A Taliban fighter stands guard at the backstage as the army chief of staff Qari Fasihuddin Fitrat (L), acting defence minister of Afghanistan Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid (C) and Taliban defence ministry spokesman Enayatullah Khawarizmi speak during a press conference in Kabul on August 28, 2022 (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

The right way to mark this Afghan war anniversary

It really didn’t have to turn out this way

Artillery Row

The one-year anniversary of the final U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has induced a rash of revisionist reflections on America’s longest war. It “did not have to turn out this way,” fretted former CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus in The Atlantic. If the United States had been more committed, possessed of a bottomless font of strategic patience, if we’d accepted that nation building “was not just unavoidable” but essential, he wrote, and that the one time we got “the inputs roughly right” was with 100,000 U.S. boots on the ground c. 2011, we might have pulled off a “sustained, generational” occupation.

Such counterfactual accounts will be a pernicious influence

Speaking to Politico, Gen. Frank McKenzie offered a scaled-down version of the same idea: We should have kept at least a few thousand American troops in Afghanistan “indefinitely”, he said, because it was only with American support that the government we made — shoddy workmanship, it seems — could continue to stand. CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen painted a fundamentally misleading impression of pre-withdrawal Afghanistan as “a somewhat functional” American vassal which, though it “wasn’t Norway”, had made striking progress under Washington’s tutelage and needed only the permanent presence of 2,500 U.S. troops (plus ten times their number in civilian contractors and forces from NATO allies) to stick around forever.

This jostling to define the lessons America should learn from Afghanistan is to be expected, but the prominence and volume of voices still wrongly insisting this war was decades (or centuries!) too short instead of 20 years too long is alarming. Such counterfactual accounts, if they gain further sway, will be a pernicious influence in U.S. foreign policy. Instead of casting doubt on the wisdom of last year’s overdue withdrawal, we should mark this anniversary by taking steps toward more workable relations with the Taliban-run government for the sake of the Afghan people and reconsider the entire strategy of a geographically and chronologically limitless war on terror.

Reports from on the ground in Afghanistan this month show a complicated picture. On the one hand, the streets of Kabul look relatively normal. Women and children are out and about, and CNN reports the Taliban is not enforcing some of its strictest decrees. In more remote provinces, U.S. withdrawal has brought calm. The frequent airstrikes ceased, and residents praise the comparative speed and lack of corruption in the Taliban’s courts. In most of the country, fighting has finally stopped.

But then there’s the other hand. Teenage girls remain barred from classrooms, and the Taliban has sharply curtailed women’s opportunities. Most immediately pressing of Afghanistan’s problems are its severe poverty and food insecurity: More than nine in 10 Afghans live below the poverty line, and the Red Cross reports a devastating “70 percent of households are unable to meet basic food and non-food needs.” This crisis stems from multiple causes, including drought and inflation, but the contributing factor which could most quickly be remedied is the U.S. freeze of Afghan government financial assets.

The freeze is intended to keep funds out of Taliban hands, but in practice it has exacerbated ordinary people’s suffering and impeded the delivery of international aid. Negotiations have dragged on for months while children starve, and the prospect of using this money to force change in Taliban governance is patently unrealistic, an extension of the same hubris that produced two decades of failed nation building and occupation. Ending the freeze is the right move on humanitarian grounds, and it could also be a foundation for more productive future diplomacy with the group which — like it or not— is in control of Afghanistan and which, occasionally, as in opposing the Islamic State, has interests in common with Washington.

That same realism should be applied to the broader war on terror, too. The Biden administration’s recent strike against al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri is a reminder that large-scale invasions, regime change, and prolonged occupations were never necessary to U.S. counter-terror goals.

The war in Afghanistan—and United States’ post-9/11 foreign policy more generally—was “justified on the basis that withdrawing U.S. forces would create a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists to plan and operate from, inviting a second 9/11. But,” as my Defense Priorities colleague Ret. Col. Daniel L. Davis has argued, “Afghanistan is not unique in its potential to host terrorists, and the U.S. retains the capability to destroy terrorists globally, including in Afghanistan, without a permanent military ground presence.”

It “did not have to turn out this way,” indeed: We did not have to respond to the tragedy of 9/11 with a bloody, costly sprawl of military interventions across the Middle East and North Africa, including, in Afghanistan, a war that lasted long enough to be fought by soldiers born after the precipitating attacks. Now the conflict is a year in the past, but the misguided thinking that launched it still lingers. If we can’t learn the right strategic lessons from the war in Afghanistan, we’ll doom ourselves to repeat its grim and needless mistakes.

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