishment cannot continue to treat several thousand jihadists in the mountains of Afghanistan, many of whom are preoccupied with fighting each other and possess more localized objectives, as an enduring danger to America. A failure to come to that most basic realization is a recipe for endless strategic distraction, endless troop deployments, endless wars, and endless streams of taxpayer money allocated on behalf of unattainable and wasteful social science experiments.
As much as Washington may hope for an Afghanistan characterized by an open and tolerant society with a political class free of corruption and stewards of the rule of law, hope is not a strategy. The country was awash in civil war when 140,000 U.S. and NATO soldiers were patrolling the streets of Helmand and launching night raids in Kandahar in 2010-2011. It is swept with violence today with a U.S. troop presence of roughly 14,000. It will be inundated with conflict after U.S. troops depart — as they should have done years ago.
The U.S. accomplished what it sought out to do in the first few months of this war. By December 2001, al Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan was eliminated, the Taliban regime was kicked out of Kabul and little more than a broken movement, and Osama bin Laden was hiding in a cave somewhere between the Afghan-Pakistani border. Yet, rather than declare victory and come home, Washington vastly expanded the mission to unimaginable heights — as if building a functional, prosperous, Western-style democracy in the middle of central Asia was a requirement to keep the U.S. protected from international terrorism. The mission transformation has led so many years later to what we see today: U.S. military involvement in an apparently perpetual war with no endgame in sight.
What most lawmakers and administration officials in Washington still don’t comprehend is that a successful, effective, and pennywise counterterrorism strategy is the opposite of what the U.S. is doing today. Sustaining a permanent cycle of deployments is not only extravagantly expensive and exceedingly draining to our forces, it also ties the U.S. down at the expense of other strategic priorities.
Policy elites in the Beltway can’t do the same thing over and over and expect to get different results. An indefinite U.S. presence in Afghanistan would be more than useless to our security; it would be morally hazardous.
If Washington wants to defend Americans from terrorism, it must break the assumption that mistakenly equates an endless U.S. troop presence with a boon in our national security. The conventional wisdom is not wisdom at all, as nearly two decades of war have made all too clear: It’s a dangerous exercise in futility.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities.