Afghanistan withdrawal will come back to haunt us

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Marty Rochester, Special to the Jewish Light

In 2008, I wrote “U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century: Gulliver’s Travails,” in which I stated that I was “particularly interested in exploring the difficult foreign policy choices that confront the United States today in a post-Cold War environment that is arguably more complicated, if not more dangerous, than the Cold War system that lasted for a half century after World War II.”

Over a dozen years later, this remains the core challenge of American foreign policy.

I started with two quotations near the turn of the millennium that I felt captured what I called our “Gulliver problem.” One was by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, both professors of government at Dartmouth:

“The sources of American strength are so varied and so durable that the country now enjoys more freedom in its foreign policy choices than has any other power in modern history. … There has never been a system of sovereign states that contained one state with this degree of dominance.”

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The other was by historian Niall Ferguson:

“Is the American empire mightier than any other in history, bestriding the globe as the Colossus was said to tower over the harbor of Rhodes? Or is this giant a Goliath, vast but vulnerable to a single slingshot from a diminutive, elusive foe?”

The United States in 2021 still outspends the next dozen countries combined in total military outlays and still has by far the largest economy in the world and, thus, on paper remains the lone superpower. Yet in the wake of our recent withdrawal —retreat — from Afghanistan, Ferguson’s observation rings truer.

How should we assess the American exit from Afghanistan on Aug. 31?

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs is devoted to this question:  “Who Won the War on Terror?” Our Afghanistan intervention began after 9/11, aimed at destroying the al-Qaida network that killed roughly 3,000 people in attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and denying a safe haven for terrorists. Most authors agree the war on terror was unwinnable. As Georgetown professor Daniel Byman argues, the best we could hope for was to “manage, rather than eliminate, the terrorist threat.” Recall that the Pentagon called the war on terror “the long war” for a reason: You could never hope to catch the last terrorist.

In terms of “managing” the threat — preventing another 9/11 —  U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was remarkably successful. Byman writes that over the past 20 years, only “107 Americans have died in jihadi terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11, almost half of whom were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando [by a lone wolf].”

Elliot Ackerman, an author and former U.S. Marine and intelligence officer, adds: “Since 9/11, the United States has suffered, on average, six deaths per year due to jihadi terrorism. (To put this in perspective, in 2019, an average of 39 Americans died every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids.)”

In characterizing American intervention in Afghanistan as a failure and calling for an end to America’s “longest war,” President Joe Biden was correct to call attention to the limits of the “counterinsurgency” (COIN) policy we had pursued for much of the war, as we had attempted to do “nation building” and bring democracy and economic development to a country totally lacking any such institutional capacity.

However, the point that Biden missed was that even if COIN was too ambitious, the alternative, more modest strategy of counterterrorism designed merely to kill terrorists had become the dominant goal. As Byman says, supported by the above statistics, “to a remarkable degree, the United States itself has been insulated from the [terrorist] threat.”

The question is whether the United States will continue to be insulated from terrorism after our withdrawal from Afghanistan.   

Many knowledgeable observers, including former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster  and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, have doubts. They fear we may have to return troops to Afghanistan because we have left a terrorist sanctuary inviting future attacks on the United States. The Taliban government has appointed as Interior minister a jihadist on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list.

Crocker and others argue that there was simply no urgency for Biden to decide on withdrawal. Not only had we recently reduced our military presence to a reasonable level, with no more than 2,500 troops deployed in the country, but no American combat death had occurred in the previous 18 months and only100 over the past five years. 

Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, a retired Army general and former head of the CIA, was quoted in The New York Times on Aug. 28 as saying: “There was an alternative that could have prevented further erosion and likely enabled us to cut back some of the Taliban gains in recent years. With the Afghans doing the fighting on the front lines and the U.S. providing assistance from the air, such a force posture would have been quite sustainable in terms of expenditure of blood and treasure.”

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 28, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said they had recommended to Biden against removing the 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

Condoleezza Rice, in an op-ed column in the Washington Post on Aug. 17, wrote: “In the wake of Kabul’s fall … a deeply unfair narrative is emerging: to blame the Afghans for how it all ended. … They fought and died alongside us, helping us degrade al-Qaida. … In the end, the Afghans couldn’t hold the country without our airpower and our support. It is not surprising that Afghan security forces lost the will to fight, when the Taliban warned that the United States was deserting them.”

Even if one wishes to defend the Biden decision to withdraw, the execution of the withdrawal was, in the words of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “fatally flawed.” 

Among the errors:

• The failure to understand how quickly the U.S. evacuation announcement would result in the collapse of the Afghan government. Biden said in June that it “was highly unlikely” the Afghan government would be overthrown; in August, he said it was “unavoidable.”

• The failure to effect the safe exodus of hundreds of American citizens and thousands of Afghans who had helped us during the Afghan war, including translators and intelligence operatives.

• The loss of 13 U.S. servicemen in a suicide attack at Karzai Airport. (The New York Times reported that instead of the alleged “ISIS-K planner” the administration initially claimed we killed in a drone strike in retaliation, several Afghan civilians were killed, including seven children.)

• Leaving behind $80 billion worth of the latest military weaponry to be potentially used by the Taliban.

• The naïve faith in the Taliban — a highly sectarian, Sharia-law based entity — cooperating in behaving like a normal government, observing the human rights of women and others, and cutting ties to terrorist groups.

Per an old Romanian proverb: “It is always hard to predict anything, especially the future.”

The likely scenario is a period of civil war in Afghanistan in which various factions compete for power. This instability will pose new challenges for U.S. efforts to protect the homeland from terrorist attack.


J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics. Rochester has written a monthly Jewish Light column since 2014.

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