Max Boot’s less than compelling case for staying in Afghanistan

Max Boot, writing in the Washington Post, decries President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria and the likely decision to leave Afghanistan once a deal with the Taliban is finalized. I strongly agree with Boot that we shouldn’t leave Syria and tend to agree with him about Afghanistan, as well.

What’s striking about Boot’s column, though, is its superficiality. Boot lumps Syria and Afghanistan together, choosing to ignore distinctions between the two. Among the most obvious are: (1) Syria is more strategically important to the U.S. than Afghanistan is, (2) state enemies of the U.S. are engaged in Syria, but not in Afghanistan, (3) we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, whereas we’ve only been engaged in Syria for a few years, (4) we’ve had major success in Syria, but no major success in Afghanistan since we ousted the Taliban 18 years ago, (5) remaining in Syria all but ensures that ISIS will be defeated there; remaining in Afghanistan holds no promise of preventing the Taliban from making steady gains, (6) we lose more lives fighting in Afghanistan than in Syria, (7) our engagement in Afghanistan costs much more money than our engagement in Syria, (8) the enemy we’re fighting in Syria launches terrorist attacks against the U.S.; the main enemy we’re fighting in Afghanistan doesn’t.

Boot doesn’t make a compelling case for staying in Afghanistan. He argues that leaving “would be a blow to American credibility,” thus “weakening deterrence.” This is the all-purpose argument for never leaving any conflict, no matter how poorly it’s going for us. But one wonders whom we have deterred by our years of treading water in Afghanistan. Not Iran. Not Assad. Not Putin. Not ISIS.

Boot argues that leaving Afghanistan will lead to a terrorist attack on the U.S. He cites a report in the New York Times that U.S. intelligence has warned that “a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would lead to an attack on the United States within two years.”

This warning strikes me as advocacy masquerading as intelligence. Indeed, this is suggested by the New York Times article to which Boot links. It notes that “Defense Department officials have tried to put the consequences of a full American pullout in as stark terms as possible” in the hope of getting President Trump’s attention. Just how plausible, as opposed to possible, these stark terms are seems unclear.

It’s also unclear how “U.S. intelligence” came up with its estimate of two years. There’s a “junk science” feel to the assessment.

If the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, the Taliban’s single-minded focus will be on taking control of the country. That should fully occupy it for a few years.

To be sure, there are other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including ones that may desire to attack the U.S. But will they be able to focus on attacking the U.S. during the ungodly scramble for power and survival that would follow our exit? Would they have the capacity to organize such an attack?

Would the Taliban, which certainly doesn’t want the U.S. to return, take measures to prevent/deter other groups from terrorizing the U.S. Remember, al Qaeda organized the 9/11 attack during a period of tranquility in Afghanistan when the Taliban had no objection to attacking the U.S. homeland.

I think it’s fair to say, without denying the possibility of some anti-terrorism utility in our Afghan presence, that the most honest case for remaining resides in protecting our ally and its citizens from theocratic rule. Boot doesn’t make this argument, probably because he doesn’t think it has resonance these days of “America First.” But without it, Boot’s case for staying in Afghanistan seems strained.

Boot is fighting an uphill battle. Though he asserts that “as long [our troops] aren’t taking many casualties, the public isn’t opposed to their deployment,” the public actually is opposed to the open-ended commitment to Afghanistan that Boot advocates. A YouGov poll found that if President Trump were to announce that he was ordering the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan, he would have the support of 61 percent of Americans.

It’s true, as Boot says, that Americans aren’t marching in the street to protest our involvement in Afghanistan. They shouldn’t have to. In a democracy, when a war loses popular support, there should be a presumption against carrying it on indefinitely.

The presumption should be rebuttable. In this case, I question whether Boot does enough to rebut it.

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