The Dishonest Case for Staying in Afghanistan

Comparing a military presence in Afghanistan and deployments in Europe and East Asia is as laughable as it is dishonest

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, reminded us this week just how blinkered the opponents of withdrawing from Afghanistan are:

The alternative to withdrawal from Afghanistan was not “endless occupation” but open-ended presence. Occupation is imposed, presence invited. Unless you think we are occupying Japan, Germany, & South Korea. And yes, withdrawal was the problem.

An “open-ended presence” that is violently opposed by an insurgency is something quite different from military deployments in peaceful, allied countries. The consent of a kleptocratic client state that is entirely dependent on U.S. support is not the same as that of a stable, democratic ally. Anyone even slightly familiar with conditions in these other countries would understand that having troops there is not the same as keeping thousands of troops in a war zone. If the U.S. had kept an “open-ended presence,” that would have meant an increasing number of American casualties every year for as long they remained there. The U.S. has no vital interests in Afghanistan that would justify keeping a military presence there in any case. There is certainly nothing that would justify accepting the cost of more Americans killed in action in an unwinnable war.

One can debate the merits of a continued U.S. military presence in these other countries, but it is clear that they are not being put in harm’s way by staying there. If U.S. forces had repeatedly come under attack from local insurgents in post-WWII Germany, South Korea, or Japan, it is doubtful that they would have remained as long as they have. Another important point that Haass misses is that U.S. interests in these other countries are significantly greater than they have ever been in Afghanistan. The U.S. has more at stake in the security of these states than it does in fighting a desultory conflict in Central Asia. Haass knows this, and he is pretending not to see these differences because he is reflexively against withdrawing U.S. forces from anywhere for any reason.

Haass’ comment reminds me of John McCain’s statement during the 2008 election campaign that he would be willing to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for up to a hundred years. But even McCain included the caveat that this was only as “long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.” Today American troops are still at risk of being injured and killed, and that would certainly have been true of any U.S. forces that remained in Afghanistan in the coming years. If the U.S. military presence in these countries were genuinely welcome, it would not face sustained, violent resistance. Ignoring the risks that U.S. troops would have inevitably faced in Afghanistan is of a piece with the lie that there was a “sustainable status quo” prior to the withdrawal. As Gil Barndollar explained last week, there was nothing sustainable about it at all. The Afghan security forces have been losing too many men for years:

To focus on the sustainability of the Afghanistan mission for the United States, alone, is to miss the point, however. For the better part of a decade, the force carrying the bulk of the fighting load has been the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF), not the U.S. and its coalition partners. ANSF, according to the public testimony of U.S. generals, has long been losing men at an unsustainable rate.

To liken this situation to allied countries that have been at peace internally for decades is nonsensical. If U.S. forces had remained, they would not only have started suffering casualties, but they also would have had to increase their numbers to compensate for the losses suffered by Afghan government forces. Staying in Afghanistan meant escalation, and that would have meant many more dead Americans and Afghans. Opponents of withdrawal cannot make an honest case for why it would be worth staying, so they have to pretend that an “open-ended presence” in Afghanistan is no different than having one in Germany.

Comparing a military presence in Afghanistan and deployments in Europe and East Asia is as laughable as it is dishonest, and it is telling that this is the argument that opponents of withdrawal fall back on.