The Stupidity of Fighting a War to Prove a Dead Man Wrong

Bret Stephens thinks that U.S. forces should stay in Afghanistan indefinitely to spite Bin Laden’s ghost:

But what was the American interest in staying in Afghanistan beyond the fall of the Taliban? It wasn’t, centrally, to kill Osama bin Laden, who was just one in a succession of terrorist masterminds. It was to prove Bin Laden wrong about America’s long-term commitments, especially overseas.

Like any other justification for waging war to achieve intangible goals, Stephens’ argument is deeply flawed. Because a fanatic on the other side of the world made a claim about our “staying power,” we have to stay to “prove him wrong” even though he has been dead for years and has already been proven wrong. This is the opposite of sound and rational foreign policy. It is a foreign policy motivated by spite. While there might be some visceral satisfaction in trying to “prove him wrong,” this is not a legitimate reason to keep troops in harm’s way in a foreign country for years on end. No one should be asked to risk his life to demonstrate American resolve for the sake of vexing a dead man.

The truth is that the U.S. has shown tremendous staying power in Afghanistan despite having no vital interests at stake there. The U.S. has wasted twenty years and trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in an unwinnable war. A less determined, more easily discouraged, much more rational government would have given up 18 years ago. The U.S. has already demonstrated a thousand times over that it does not give up easily, but so what? That determination long ago calcified into deranged stubbornness. The refusal to give up has become denial. Haunted by jihadist talking points, hawks would have us continue to bleed resources and risk lives in useless imperial policing without end.

There comes a time fairly early in a pointless war where a ferocious “can-do” attitude is a liability because our leaders refuse to admit that a war isn’t worth the costs. Our leaders have told us, and we have told ourselves, that fighting in Afghanistan has been necessary to keep the U.S. secure, but the reality is that American security doesn’t depend at all on who governs in Kabul. If the U.S. isn’t fighting to protect itself, and it isn’t capable of prevailing, continuing the war makes no sense. Once we admit that the “safe haven” myth is untrue, the entire argument for keeping troops in a war zone on the other side of the world falls apart.

Stephens falls back on whataboutism to try to deflect other objections to the withdrawal:

As for Russia and China, should Ukrainians — who now face 150,000 Russian military troops massing on their border — find comfort in the looming Afghan pullout? What about Taiwanese, facing increasing belligerence from Beijing?

These are silly questions, and they underscore just how ridiculous the argument against withdrawal from Afghanistan has become. Properly speaking, Ukraine and Taiwan have absolutely nothing to do with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. If the U.S. kept its troops in the country, it would likely have no effect on the thinking in Moscow and Beijing. Insofar as anyone took it into account, it would probably signal to them that the U.S. was finally extricating itself from a war it couldn’t win. Does that mean that they think the U.S. would be better able to fight to defend Ukraine or Taiwan in the event one of these states attacked? No, because the calculations of these governments aren’t based on what the U.S. does or doesn’t do in some other theater. They are gauging U.S. willingness to fight for these countries on the basis of our interests and capabilities, and our withdrawal or continued presence in Afghanistan has nothing to do with these.

Would Ukrainians take comfort from a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan? I don’t know, but this is the wrong question to ask. The right question should be: is there any scenario where you can imagine that the U.S. would go to war for Ukraine? Stephens is using these other, irrelevant issues to try to muddy the waters because the case for remaining entangled in Afghanistan’s conflict is so pathetically weak.

Stephens conjures up the credibility fairy and professes to believe in it with the credulity of a small child:

The theory of deterrence relies not just on the balance of forces but also on reserves of credibility. Leaving Afghanistan now does next to nothing to change the former while seriously depleting the latter.

Hawks take it as axiomatic that U.S. credibility is a finite thing that is increased or depleted with every action or failure to act. They pay no attention to the relative importance of the issue in question, and they don’t take into account the context and the interests at stake. Finally exiting Afghanistan after 20 years doesn’t deplete our credibility. If anything, it shows that our government is waking up to the reality of how wasteful and unnecessary our involvement has been. When the U.S. left Vietnam, our allies elsewhere were relieved because we had finally extricated ourselves from the quagmire. Our adversaries had been baffled that we kept fighting in a losing cause for so long. No one doubts American staying power or the willingness to fight. Many governments could be forgiven for doubting the rationality of our leaders.

If you were to see a rival throwing his money into a bonfire with abandon, you would think him a fool and take advantage of his distraction. When the rival sobers up and stops setting his fortune on fire, that is when you might start to realize how formidable he is when he isn’t wasting his resources for no good reason. America has spent the last twenty years frittering away its resources on unnecessary and costly conflicts, and we have very little to show for it. We need to stop fighting wars for credibility and keeping troops in harm’s way to prove a dead man wrong, because endless war is not the way to prove resolve and wasting your time and resources in someone else’s war doesn’t deter aggression elsewhere.