Clifford D. May
A few weeks ago, the night before he was to meet with President Biden, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani broke bread with a group of friendly diplomats, military officers, scholars, and journalists. The dinner was off-the-record so I can’t tell you what Mr. Ghani or others said. With one exception.
I hadn’t planned to speak. But there was a point I thought needed to be made. And no one else was making it.
I rose from my seat, and said: Mr. President, may I suggest that you tell President Biden that you, your government, and your armed forces intend to continue fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda. Emphasize that with a minimal level of American assistance, you’re confident our common enemies will not prevail. But if America abandons Afghanistan, the consequences are likely to be dire – for Afghans, of course, but also for Americans.
If President Ghani took my advice, it had no impact. American forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan in time for the 20th anniversary of the most lethal terrorist attacks ever on American soil, attacks that were planned by al Qaeda, honored guests of the Taliban – then and now.
Those of us who oppose this retreat acknowledge that Republican and Democratic administrations alike failed to develop coherent strategies for Afghanistan. We do not pretend that the Afghan government is an exemplar of rectitude. And no prominent voices – certainly not those of Gen. H.R. McMaster, Gen. David Petraeus, or Gen. Jack Keane – are arguing for a major U.S. commitment to the ongoing battle against jihadis in Afghanistan.
We are arguing against repeating the mistake President Obama made in Iraq in 2011 when, ignoring his national security cabinet’s advice that a small residual force remain in-country, he ordered all U.S. forces to depart.
From the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State soon arose. Shia militias loyal to the Islamic Republic of Iran were emboldened. Three years later, Mr. Obama sent U.S. forces back to Iraq.
Perhaps understanding this, President Biden now appears to have chosen the least-bad option for Iraq. He’s announced that the U.S. combat mission in that country will conclude by the end of 2021 but that a small residual force will remain to train, advise, and assist Iraqi forces that have been suppressing the Islamic State. The U.S. presence also can help prevent Tehran from using military proxies to control Iraq as it has been doing in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza.
Yet Mr. Biden fails to see that the least-bad option for Iraq is the least-bad option for Afghanistan as well: a small residual force of elite troops to continue training, advising, assisting, providing intelligence and close air support to the Afghan forces that have been successfully suppressing the Taliban and al Qaeda. (Reports of AQ’s demise are, at best, premature.)
Let’s do the math. At the height of the conflict in Afghanistan, around 2010, there were roughly 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. By the time Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, we had only 10,000 troops there. By February of this year, the number was fewer than 3,500.
To understand how modest is that commitment, consider that the U.S. for decades has maintained about 78,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. We have many thousands of troops stationed at dozens of other overseas bases – and national security, more than altruism, is the explanation. (About 25,000 troops were deployed to Washington, D.C. following the Jan. 6 riot.)
Because America is withdrawing from Afghanistan, America’s allies also are withdrawing – about 8,000 troops – as are 6,000 contractors responsible for such essential tasks as keeping the Afghan military’s aircraft flying.
America’s investment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan has not been without achievements. Among them: 1) Al Qaeda has been prevented from mounting another attack against the U.S. homeland. 2) The Taliban had been confined to rural areas, just as the Islamic State has been in Iraq (though, not surprisingly, over the last few days the Taliban have seized a half dozen provincial capitals). 3) In Kabul, a new generation of Afghans have come of age. They are educated and pro-American. Women are prominent among them.
Were President Biden to replicate his 2021 Iraq model, the Taliban would not be able to boast that they’ve defeated the mighty United States – as Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, the planner of the 9/11 attacks, confidently predicted. “We will win,” he told his interrogator at Gitmo. “We only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.”
Over the years ahead, a U.S. base in Afghanistan would be of enormous strategic benefit. Within the Indo-Pacific region, there are more than twenty designated jihadi/terrorist organizations (not counting al Qaeda) that need to be kept in check. The notion that we can accomplish this mission with satellites and forces based “over the horizon” is fanciful.
And in case you hadn’t noticed: The People’s Republic of China, America’s top national security concern, is in the Indo-Pacific. Where else between the Gulf and Asia could we have an air base on a par with the one we built at Bagram? Throwing away such an asset is senseless.
Final point: If the Taliban murder thousands of Afghan men and women for the “crime” of having allied with America, will that not leave an indelible stain on our nation? It surely will be deleterious to future efforts to develop partners to fight alongside us against common enemies.
Please don’t tell me the “international community” will stand up to the Taliban. You’re not that naïve. Meanwhile, America-haters in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, Havana, and Pyongyang will be heartened. Jihadists around the world will rejoice. And recruit.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times. Follow him on Twitter @CliffordDMay. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.