Recently, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham blasted negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, which are aimed at ending the Afghanistan war. “I hope the Trump administration will not give into absurd Taliban demands for U.S. withdrawal within 18 months,” he said, “regardless of conditions on the ground.”
Graham’s argument is twofold: He believes the current U.S. footprint in Afghanistan is sufficiently small, and he thinks it is an “insurance policy against the reemergence of al-Qaida/ISIS types [which will] help hold Afghanistan together.” “How Afghanistan turns out,” Graham concluded, “is vitally important to our own national security interests, as this is the place it all started on 9/11.”
Quite frankly, the senator is wrong again about Afghanistan. We don’t need to stay in the country any longer to guarantee our security, and what happens there after we leave is not vital to U.S. interests. While Graham and his ilk have claimed the concept of “forever war” is a shallow slogan and not a serious alternative for American foreign policy, his comments here show the truth of that critique. The foreign policy establishment in Washington really does want to stay at war forever. President Donald Trump should ignore their advice and follow his instincts to leave.
Graham is right that the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan is smaller than in years past. During the war’s height as part of then-President Barack Obama’s surge, there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops deployed. But this insistence that American forces are an “insurance policy” against the reemergence of “al-Qaida/ISIS types” ignores the realities on the ground. Al-Qaida, though greatly diminished, has never disappeared, and ISIS has emerged as a major player in Afghanistan just in the last several years. Even when our footprint was far larger, it could not stamp out these elements.
The evidence that our presence is helping to “hold Afghanistan together” is lacking, too. The Taliban hold or contest more territory now than at any point since their ouster in 2001. The Afghan government is corrupt, unable to provide basic services, run by kleptocrats, and its political system is continually marred by ethnic cleavages. Afghan security forces, heavily subsidized by the American taxpayer, have taken historic levels of casualties in the last several years and feature a 30 percent desertion rate. Afghanistan consistently ranks among the lowest in the world on indices of economic performance, security and political freedom.
If this is our insurance policy, the premium is way too high. Meanwhile, the Taliban has promised it will not stop fighting until all foreign troops are gone from their country. Given the history of the last 18 years, there is no reason to think they are bluffing. No more Americans should die for this.
Contra Graham, what happens in Afghanistan is not “vitally important” to our security interests. Yes, al-Qaida operated there freely in the 1990s, but they also operated in multiple countries across the globe, including here in the U.S., learning to fly at American flight schools. Before 9/11, al-Qaida operated with impunity in Afghanistan because they operated in near-anonymity. The U.S. was aware of their existence but not focused on non-state terror threats the way it is now. Leaving Afghanistan today would not diminish our attention to terrorism.
Nor does it mean ignoring Afghanistan. Indeed, given that the U.S. is fully aware of the threat posed by “al-Qaida/ISIS types,” we don’t need a permanent military presence in Afghanistan to effectively counter them there. The Taliban have been deterred from allowing the conditions of the 1990s to recur. The logic of exit does not rely on trusting them, but rather on the threat of retaliation. And we can use the traditional tools of intelligence and police work to monitor and disrupt anti-American activity. Limited strikes against high-value targets are also an option when presented with credible evidence of an imminent threat.
Nearly 20 years in Afghanistan has drained our military of power, treasure and, most importantly, too many lives. Innocent Afghans have suffered even more. Regardless of how the negotiations with the Taliban go, peace is still a long way off. But there will be no chance of it as long as U.S. boots stay on the ground. It is time to end this poor excuse for a strategy and finally come home.
Jerrod A. Laber is a fellow at Defense Priorities, and a senior contributor for Young Voices. Follow him on Twiter @JerrodALaber.