The bulk of reporting about alleged Russian payment of secret bounties to Taliban fighters to kill American troops in Afghanistan has focused on President Trump: What did he know and when did he know it?
Was the intelligence communicated in the President’s Daily Briefing this past spring, as CNN has reported — or was it circulated at high White House levels in early 2019, as Associated Press sources say? Did Trump see it and neglect to act? Did he skip reading it entirely? Or, as the White House claims, was the intelligence never actually shared at the upper reaches of the executive branch because it had not yet been adequately vetted? (Trump himself has characteristically branded the entire situation a “made up Fake News Media Hoax.”)
Lawmakers from both parties are demanding answers from the administration on the veracity of the intelligence as well as Trump’s denial. This is a worthwhile inquiry, but the bounties story raises a bigger question: Why are we still in Afghanistan?
Why are U.S. forces still in harm’s way, whether from Russia by Taliban proxy or anyone else? Why hasn’t Trump followed through on all his talk about ending the war? Why do we have a reckless foreign policy with no strategy to make bounties viable in the first place?
This affair’s primary lesson should not be about intelligence procedure or the suspected fecklessness of the president. It should be about the war in Afghanistan itself: specifically, that the U.S. is not moving Afghanistan toward peace and is overdue to withdraw.
Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the lesson Washington wants to learn. The president’s critics are playing a new variation on their usual themes. What’s worse than undue priority to lesser matters, however, are conclusions like those drawn by House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX).
“I think most of us believe that, whether you can prove it all the way or not, if there’s a threat to our people, then we need to take decisive action to make sure our people are protected,” Thornberry said in a recent PBS interview. What that means, he explained, is prolonging or perhaps escalating the war in Afghanistan. “It would be a tragic mistake for us to further reduce our troop presence in Afghanistan because that would only encourage more of these sorts of threats to come about,” Thornberry added.
So according to Thornberry’s twisted logic, we must continue this war to fight the threats that would not exist if we simply stopped the war — a perfect spiral of senseless bloodshed fallaciously defended as an absolute necessity forever.
Of course, Thornberry, and hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — who also used this story as an occasion to call for more war — would not say they want this conflict to last “forever.” Graham praised the idea of a “conditions-based withdrawal,” or, just check a few boxes first, and then we can be done!
But by design, these boxes can’t actually be checked. In Afghanistan, just as in Syria, the conditions Graham and others advocating for endless war stipulate will never be indisputably satisfied. They require impossible victories — political, religious, and cultural problems solved by military intervention, which has been demonstrably unsuited to the job.
And the conditions are always conveniently malleable; for those without eyes to see the war in Afghanistan for the dangerous exercise in futility that it is, nothing can provide a convincing reason to leave. There will always be another spring fighting season we should see through, another Afghan administration to stabilize, another province to reclaim or upstart terrorist group to suppress, another proxy threat — say, Russian bounties on American heads — we must combat.
We always have to keep fighting, as Thornberry said, because there is always something to fight.
Thus, as Harvard international relations scholar Stephen M. Walt aptly noted more than three years ago, “What began in 2001 as a focused effort to topple the Taliban and rout al Qaeda has become an endless, costly, and unrealistic effort with no clearly discernible endpoint and little hope of success.”
His piece remains perfectly relevant now, as the sense of stagnation and perpetual pursuit of the unobtainable it communicates is unchanged. Trump has used the interval to make more noises about leaving, perhaps even by Election Day, but his foreign policy record so far gives them little credibility.
By all means, let’s get to the bottom of what Trump knew of the bounties intelligence. Likewise, let’s settle if the intelligence is trustworthy. But, more important to the security, future, and peace of our country and Afghanistan, let’s preclude the possibility of repeating this episode, of needlessly endangering American lives and chancing conflict with the only other nuclear superpower to prolong an untenable war.
We do “need to take decisive action to make sure our people are protected,” as Thornberry said. And to do that, we need to bring them home.