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Washington chicken littles would keep troops in Afghanistan forever

The sky will not fall if we leave, but the Blob is trying to convince anyone who will listen that it will, and worse.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

In the days since the Trump administration announced the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Beltway has turned into the epicenter of righteous condemnation. 

Lawmakers like Republican Sen. Ben Sasse are issuing mealy-mouthed press statements calling the troop drawdown a modern-day retreat from evil terrorist forces. Retired 4-Star Generals, including John Allen and Joseph Votel, are wondering why the White House would deliberately hand Afghanistan over to the Taliban when there is so much more work to do. 

One of the most sanctimonious denunciations of the withdrawal came from none other than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who scurried to the Senate floor on the eve of the announcement to make his displeasure known: "The consequences of a premature American exit…would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.” 

The American public has heard all of this before. Invocations of Vietnam, claims about terrorist vacuums, and the levying of emotionally stultifying words like “retreat” are par for the course in Washington. But the last several days of huffing and puffing from the usual, so-called national security “experts” have been so obscenely dishonest that one wonders why they are consulted at all. 

The talking point of a U.S. withdrawal being rushed or irresponsible is perhaps the most laughable of the bunch. The term “precipitous” has been used by opponents of the withdrawal so many times over the last several days that some journalists are habitually injecting it into their own reports. “Precipitous,” however, connotes a disorganized, panicked sprint to the exits. Trump’s decision to reduce the U.S. troop presence in the country is anything but — the administration has made it abundantly clear that Trump sees no point in throwing good money after bad in one of the most violent and corrupt places on earth. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien telegraphed the move to bring U.S. force levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 over four weeks ago. Nobody should be surprised. Nor should movement towards a final exit from a war that just entered its 20th year be referred to as a “precipitous” action. 

There have been a number of arguments presented and tactics used in order to convince the White House to second-guess their decision. But all of them are deficient and essentially equate to throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.

Former U.S. commanders of the war effort have partnered with former high-ranking diplomats who once served in Afghanistan — including two former U.S. Ambassadors — to argue that withdrawing at this particular time makes no sense. The ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, they argue, should be given a chance to succeed. Pull U.S. troops out, the logic goes, and the Taliban will have no incentive to take the talks seriously.

The question, however, is not whether intra-Afghan talks would be harmed by a U.S. military withdrawal — the question is whether keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan will do anything at all to prod Kabul and the Taliban into striking a peace agreement. There is little factual basis to support the notion that peace and stability will blossom across Afghanistan if Washington delays a troop drawdown and exhibits a little more time and patience. Indeed, staying put could very well make a diplomatic settlement more difficult than it already is. Why? Because Kabul, secure in the notion that Washington is staying for the long-haul, will have less reason to compromise and more reason to stall. Afghanistan depends on the international community for 75 percent of its public expenditures; it would be downright irrational for the Afghan government to behave any differently.

Others, including McConnell, Sen. Marco Rubio, and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster are using the age-old “Afghanistan will degenerate into a terrorist safe-haven again” argument to press their case against withdrawal. From an emotional standpoint, this is perhaps the most effective one to use — it sells in the Beltway; frightens policymakers, analysts, and pundits into submission; and plays well with the majority of terrorism scholars, who continue to perpetuate the myth that terrorist groups need a territorial safe-haven to plan and execute attacks. What these very same people seem to forget is that Afghanistan is already a place where an alphabet soup of terrorist groups operate — the previous U.S. commander, John Nicholson, testified in 2017 that Afghanistan is home to at least 20 terrorist organizations. 

Fortunately, eliminating every single terrorist group on Afghan soil is not required to defend the United States from terrorist attacks. Cushioned with an $85 billion budget, the U.S. intelligence community has made remarkable improvements in locating, tracking, and neutralizing terrorists wherever they happen to congregate. The list of high-profile terrorists dead and gone courtesy of the long arm of the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus is long and growing longer: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Sayyaf al-Tunsi, Khaled al-Aruri, Qasim al-Rami, Hassan al-Asiri, and Anwar al-Awklaki to name but a few. 

In nearly every case, the job was done with a lethal combination of informants on the ground, eyes in the sky, and unmanned air platforms that significantly decrease the risk to U.S. personnel. The raid against Baghdadi over a year ago was able to go ahead despite the fact that U.S. troops have never been stationed in northwest Syria. Under no circumstances was a long-term U.S. ground presence required. If Washington can perform this feat in the jihadist wasteland that is Idlib, Syria, it can do the same in Afghanistan—particularly when so many other powers, including Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, and India, also have a self-interest in defending its own territory from transnational terrorists.

If precedent is any guide, there will be more interviews, op-eds and television segments between now and the January 15 withdrawal date lambasting the Trump administration for “abandoning” Afghanistan to the wolves. There will be more intellectually lazy comparisons to the U.S. “cutting and running” and more guilt trips about how a pullout will negatively impact the rights of women. Advisers across the U.S. national security bureaucracy who have worked on the Afghanistan file will resist the very idea of leaving the nearly two-decade war behind. Many of them will preface withdrawal to conditions — like the building of an independent, capable, and sustainable Afghan security force — that would in all practicality nip a U.S. withdrawal in the bud.

But, as David Petraeus once asked: “tell me how this ends?” The American people continue to ask this very same fundamental question. It’s increasingly obvious that opponents of the latest drawdown don’t have an answer.  

Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline, Oct. 27, 2014. (Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps)
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