Afghanistan Withdrawal Raises Questions About Future Wars | Opinion

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 draws near, we mark nearly two decades of the war we have waged in response. But time has not brought much clarity. By any measure, it has long been difficult to define the status of the "War on Terror."

Some argue that the current rarity of jihadist explosions and beheadings means that perhaps we should just take the win. There was never going to be a signing ceremony aboard a battleship featuring terrorist leaders agreeing to articles of surrender. The end of this war was always going to be as murky as its logic. What have we been trying to do? What was the definition of success—or failure, for that matter? These conversations don't happen much these days because the war has long since faded from our national consciousness.

It may return soon. President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan has drawn praise and criticism from across ideological lines, but is sure to embolden the Taliban to reclaim the nation they once roamed with impunity.

The U.S.-trained Afghan security forces are woefully unfit to prevent a Taliban resurgence. Biden's assertion that Afghanistan is in worthy, protective hands is absurd. But so too was the claim long made by Bush-era war supporters that someday we would be able to successfully depart a reformed, rebuilt Afghanistan.

I have always supported President George Bush's decision to take the war to the doorstep of those who were trying to kill us. The notion that Iraq was the "bad war" while Afghanistan was the "good war" never made sense. It has always been the same war—two parts of one statement that if terrorists were going to strike America, we would strike back broadly against offending nations, whether the offense is the harboring of terrorist factions or a regime that threatens American or Middle East stability.

I never knew how to define a reasonable endgame. Neither, it appears, did anyone else.

We were never going to turn these violent fiefdoms and tribal morasses into Western-style democracies. All we could hope for was to tamp down terrorist threats to a level of residual murmur. Nazi Germany was eradicated; this enemy will not be. So have we succeeded by any reasonable definition? Is the Afghan withdrawal, for all its risks, the only viable action at this point? What is the alternative? Another 20 years of standoff?

Donald Trump started calling our deep Afghanistan-Iraq military involvement a mistake well before he ran for president, rankling many conservatives. In 2016, a large percentage of his conservative base knew of that view and still voted for him. Today, his Democratic successor is engineering a final chapter that enjoys broad approval.

Afghan militia fighter
In this picture taken on July 11, 2021 an Afghan militia fighter keeps a watch at an outpost against Taliban insurgents at Charkint district in Balkh Province. FARSHAD USYAN / AFP/Getty Images

But do we need to withdraw completely? The remaining vestiges of war hawkishness suggest that we leave a limited force at Bagram Airfield north of Kabul. But why? What would this operation do as the land we fought to stabilize for a generation falls back into enemy hands? Fly some more missions? Drop some more bombs? Risk some more lives?

Like Vietnam, Afghanistan is a land where conventional victory is impossible. We once again face a sad but inevitable coda to another war.

But this does not mean we will face the same burdens of futility that came when we exited Vietnam in the mid-1970s. The trillions spent and the thousands of lives lost are the same blood and treasure, but this generation has seen a genuine change in the way we fight wars, and the lessons may have lasting benefit.

We may never again see a D-Day, or "shock and awe" operations. The notion of thousands of American troops taking on enemy fire as they slog across beaches, deserts and jungles is looking like the stuff of history books. Drones, satellites and cyber conflicts will fill future manuals of warfare.

This may hand us a decided advantage as the years unfold. While the U.S. military has deployed cutting-edge technology in every war we have fought, rudimentary Viet Cong mines and Al-Qaeda IEDs have been just as lethal in reply. On conventional battlefields, all of our spending, equipment and training have not always guaranteed victory.

But the skills we developed in the modern age, and those we must focus on in the future—countering Russian and Chinese hackers as well as terrorists relying on bullets and bombs delivered by hand—can bring a decided advantage if we prepare ourselves for the new age of warfare. It may at times resemble an action film script, replete with drone attacks and robot warriors. But if success can be achieved with far less loss of life, that seems a goal worth pursuing.

We have learned these skills while trudging through the deserts of Iraq and the caves of Afghanistan. As we leave, the remaining vacuum will carry a cost. We would all like this to be our last troop withdrawal without success. If it is, it will be because we are no longer sending millions of troops to uncertain fates over long stretches of years. Under proper stewardship, we can still be ready for the challenges ahead. American ingenuity and determination have not been vanquished.

Mark Davis is a talk show host for the Salem Media Group on 660AM The Answer in Dallas-Ft. Worth, and a columnist for The Dallas Morning News and Townhall.

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