Afghanistan and the Bankrupt 'Credibility' Argument

Eliot Cohen dredges up a very tired argument in response to the announcement that U.S. forces will withdraw from Afghanistan before September 11 of this year:

But strategic freedom will come at the cost of strategic reputation. It is not possible simply to walk away from a war one has been committed to and pay no penalty, even if the penalty is less than the cost of continuing to fight. It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the Great Power that knows Afghanistan best from its own experience, Russia, is now testing Western resolve by mobilizing forces on the Ukrainian frontier. The price of an Afghan exit, in other words, may be the need to show military determination in other hot spots in Eastern Europe or the Far East.

It makes no sense to think that other states will become more aggressive in other places because the U.S. is withdrawing from a 20-year war in Afghanistan. If anything, the decision to liquidate a bad position in a pointless war frees up attention and resources that the U.S. can now devote to other parts of the world. It is more likely that exiting Afghanistan will make other states more cautious about taking provocative actions. It is even more likely that it won’t have much of an effect at all. Contrary to all the caterwauling from dead-enders, U.S. withdrawals from long wars have not led to a weakening of our government’s position elsewhere. Refusing to abandon a bad position is always costlier than leaving it. Hawks invoke credibility and reputation to distract from the fact that the war they are supporting can’t be justified on the merits.

The Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border has nothing to do with U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. To the extent that Russia is “testing” Western resolve, it is doing so because the Ukrainian government is once again bringing up the prospect of joining NATO and the Biden administration is making pledges of “unwavering support” that are hard to take seriously. There is no “need to show military determination” here because the U.S. has no obligations to uphold. Hawks frequently try to link events in different parts of the world when they think they can use them to discredit a withdrawal policy or a choice not to use force somewhere, but the connections are imaginary.

As Kennan said about the Vietnam War, “there is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant and unpromising objectives.” The U.S. has stubbornly pursued the most extravagant and unpromising objectives in Afghanistan for decades, and our government finally seems to be acknowledging failure and walking away. That is a long overdue and welcome change. The only problem with the Biden administration’s position is that the withdrawal won’t be happening as soon as it could.