A Veteran’s Take on Afghanistan

The developing story regarding the collapse of Afghanistan is dominating the news, and many who had long forgotten American troops were still active in the country are now paying attention to the chaos surrounding our withdrawal. As a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and a veteran of two combat tours, I have mixed emotions about what we are witnessing.

On the one hand, I understand the feelings of many veterans that our 20-year effort in Afghanistan has been all for nothing. Nobody wants to sacrifice our blood and treasure and then walk away with virtually nothing. It makes the sacrifice of the men and women killed there seem pointless.

On the other hand, I have long felt that we should have been gone from the country the second Osama bin Laden became a corpse. President Obama vowed to bring our troops home, then President Trump upped the ante by forcing the military to reduce its presence and setting a goal for the end of our presence. Now President Biden is executing what his two predecessors envisioned. Could the withdrawal have been better planned and executed? There is little doubt about the answer to that question and the reasons for the mess we are watching will make themselves known in due time. Even if the whole thing is a giant mess right now, it was still the right call to leave and I am glad the President is sticking to his guns on this issue.

As a lifelong Republican, I don’t often share the views of my countrymen in the Democratic Party. But President Biden is right when he says that it’s all about national interests. I wrote extensively about national interests in my book, Stalemate: Why We Can’t Win the War on Terror and What We Should Do Instead, in 2011. The world is a complex and busy place and interest change over time and in certain situations. The world has changed since we first deployed troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and our interests and priorities have shifted. Afghanistan is a poor, primitive country, but it has also always been that way. We weren’t going to change that in 20 years or 100 years. We sometimes go to other countries thinking we can transform them into mirror images of the United States, but the reality is that some countries and cultures are just not interested or at a minimum are not willing to fight for such a transformation. President Biden is correct when he says it’s wrong to send Americans to fight a war in Afghanistan when Afghani soldiers won’t fight for their own country. Our compelling interest in 2001 was to eliminate terrorist capability in Afghanistan and to kill Osama bin Laden. And while the terrorist threat is not completely eliminated, it is manageable. The truth is that it will never be completely eradicated and given that fact it is time to realign our national interests.

The world has changed greatly over the last two decades, with China rising as our most immediate military, economic and political threat and Putin’s Russia desperately pushing for a return to the great power status that was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. North Korea and Iran continue their nuclear pursuits and both Syria and Iran are bigger terrorist threats than Afghanistan ever will be again. Not to mention terrorist activity emanating from Africa and Chinese advances on that continent that threaten our long-term economic security. We have many national interests and priorities change. Some interests are more important than others. As important as Afghanistan was in 2001, that is no longer the case There are, of course, concerns about America losing a war and our credibility suffering a tremendous blow. But those ships have sailed. Our fighting men and women could not win a war in which political leaders were always moving the goalposts. Counterterrorism, gender equality, infrastructure improvement, nation building, political transformation…you cannot win when the end state is regularly revised. As for our credibility, the simple truth is that we are not taken all that seriously on the world stage anymore. We appear to be bullies who set redlines we then fail to enforce.

The future of Afghanistan should be in Afghan hands. I see lots of military aged males protesting the Taliban in my evening news video feeds. Where were they the last 20 years? The time to make their voices heard was when they still had us to back them up. Now they have to figure it out for themselves. As for the United States, our focus when it comes to Afghanistan should be monitoring and managing any threat to the US homeland that arises from a Taliban-controlled country. Our military and intelligence capabilities are far better today than they were in 2001 or even in 2010. And terrorists everywhere were sent a chilling message when Navy SEALs killed bin Laden: if we want you badly enough, we will find you and we will kill you. It might take a decade or longer, but there is nowhere you can hide that we cannot reach out and touch you. Afghanistan is the world’s problem, not the United States’ problem. It was broken before we got there and it will be broken long after we leave.

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, strategic planner, and author of “Stalemate: Why We Can’t Win the War on Terror and What We Should Do Instead,” (2011).