Biden would be wise to leave a small force to disrupt terrorists.
By Bing West Nov. 16, 2020
America has entered its 20th year of fighting in Afghanistan without victory. With a major troop drawdown imminent, many of the generals who failed to win are now well-positioned to prevent a disastrous defeat.
In a swift response to the 9/11 attacks, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan shattered al Qaeda, driving its remnants into neighboring Pakistan. But then President George W. Bush decided to build Afghanistan into a democracy. Our generals enthusiastically took on an open-ended mission: “Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as war-fighters,” decreed the 2006 counterinsurgency field manual. Grunts, however, soon learned they couldn’t win the hearts and minds of semi-literate tribesmen or stop the Taliban from using its Pakistani sanctuary to rearm. Still, our generals remained confident.
President Obama took office declaring that Afghanistan was “a war that we have to win.” But after making scant progress, he pulled out most U.S. troops. Mr. Trump further reduced U.S. forces to roughly 5,000, while greatly increasing the bombing. In a tweet last month, the president promised to have all U.S. troops in Afghanistan home by Christmas. Mr. Trump can issue the order, but it would be impossible to carry out before he leaves office. Nevertheless, he seems determined to slash by half the few U.S. forces remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a quick and dirty drawdown would be the most irresponsible national-security decision of this tumultuous presidency. It will be applauded by terrorists and Iran and cause tremors in Kabul and Baghdad.
President-elect Biden will inherit a worsening situation. The Taliban will redouble their efforts to force out remaining U.S. troops. They can’t seize the cities as long as we are there to bomb them, but they control much of eastern Afghanistan. And whoever controls the ground controls the outcome after negotiations. In 1972 the U.S. signed a peace treaty that left thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam. A few years later, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon as the world watched on TV. Respect for American resolve plummeted at home and abroad.
The Taliban share Islamist roots with terrorists who pursue murder on a global scale. A total U.S. withdrawal would lead to a resurgence of terror plots, no longer in danger of disruption. Instead, the U.S. should continue what it is doing: keep military presence low and lethality high, and tolerate a messy government in Kabul. With modest expense and low casualties, the benefits of withdrawal can’t justify the costs.
22 retired four-star generals and admirals endorsed Mr. Biden for president. That list includes many who shared responsibility for the profligate strategy of nation-building. Having helped to elect him, those generals should urge Mr. Biden to retain a small force in Afghanistan. The message should remain unchanged: Wherever ye gather in terror’s name, hell follows.
Mr. West, a military historian, has served as an assistant secretary of defense and a combat Marine. He is author of “The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghanistan War.”