There is No Compelling National Security Argument For Keeping American Troops in Afghanistan | Opinion

Afghanistan could now be in the throes of transformation. The reduction-in-violence agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban appears to be holding, with the first three days of the truce seeing a decrease in Taliban attacks from the usual 50-80 per day to a total of nine. President Donald Trump has alleged that the signing of an accord is "pretty close." If all goes according to plan, the Taliban could be sitting with representatives of the Afghan government for the first time next month.

However, there is one segment of the Afghanistan story that never gets old—peace deal or no peace deal, Washington must maintain a troop presence in the country to defend the American people from international terrorism. Yet as my colleague Ret Lt. Col. Daniel Davis said during his testimony to a Senate subcommittee this month, this is one of the biggest myths circulating in Washington today. When the full history of the war in Afghanistan is written, historians will conclude that the "we must fight the terrorists over there so we don't fight them here" hypothesis was as foolhardy as Domino Theory was during the Cold War.

Here's the reality: the United States doesn't need to put thousands of American soldiers at unnecessary risk in order to protect the American people from anti-U.S. terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

There is a curious lack of recognition in Washington of just how effective the U.S. intelligence and military apparatus has become since 9/11. 20 years ago, Washington essentially had three choices if it sought to neutralize an immediate terrorist threat: a Tomahawk cruise missile strike, an airstrike from a conventional bomber, or a special forces raid into enemy territory. Today, thanks to improvements in the U.S. intelligence community's surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, more diversified weapons systems, and the U.S. military's enhanced capacity to project force quickly and efficiently, Washington can identify, target, and destroy direct threats around the world.

We know this because the United States has done it time and time again. Just ask Osama Bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Qassem Soleimani, Nasir al-Wuyayshi, Qasim al-Rimi, and the countless men who have held Al-Qaeda's position of third-in-command—all of whom found themselves on the receiving end of America's might. As former Afghanistan war czar Douglas Lute said, "We [the U.S.] have the CT capacity, the counter-terrorism capacity, to get the guys we need to get. It shouldn't be any different in Afghanistan."

But what if Afghanistan turns into a playground for terrorist groups the moment U.S. troops withdraw? This, too, is a powerful and popular argument in the Beltway, but an entirely emotional one that discounts just how reviled groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are to ordinary Afghans, the entire region—and even the Taliban.

And concerns about terrorism are present not just in the U.S., but in every country. Terrorism emanating from Afghanistan remains such a significant concern for Russia that the Kremlin has provided the Taliban with military and financial support in part to combat the more extreme organizations that present a threat to Moscow. Zamir Kabulov, Russia's special envoy to Afghanistan, has stated publicly that Moscow and the Taliban share a common enemy in the Islamic State.

The Chinese, whose $1 trillion Belt and Road infrastructure initiative depends on a semi-stable Afghanistan, also has an incentive to keep groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS contained. Violence, after all, is bad for business.

An entrenched ISIS and Al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan doesn't serve Pakistan's national security interests either, particularly when the country is already one of the most affected by terrorist incidents. According to the U.S. State Department, terrorism in Pakistan killed and injured nearly 1,900 people in 2018. The Pakistani government has no wish to see that figure increase.

In fact, given that Afghanistan's stability is far more important for Pakistan, Russia, Iran, India, and Central Asia than it is to the United States, one could persuasively argue that a U.S. troop withdrawal would actually bring these countries together in pursuit of a common counterterrorism objective. Without thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, all of these countries would not only have more incentive to take primary responsibility for their immediate neighborhood, but also demonstrate more urgency in doing so. This includes the Taliban, a group whose past relationship with Al-Qaeda resulted in the loss of its emirate.

To assume that counterterrorism work would simply cease and that the pressure on Al-Qaeda and ISIS would lift as soon as Washington departs totally discounts the security interests of Afghanistan's neighbors.

With Afghan negotiators preparing to discuss the future of their country next month, it's a good time to remember that the political future of Afghanistan should and will ultimately be left to the Afghans to decode. After nearly 19 long years, the U.S. military has done all it can do in a country that has been at war for the last four decades.

U.S. troops did not sign up to serve as the Afghan government's permanent body guards. They swore an oath to defend the security and national interests of the United States. An indefinite military deployment to Afghanistan obscures this core mission. Bringing our troops home is the first step to rebuilding a foreign policy that focuses on America's legitimate interests.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.