Mr. President, please don't miss another chance to end the Afghanistan debacle

Mr. President, please don't miss another chance to end the Afghanistan debacle
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President BidenJoe BidenBiden and Harris host 'family' Hanukkah celebration with more than 150 guests Symone Sanders to leave the White House at the end of the year Overnight Defense & National Security — Senate looks to break defense bill stalemate MORE faces a near-term decision on U.S. military deployments in Afghanistan that will have major implications for years to come. The agreement negotiated with the Taliban by the Trump administration calls for all U.S. troops to be out of Afghanistan by May. Of course, the Taliban have not kept their part of the bargain to de-escalate attacks on the Afghan government and negotiate in good faith to reach a peace agreement. If this surprises you, you just don’t understand the history of Afghanistan and the current situation on the ground. 

Frankly, if the Taliban had good advisers, they would lay low and talk with the government until our remaining troops are gone. 

Pressure is building on President Biden to extend our troop presence to ensure the Afghan government doesn’t collapse and to prevent the country from reverting to a haven for terrorists.  There are voices in Congress and over in the Pentagon sharpening their arguments as to why we should stay the course to give the Afghan government more time to consolidate its control over the country and negotiate with the Taliban. Some even propose that we increase our troop strength given increased Taliban attacks. Sure, when you are holding a losing hand, you should always double your bet.  


With every failing military commitment there are always two dynamics at work. No president wants to be the one who lost China, Iraq, Afghanistan or (pencil in your favorite country), for fear it will hurt his and his party’s electoral chances going forward. The second dynamic is that almost no senior military leader will ever admit the military can’t get the job done, even if the mission wasn’t appropriate for military force. President Bush was not going to leave two failing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan because he started them. President Obama wanted to get out of both engagements in the worst way, but the Department of Defense (DOD) leaned hard on him and he wanted to get reelected. President TrumpDonald TrumpMedia giants side with Bannon on request to release Jan. 6 documents Cheney warns of consequences for Trump in dealings with Jan. 6 committee Jan. 6 panel recommends contempt charges for Trump DOJ official MORE had the right instincts and tried to end these endless military commitments several times, but was talked out of it by — you guessed it — the DOD.  

By the way, can anybody tell me what exactly we are doing today in Syria? They even talked President Trump into staying there when no one could adequately explain the strategic mission.

There are two reasons most frequently cited for why we cannot leave Afghanistan now. First, if we leave, the Afghan government will fall and chaos will ensue. This might be true, but our 2,500 troops still there are not going to save the Afghan government. As I wrote in 2015, nation-building and counterinsurgency warfare should not be recommended uses of military force. 

The Afghan government is in an increasingly weaker position and controls less of the country by the month. Kandahar, a regional economic hub, is in danger of falling to the Taliban. Beset by political instability, rampant corruption, feeble institutions unable to deliver necessary services and an economy heavily dependent on the drug trade and international aid, Afghanistan is no closer to a stable national government than it was 15 years ago. If the government can’t gain the support of the Afghan people, even a superpower cannot prop it up

The second argument the Pentagon in particular likes to cite as a reason we can’t leave is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a platform for terrorism. You don’t have to sit on someone’s ground to deal with terrorist groups. There is another way to accomplish that mission. First, we need to begin a complete bottom-up revision of our policy in the Middle East, to demilitarize our approach as much as possible. We essentially have been taking the same approach across the region for at least 50 years and the primary achievement has been to stir up hatred against the U.S. that has generated terrorist groups.

A major revision of our regional policy approach is a longer-term solution. In the short term, we should establish one or more special operations bases in relatively secure locations in the region where we can forward-station capabilities and from which we can rotate special operations forces in and out. From these forward-operating bases we could strike rapidly when intelligence indicates some group is preparing an attack on U.S. interests. Focusing our global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities on transnational terrorists, we can maintain situational awareness and an updated target list. Then we will be prepared to execute the appropriate targets quickly when necessary to preempt or respond to terrorist attacks.

Wise changes to our overall regional approach will, over time, reduce hatred toward the U.S. and the conditions that spawn terrorists. Maintaining a regional special operations network is an operational approach that can be sustained at relatively low cost in resources and risk to our personnel. You don’t need to station thousands of troops on someone else’s ground, which provides targets for the bad guys and generates more hatred by their presence.

President Biden should not listen to the same people who have been giving bad advice on this issue for almost 21 years. Let’s put the military commitment to Afghanistan behind us.

John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired Army colonel who served for 45 years as a commissioned officer and Department of the Army civilian in a variety of Joint Service positions formulating and implementing national security strategies and policies. His doctorate is in comparative defense policy analysis.