The wrong goodbye?

I added a question mark to the title of this post about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan because there is room for reasonable disagreement as to the wisdom of our withdrawal. To answer my own question, though, I think withdrawing is the wrong move.

We have accomplished a lot in Afghanistan. We crushed al Qaeda there and, as John says, we ensured that Afghanistan would no longer be a launching pad for terrorist attacks against the West.

In addition, we drove the Taliban out of power, replacing a barbaric Islamic regime with a functioning civil society that, among other important virtues, relieved woman from bondage and allowed them to flourish. Presently, the Afghan government is said to govern about 50 percent of the country’s population (control of the remainder is either in dispute or in the hands of the Taliban).

One can see that glass as half full or half empty. I see it as half full because before we invaded (and almost certainly after we leave), the Taliban had something much closer to complete control.

These accomplishments have come at a high cost. However, the cost was front-loaded. Today, with our small troop commitment, it isn’t that steep. On average, our forces suffered fewer than 20 deaths per year from 2016-19.

It’s impossible in any scientific manner to weigh the benefits of our presence against the costs. If we compare the costs to the benefit to Afghans of keeping the Taliban at bay and avoiding an Afghan bloodbath, we are comparing applies and oranges. In addition, we can’t know whether or to what extent the major benefit of our presence — preventing terrorist attacks — will be squandered if we leave.

That’s why I said there is room for disagreement over the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. But my view is that, given the relatively low cost of our presence, a prudent America would not risk the revival of Afghanistan as a staging ground for terrorism and a great America would not leave our Afghan friends to be slaughtered and oppressed by the Taliban.

Much has changed since we invaded Afghanistan in 2002, as John points out. But the fundamentals of Islamic terrorism have changed little.

Islamists hate America at least as much as they did in 2002. The Taliban is still an Islamist organization. It has not reformed.

Regions controlled by American-hating Islamists and regions in which there is a power vacuum remain places where terrorists plot attacks against America and its allies. John sees “evidence that the world’s Islamic leaders have acted to rein in the extremists.” As I see it, some have and some have not.

Based on its history and the fact that Trump is handing it victory, I don’t trust that the Taliban will be among those Islamic regimes that rein in extremists. They themselves are extremists.

The Taliban might fight some terrorists groups — those that contest it for power in any portion of Afghanistan. But it likely will form alliances with other terrorists — those that help it retain power. Thus, I put little faith in President Trump’s claim that, as a general matter, the Taliban will fight terrorists for us.

John’s friend — the one with two tours of duty in Afghanistan — is right. If we want to fight terrorists in Afghanistan, we have to be present in Afghanistan with boots on the ground.

The problem is that we have been present for 18 years. Americans don’t just want success in Afghanistan, which we have achieved to a considerable degree. They want victory, which we haven’t delivered despite nearly two decades of trying.

I don’t recall being terribly surprised when, after John advocated withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2011, a clear majority of our readers agreed. If we took a poll today, I suspect that upwards of 90 percent of our readers would back withdrawal. If a hard-left website took a poll, support for withdrawing might well be even higher.

What’s surprising is that President Trump kept our troops in Afghanistan for as long as he has. After all, he promised during the campaign to pull out of our “endless war” in Afghanistan.

Why did it take him so long to do get on with it? I suspect it’s because our generals and national security experts made a convincing case to him for our continued presence in Afghanistan.

But this is an election year. Trump’s opponent will be against remaining in Afghanistan (Joe Biden was in favor of a pullout in 2009). Unless we are pulling out this year, the Democratic candidate will remind voters of Trump’s promise. In addition, Trump likes to keep his campaign promises (which is one of his virtues).

So our pullout was nearly inevitable. There’s no point in railing against it, especially since credible arguments favor our leaving.

The terms of the peace deal are another matter. The deal strikes me as something of a hoax, to use one of Trump’s favorite words.

This is not a peace deal. As David French says, there is no peace deal when your opponent intends to keep fighting, as the Taliban does. Under Trump’s deal, there will only be peace if/when the Taliban wins.

Most people probably understand this. What is less well understood is that, as French notes, the terms of the deal will make it easier for the Taliban to win than would a simple pullout of our troops. The deal calls for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners by March 20 and the release of the remainder over the next few months. In addition, it commits to the “goal” of removing sanctions from members of the Taliban — sanctions that include travel bans, asset freezes, and an arms embargo.

Why not simply withdraw while keeping important sanctions in place and allowing the Afghan government to hold thousands of Taliban fighters who intend to fight it? Because the Taliban promises in return not to allow its members or members of al-Qaeda to use Afghan soil to threaten American national security.

But there is no way, once we withdraw, to verify that the Taliban is keeping this promise. Thus, French is correct in saying that we’re making concrete concessions in exchange for unenforceable promises from an untrustworthy enemy.

If we want to end our involvement in Afghanistan, I say it’s better just to pull out without securing any promises from the Taliban. In the aftermath, our best hope of avoiding terror from Afghanistan is to make it understood that we will retaliate massively if the terrorism resumes.

If the Taliban believes this, and continues to after Trump is gone, we don’t need any promises. If they don’t believe it, any promises are worthless.

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