Afghanistan and Iraq: Mission Accomplished?
On behalf of the Trump Administration, acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller announced last week a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. While it is the fulfillment of a promise by President Trump to stop the endless wars in which the United States has been entangled, it is more than that. It is also a matter of the proper use of military force and the particulars of national security for the United States. However, the reaction from the President’s detractors, former military leaders, and even some Republican Members of Congress was immediate. The troop movements would bring the total of U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, and the same number of troops in Iraq.
“There’s no merit to this—none,” stated retired Marine General John Allen, who led the multinational forces in Afghanistan from July 2011 to February 2013. He further stated that this action forecloses options that a future Biden Administration might have wanted. That is factually not so. Any new commander-in-chief has a full array of options, options reinforced by our facilities still in place in both countries and thousands of troops still there. To state that the troop reduction has absolutely no merit is a broad statement, a generalization, that is as inaccurate as it is unhelpful.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse critically queried whether “those remaining troops will be able to prevent al-Qaeda (AQ), the Islamic State, Iranian proxies, and others from plotting attacks that can spill American blood, or if they will be exposed as jihadis gain ground?” Yet the Pentagon made it clear that most of these remaining troops’ missions will be to protect the U.S. embassies in both countries and other diplomats and diplomatic facilities. Our troops do not routinely go on patrols to fight terrorism even now. While we do provide training for local forces, the relatively infrequent counterterrorism operations by U.S. personnel are conducted by small special operations troop units and CIA operatives. It seems the present mission of most American troops, especially in Afghanistan, already is to guard U.S. installations and prop up a corrupt and ineffective government locally. Meanwhile, our troops remain targets.
Our initial mission in Afghanistan was twofold: to find and destroy al-Qaeda and to find and kill Osama bin Laden. While AQ still exists in pockets throughout the world, no one can deny they have been decimated. Bin Laden was killed nine years ago in this war that has gone on for 19 years. The number of U.S. personnel killed in Iraq is 4,431, and another 2,352 in Afghanistan.
On a personal note, during my time in Casualty Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, the question most asked by the 1,116 families I personally met—especially after bin Laden was killed—was “Why are we still there?” Their pain was palpable, though I was always amazed at the patriotism of these Gold Star families and their pride in their loved ones who had been killed. But even then, I did not have a good answer to their questions. I am career military. Once a mission is accomplished, the operation ends. There must be not only a clear mission (and there was one in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq), but also a clear exit strategy that is actually executed. That has not happened in either of these countries.
I spent three years assigned to the Pentagon. It was an honor. I learned a lot and got to know some of our senior military leaders personally. And yet, I also observed a mentality there that always leaned toward staying engaged in these wars. Combat operations are what the military trains for. More cynical people might accuse our Department of Defense officials of never having seen a war they didn’t like. While that broad accusation is unfair and our Pentagon leaders’ view of military operations is more nuanced than that, I understand the criticism. To use a sports metaphor, it is hard to train and train and yet never play a game. It is hard to be motivated and capable and sit on the bench. But this is not football. It is national defense and young American lives are on the line.
It must be also noted that for years, senior military officials have expressed extreme optimism that our operations were going extremely well and that victory was just ahead. They would state that the U.S. was very, very close to mission accomplishment. But they have been saying that for over a decade now. And the mission has morphed from defeating named enemies to doing police work and engaging in nation building—something that no military should be called upon to do.
Privately, as noted in Task and Purpose, U.S. leaders were much more candid and critical of the long wars. The Washington Post uncovered a 2015 internal government report that gave a clearer picture of what is taking place. For example, retired Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, an advisor to the Obama Administration on Afghanistan, said, “If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction...2,400 lives lost...Who will say this is in vain?” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in his memoir Exercise of Power, “I believe we—and the Afghans—would have been better served had our military departed in 2002 and had thereafter relied on non-military instruments of national power.” And remember, bin Laden was not found and killed in Afghanistan—but in Pakistan.
When it comes to national security and the deployment of U.S. troops, we must look at the issue with a fair mindset that is devoid of attempting to score political points. Hyperbolic criticism of troop withdrawals because it is a decision by President Donald Trump versus one by Joe Biden, for example, ignores the situation on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. It lacks a clear strategy that takes into account the mission of all deployed U.S. service members and the best strategic plan to fight terrorism and ensure the safety of the homeland. Satellite and drone imagery, combined with special operations missions and our air power as needed, are effective and proven ways to deny terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan. Troops in Iraq are used to guard our people and facilities in the Green Zone and other areas; thousands and thousands are not needed for this mission. Other than the minimal troops required for specific missions, it is time to bring our troops home.