Trump's Afghanistan Withdrawal Isn't Rushed, It's Long Overdue | Opinion

The abrupt personnel shake-ups at the Pentagon, including the firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, have led some high-profile voices to warn about the potential consequences to U.S. national security. But if the last-minute decisions by President Donald Trump result in the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, we will look back on his presidency as the time when the longest war in U.S. history finally came to an end.

The U.S. military has been fighting in Afghanistan for such a long period of time that you could forgive people for forgetting why Washington sent troops there in the first place. The core U.S. military objective in Afghanistan was straightforward and justified—decimating Al-Qaeda and punishing the Taliban for harboring the terrorist group. But that objective was quickly pushed aside by the kinds of frivolous, unnecessary missions the U.S. military has never been especially good at. Over time, counterterrorism became synonymous with counterinsurgency, nation-building and economic development. Ensuring the ministries in Kabul were delivering for the Afghan people was naively believed to be a critical component of keeping the American people safe.

Time, of course, has proven those assumptions to be faulty at best. U.S. policy in Afghanistan remains trapped in the sunk-cost fallacy, where policymakers invest more money, personnel, and resources into a conflict just to convince oneself that previous investments weren't wasted. The strategy is akin to pouring good money after bad and placing Americans in uniform into harm's way longer than they otherwise should be.

What have those investments brought the United States? Bluntly, not much.

Washington has allocated over $80 billion towards developing, training, arming and staffing the Afghan national security forces, yet Kabul remains highly dependent on the U.S. military for everything from close-air support and aerial surveillance to medical evacuation and basic equipment maintenance. $21 billion of U.S. taxpayer money has been devoted to supporting Afghanistan's overall economic growth, but Kabul still relies on international donors for approximately 75 percent of its public expenditures. A nearly $10 billion counternarcotics program has done little to address drug production in Afghanistan, which continues to supply the world with 90 percent of its opium. The constant badgering from three consecutive U.S. administrations about corruption have barely made a dent; according to Transparency International, Afghanistan's corruption score is a pathetic 173 out of 180. The roughly $2 trillion in U.S. taxpayer money since the war began nearly 20 years ago have won the U.S. an endless occupation of a nation that has been riven by internal fractures, complicated tribal dynamics, and civil war throughout its history.

As news of a possible U.S. withdrawal looms, some argue that the incoming Biden administration should reassess the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha, Qatar last February. Others claim that pulling U.S. troops out would usher in a civil war, seemingly ignorant of the fact that Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war for the last 40 years.

All of these arguments, however, don't stand up to the slightest scrutiny. They amount to a thinly-veiled attempt to continue an expensive, counterproductive and failed status-quo.

For one, Afghanistan's domestic problems are immune to U.S. military solutions. If U.S. force was a panacea to Afghanistan's troubles, the country's problems would already be solved. Afghanistan's conflict is ultimately a civil war between competing factions contesting one another for power and economic resources. The war will end in one of two ways: with a compromise diplomatic settlement among the combatants or a military victory for one of them. This is the cold reality.

Two, the U.S. can't afford to wait for Afghanistan to reach a deal. Tying a U.S. military withdrawal to the successful completion of intra-Afghan peace talks is akin to providing the Afghan government with a veto over U.S. foreign policy and further incentivizes Kabul to toughen their position at the negotiating table. If Washington is willing to wait for Afghans to peacefully coexist with one another before packing up and leaving, it will be waiting for a very long time.

Third and just as critically, a U.S. ground presence in Afghanistan is not required for successful counterterrorism operations against groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The U.S. counterterrorism apparatus has improved exponentially since 9/11, as has Washington's ability to protect itself against attacks through homeland security measures such as border controls, better police training, and intelligence coordination throughout the law enforcement community. Washington boasts the most wide-ranging, sophisticated terrorism surveillance system in the world. And the U.S. has put that system to use repeatedly; whether it was the late-night raid against ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northwest Syria or the targeting of multiple high-profile terrorist leaders in Yemen, the U.S. has demonstrated the will, capability, and lethality to eliminate threats to the homeland. This won't disappear if U.S. ground troops leave Afghanistan.

Delaying a final U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will only increase the cost to Americans in uniform. With the war now its 20th year, the record is clear: Washington has done all it can for Afghanistan.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

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