Committing to Afghanistan
The United States Cannot Abandon Afghanistan
It has been sixteen years since American soldiers invaded Afghanistan. Initially, the U.S. war effort aimed to spread democracy and good governance, defeat the Taliban, and destroy safe havens for terrorist groups. But under the current presidential administration, American goals in Afghanistan have shifted. Donald Trump is abandoning the goals of promoting democracy and keeping out the Taliban in favor of a narrow policy of targeting extremists.
In an August speech outlining the United States’ new strategy in Afghanistan, Trump stated that “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” This shift in war aims seems to reflect the public’s opposition to pumping resources into a war that appears interminable. However, decreasing American commitments to Afghanistan will serve only to prolong the war. Without U.S. aid, the government in Kabul will continue to falter, the Taliban’s reconquest of the country will continue unabated; and, as a result, civilian casualties will skyrocket.
U.S. policy can choose one of three options in Afghanistan. First, it can continue to fight the war half-heartedly, as it has been doing for several years, and attain results that are accordingly mediocre: it will not lose, but it will not win. Second, it can fully withdraw from the country, abandoning the country to the Taliban (and now ISIS) and letting the Afghans suffer what they will. Or, finally, it can commit itself to waging war for as long as it takes to extirpate the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism. Only the last course of action is morally and strategically defensible. A look at Afghanistan’s recent history and at its present situation will elucidate why this is so.
Before President Trump announced a troop surge in August, there were 11,000 soldiers and 20,000 contractors in the Afghanistan. These forces were mostly acting in advisory roles. Trump plans to send some 4,000 more troops as reinforcement and increased air support, as per the Washington Post.
According to the FDD’s Long War Journal, the Taliban contests or directly controls 45% of Afghanistan’s districts. The Journal defines a Taliban-run district as “one in which the Taliban is openly ... providing services and security, running the local courts and imposing sharia law.” Government forces still control the capital and most urban centers; Taliban militants are most powerful in rural areas, particularly those of the south. The Taliban now controls more territory than they have since before the invasion of 2001, according to the New York Times and Foreign Policy.
The loss of territory to the Taliban is particularly of interest because it occurred after President Barack Obama lowered troop levels to 30,000 and then lower in 2014 from a peak of 100,000 in 2011. Over the past six years, levels of violence in the country have been inversely correlated with the number of foreign troops: the more troops there are, the less violence occurs. The Trump administration needs to recognize these facts and commit itself to a sustained troop surge. As I will argue, there are compelling moral and strategic reasons to do so.
Why We Fight: The Moral Argument
The conflict in Afghanistan is defined by the nature of the enemy. Discussions of war policy must bear in mind that the U.S. is engaged against the sort of armed groups that are opposed the very notion of human rights and basic freedoms, to the ability to dance and listen to music, to the idea of equality between the sexes, and to the open exercise of religious expression.
Wherever it has taken power, the Taliban has attempted to abolish the achievements of human culture, from architecture to art and literature. If the Taliban had their way, even Afghanistan’s contributions to world civilization would be annihilated; look only to the outrageous the bombing of the statues of Bamiyan in 2001 for evidence of this impulse.
The Taliban enforces its vision of a totalitarian society through terror and mass murder. It is not, as some believe, opposed merely to the presence of American forces on Afghan soil; it is, instead, opposed to anything that does not conform to its radically puritanical interpretation of Islam. The primary victims of Taliban terror are not Westerners but other Muslims. Insofar as the Taliban discriminates in its tactics of war, it chooses to shoot children (as it did in 2014, when it massacred 145 Pakistani school-kids) and throw acid in the faces of defenseless women. The Taliban, according to the UN, is responsible for the vast majority of all civilian casualties in the conflict. Its atrocities are all funded by the international dissemination of venom: the Taliban’s main export is opium. The United States cannot waver in its struggle against a foe of this kind.
Even if U.S. policymakers are indifferent to the suffering that a Taliban takeover would inflict on Afghans, as Trump seems to be, keeping the Taliban at bay also serves American self-interest. Which takes us to the strategic argument.
Why We Fight: The Strategic Argument
During the Cold War, American foreign policy ran into cases where moral principles conflicted with calculations of self-interest. In 1954, for instance, the U.S. overthrew the elected, non-communist government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, despite there being no moral case to be made for this flagrant violation of sovereignty and democracy (and a strong case to be made against it). But the war in Afghanistan is different; it is one of the cases where moral principles and self-interest align.
Aside from humanitarian goals, defeating the Taliban would prevent the proliferation of terrorist safe havens from which attacks against American could be planned. The experience of Afghanistan from 1996-2001 demonstrated the symbiotic relationship between the Taliban and terrorist groups that target the West. During that time period, the Taliban invited al-Qaeda into Afghanistan, from which the latter attacked the USS Cole, the American embassy in Kenya, and, eventually, the Twin Towers. Taliban control of Afghanistan would create a fertile breeding ground for international terrorists and criminals, as it has in the past. Policymakers therefore have a national defense imperative, as well as a moral one, to commit the U.S. to Afghanistan.
Looking to the Future
Winning in Afghanistan will not be easy, and there will be much more involved in achieving victory than the use of military power. Long-term contributions to promoting good governance and economic development are crucial. But in the tribulations that are surely to come, the United States must remember that it is engaged in a just struggle against Afghanistan’s agents of terror. Defeating them will require a serious and substantial commitment of troops, one which, unfortunately, the President seems unwilling to consider.