You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold ‘em.
Know when to walk away; know when to run.
---Don Schlitz, 1976, The Gambler
In a recent poll by Concerned Veterans of America (CVA), veterans and military families overwhelmingly support a full withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan. They also support leaving Syria by a wide margin. The war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in American history by well-over a decade: This fall we will have been at war in that country for eighteen years. Is it time to go? Is the mission accomplished? Or have we been engaged in imperceptible mission creep, failing to realize that we completed our tasks there years ago?
In the survey by CVA, fewer than 40 percent of those surveyed believe that keeping troops in Afghanistan is necessary for the security of the United States; 60 percent favor a complete withdrawal. But, fewer than one-third said they would object if the United States left unilaterally. The U.S. has about 14,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan. They have a two-tiered mission of training, assisting, and advising Afghan troops in their fight against the Taliban, as well as counterterrorism missions against groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.
President Trump has recently repeated his campaign promise to bring all of our troops home from this isolated country that is torn by internal strife, government corruption, and multiple terror groups vying for control. It has been called the graveyard of empires, as the former Soviet Union can attest. In February of this year the president said that “great nations do not fight endless wars.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told an audience in D.C. last week that bringing troops home is his expectation. “That’s my directive from the President of the United States,” Pompeo told a gathering at the Economic Club of Washington D.C. “He’s been unambiguous: End the endless wars. Draw down. Reduce. It won’t just be us. . . . We want [the Afghan security forces] to take their country back, and we want to reduce what is, for us, tens of billions of dollars a year in expenditures.”
Democratic Presidential hopeful, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, like me a former Army officer and combat veteran, has echoed the President’s sentiments. “Every time I see news about somebody being killed in Afghanistan, I think about what it was like to hear an explosion over there and wonder whether it was somebody I served with, somebody that I knew, a friend, a roommate, colleague. . . . We’re pretty close to the day when we will wake up to the news of a casualty in Afghanistan who was not born –[before] 9/11.”
In just seven months of this year, 14 young Americans have been killed there; in all of last year 13 were killed. During my service in Casualty Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, I officiated at virtually countless dignified transfers of the remains of those killed in that war-torn country. Even years ago, so many times as I met with family members who had come to Dover for their loved-one’s final homecoming, I was repeatedly asked “Why” their son, or daughter, or husband, or wife died? For what purpose? Why are we there? This anguish was all the more pointed when American service members were actually killed by a member of the Afghan Security Forces, as is often the case—even recently: last week two U.S. soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team were killed in an apparent insider attack.
These are legitimate questions. If one remembers back to our initial onset of operations in Afghanistan, our mission was two-fold: to find and capture/kill Osama Bin Laden and to root out the training camps of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden was killed in 2011. Al-Qaeda, while still existing in various manifestations, is far more operational in other places like the Horn of Africa. Bin Laden’s son, the heir apparent of the group, was killed last week. By all accounts, our two-part Afghan mission was completed years ago.
Over the ensuing years, the mission in Afghanistan morphed into fighting the Taliban and trying to prop up the ineffective, and often corrupt, government there—a classic example of nation-building. But nation-building is not why we have a military and is not the reason our armed forces train and fight. The Taliban is part of the warp-and-woof of Afghanistan society. It is impossible to know who exactly is a member of this warring group, and even more difficult to determine who in the population secretly supports their presence there. Eliminating the Taliban is a fool’s errand. This is the reason that now the United States is in negotiations with the Taliban to try and bring peace to that nation. So, again, why are we there?
Numerous lawmakers in Washington object to a U.S. withdrawal, as do some of the top brass at the Pentagon. Former President Obama had hoped to withdraw troops from Afghanistan but repeatedly delayed his plans on the advice of military leaders. Lawmakers in both parties believe that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), still used to justify our military presence in Afghanistan, should be updated—but cannot come to an agreement on what a new AUMF will look like.
We have not been defeated in Afghanistan. We are not running away. But it is time to walk away. It is not our responsibility, nor is it possible, to bring Western-style democracy and civilization to this primitive country where tribal leaders have more influence than the established government in Kabul. Some say it is better to fight the enemy over there than to fight them here, after another attack on the homeland. However, the continued campaign to fight terrorism and to deny terrorists a refuge for training camps is a task that can be done with satellite imagery, air power, and Special Operations forces. In other words, small forces with specific counterterrorism missions instead of large units deployed long-term to the country.
In addition to the almost 2,400 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and 1,700 civilian contractors, the U.S. taxpayer has spent 18 billion dollars to equip the Afghan military—providing over 600,000 weapons, 70,000 vehicles, and over 200 aircraft. Over 70 billion dollars has been spent to set up the Afghan government and on infrastructure projects; however, due to poor accountability and corruption, a fair amount of that is unaccounted for. Some twenty-thousand U.S. troops have been wounded in Afghanistan—many of them severely.
The war against terrorism is not over. It is a multi-generational conflict. The United States and its allies must remain vigilant and take the fight to the enemy at every opportunity. It is an asymmetrical fight with no end in sight. However, this fight does not require thousands of U.S. troops and billions of U.S. dollars to be on the ground in Afghanistan. Our members of Congress and our leadership at the Pentagon must support the President in his efforts to draw down the U.S. presence there.
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