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America will be safer after troops leave Afghanistan

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The notion that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan is a widely accepted assertion that continues to be repeated by some in the media, U.S. politicians, and even the U.S military. The reality is that the United States won the war in Afghanistan in less than nine months. The original military objectives for the invasion of Afghanistan was to destroy al Qaeda, kill or capture Osama bin Laden and other senior figures in al Qaeda, and deny the terrorist safe haven provided by the Taliban government. The United States largely met these objectives by September of 2002. By that time, the Taliban government, al Qaeda leadership and the Haqqani Network was forced into Pakistan. After Bin Laden’s death in 2011, the United States undeniably had met the main objectives of the war.

If the United States won the war, why did the military continue to occupy Afghanistan? The U.S. government decided to change the objectives from a counterterrorism framework to a forced humanitarian intervention framework. Under the pretext of nation building, the United States wanted to make Afghanistan a more stable democratic country that upheld the rights of women and minorities. The U.S. Department of State lists the priorities of U.S. policy in Afghanistan as the following:

  • Achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan that reduces violence, respects Afghanistan’s constitution, and upholds the rights of women and minorities;
  • Create a more stable government in Afghanistan that is democratic and accountable; and
  • Prevent the recurrence of terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan against the United States.

The most disconcerting aspect of the list of State Department priorities is that counterterrorism moved to the third priority, below the forced humanitarian intervention objectives, despite the joint resolution signed into law that clearly stated the purpose of U.S. intervention being exclusively a defensive action to counter threats against America. Creating a more democratic Afghanistan is a noble objective that the United States should support, but it should be secondary to protecting American citizens. Forcing Afghanistan to make drastic cultural changes through threats of violence by U.S. armed forces will not work — no matter how noble the cause might be. Forced humanitarian intervention on this scale will not be successful in Afghanistan.

As U.S. troops withdraw, the Taliban almost certainly will immediately regain control of eastern and southern Afghanistan. Kandahar and Jalalabad will fall to the Taliban as soon as the U.S. presence retreats to Kabul. Though counterintuitive, the Taliban retaking these areas likely will decrease the terrorism threat to the United States. The United States has slowly decreased troop presence from over 100,000 troops in 2011 to fewer than 2,500 troops in 2021, leaving a substantial power vacuum. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan Province (ISKP) filled this vacuum. ISKP is a much larger terrorism threat to America than the Taliban. Though ISKP has not been responsible for a terror attack on U.S. soil, ISKP’s strategic goals and subordination to the ISIS core leadership in Syria make the organization a significant threat.

As the United States exits eastern and southern Afghanistan, the Taliban likely will overtake ISKP-held territory through armed conflict. The United States should not only stay out of the way of the Taliban as they retake territory from ISKP but should open lines of communication with the Taliban to create a stronger diplomatic relationship. There is a powerful incentive for the Taliban to not provide international terrorist organizations with a safe haven to plan attacks against the United States. It is important for the U.S. government to emphasize that we will hold the Taliban responsible for any terrorist attack planned under territory they control. The Taliban is an untrustworthy partner in the fight against ISKP, but some level of understanding must be made with the Taliban.

The United States should not continue the coercive humanitarian intervention in Afghanistan. Creating a new democracy, ensuring women’s rights, countering poverty, increasing literacy and decreasing food insecurity are all worthy causes that cannot be solved by soldiers with weapons. More accurately, forced humanitarian intervention cannot be accomplished with only 2,500 troops who are rarely allowed to leave the confines of their base because of risk aversion. 

The American people will be safer after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and there is no evidence to support that coercive humanitarian intervention is an effective means of helping the people of Afghanistan.      

Ronald Prillwitz is a fellow with the Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the University of Chicago and a Boren Fellow with the National Security Education Program. He served in the U.S. Air Force as a counterterrorism analyst for more than 10 years, completing multiple military deployments to Southwest Asia and the Middle East.

Tags Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province Taliban Taliban insurgency War in Afghanistan

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