The Trump administration is on the verge of agreeing to pull out of Afghanistan. In defense of this decision, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States has “delivered” on its mission to oust al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and to deter terrorist attacks plotted there and in Pakistan.
Pompeo’s statement is mostly true, and has been for many years. And, although this was not really part of our mission and has become unfashionable to discuss, we also helped promote freedom and, indeed, created and sustained a civil society in parts of Afghanistan where, among other U.S.-driven achievements, women have been liberated from the tyranny of religious-based oppression.
But is delivering on a mission sufficient reason to pull our military? It wasn’t in Germany after World War II. It wasn’t in Korea after the war on that peninsula.
In Afghanistan, the key question is whether, in the absence of a fairly robust U.S. military presence, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will remain mostly ousted and whether terrorist attacks like the one on 9-11 will continue to be deterred. As for freedom and a functioning civil society, we can probably kiss that goodbye.
I agree with Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center. He warns:
While it’s true that the U.S. did achieve its initial goal of eliminating al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Afghanistan, it would be premature to proclaim ‘mission accomplished’ on the counterterrorism front in Afghanistan,. To be sure, al-Qaeda has been degraded in a big way, but it remains resilient, and the newer threat of ISIS in Afghanistan is potent.
It was, of course, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq under President Obama that led to the rise of ISIS in that country.
A rational Taliban would do what it could to prevent al-Qaeda, ISIS, and any other terrorist outfit to from using Afghanistan as a staging ground for international terrorism. It wouldn’t want to risk another U.S. invasion.
However, it’s not clear (1) how rational the Taliban is and (2) whether it would be able, even if it wanted, to prevent the rise of anti-Western terrorists in portions of Afghanistan.
As the Trump administration agrees to pull out of Afghanistan, we’ll probably hear talk from Pompeo and others about maintaining some sort of counter-terrorism capability there. I should probably wait for the details, if any are forthcoming, to express my skepticism.
Pulling out of Afghanistan will save the U.S. money and spare the 15 or so American lives we lose there per year. At the same time, it will increase — by how much we don’t know — the risk of Afghanistan becoming a base for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies. And it almost certainly will mean, sooner rather than later, the demise of freedom for Afghans and the deaths of many who helped the U.S. fight the Taliban during the past two decades.