A common argument is that after 2,500 people dead and $1 trillion spent, it’s time to get out of Afghanistan. We need to wash our hands of the whole affair because, like the British in 1841 and the Soviets in 1989, it’s proven to be too much for us.
There is the obvious flip side to this argument; namely that in order for us to make sense of our substantial sacrifice, we should actually try to win. Otherwise every one of those more than 2,500 US deaths was in vain. But for now, let’s set that aside, and think this through logically. Hard-nosed brass tacks suggests we need to stick around and help make it come right.
US soldiers in Zabul Province, 2010
The prime reason we don’t want the Taliban back in is because the Taliban could easily allow extremists into the country who could threaten us again. This is, after all, the reason we went in in the first place.
In 2001, we saw that few actions short of invading would allow us to impose our will on the ground. We recalled how, after the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, Bill Clinton shot over 75 cruise missiles into Afghanistan and killed about 20 low-level extremists. This accomplished nothing.
The counter-argument to this is that the Taliban are nationalists. They couldn’t care less about hosting internationally-oriented Islamic extremists such as al Qaeda. Furthermore, given that the last time they hosted international jihadists they lost their country, they are unlikely to do it again. They care more about Kandahar than Dallas. And the Islamic State, internationalist jihadists who might care about America, are the Taliban’s sworn enemy.
Convincing? Not really. The Pakistanis support the Taliban, and the Pakistanis are fighting with India over Kashmir. Every day, the Pakistanis help train jihadists to fight in Kashmir – who are internationally-oriented. If the Taliban takes Kabul, Pakistan would insist that their Kashmir fighters be trained in Afghanistan. Once one group if international Islamic jihadists is based in Afghanistan, we can expect that to continue and other groups to follow.
There’s more. The Taliban has historically proven itself incapable of governing. The Islamic State currently has about 1,500 or 2,000 fighters in Afghanistan. The Taliban would have trouble opposing their expansion, given the task is too much for the current government, which has 350,000 men. So we can expect ISIS to expand in Afghanistan if the Taliban take over.
The fact that the Taliban say they don’t want internationalist Islamic jihadists on their soil doesn’t stop them from having the capability to host them. They are obviously capable of changing their Afghan-first orientation and hosting whomever they like in the future.
Foreign policy planning is generally constructed on the basis of the enemy’s capabilities, not their intentions. Intentions can change, or might be unknown. Capabilities are quantifiable. Predictable. So you plan off the capability, not the intention.
We have little insight into the mindset of the Taliban leadership (let alone their Pakistani sponsors). Entrusting the safety of America to statements made by Taliban fighters who are currently trying to kill our troops is naive. They don’t have our best interests at heart. They will probably say anything to win. Their statements need to be double-checked.
Reagan famously said in relation to the Soviets “trust but verify.” Trusting the Taliban without verifying their actions goes against the grain our history.
People also say that there are plenty of places for Islamic jihadists to hide in the world, so shutting off one source of sanctuary (Afghanistan) makes little sense when alternates include Sudan, Somalia, and so on. But, frankly, Afghanistan is the worst possible sanctuary. Try flying from the Sudan to New York. Or calling. It’s hard. But it’s easy to drive from Kabul to Pakistan and get on one of the hundreds of daily international flights out of there. It’s easier by an order of magnitude.
Well, let’s not beat a dead horse. Common sense suggests we should stay and see it out. But there is one last point worth considering.
It cost us so far about $1 trillion and counting. To make it come right costs relatively little, perhaps $4 billion from us and another $2 billion from other allies over the next ten years. Is that a lot of money? Well, compared to the events in Paris, Nice and Brussels, it’s probably a wise investment.
We don’t have those mass-casualty events because almost all Muslim people in America are loyal and proud people. We don’t have the Muslim ghettoization that occurs in France or the UK. The Muslims here are generally open and free, and can be our best (though not perfect) defense against extremism.
In order for us to keep our homeland defense strong we need the international arena to not worsen. Turning Afghanistan into a sanctuary for internationalist Islamic radicals would give them a boost that could destabilize the balance that is currently keeping our continent safer than Europe.
Not to mention that the ordinary Afghans have stood by us in thick and thin, trying to help us make their society better and safer. I’ve seen Afghans who risked their lives to keep out the Taliban. This is not an impossible task. These people want to win. We should help them.
It’s good for them and good for us.