George W. Bush is still wrong about Afghanistan

George W. Bush is still wrong about Afghanistan
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Former President George W. Bush does not agree with President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense: Senate panel adds B to Biden's defense budget | House passes bill to streamline visa process for Afghans who helped US | Pentagon confirms 7 Colombians arrested in Haiti leader's killing had US training On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks MORE’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from America’s longest war in Afghanistan. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since it was Bush who launched the war in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. However, it’s telling that in his interview with German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, Bush did not cite U.S. national security as the reason for his disagreement. Rather, he said he is “afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm.” But that was never the basis for the use of military force.

The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) approved by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, was “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” However desirable it might be, there is no mention of ensuring women’s rights. 

As president, Bush made the correct decision for military intervention in Afghanistan because the mission was narrowly focused on decimating al Qaeda and punishing the Taliban government for giving safe haven to the terror group. It only took a few weeks to depose the Taliban and al Qaeda’s senior leadership was crippled and scattered over the next several months. But rather than declare “mission accomplished,” Bush made the decision to quickly morph the war from what was originally a counterterrorism operation in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks into nation-building and a counterinsurgency war to protect a U.S.-installed Afghan government. This war was never germane to U.S. national security and has lasted nearly two decades.

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Bush also made the decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. But Iraq was never a direct or imminent military threat to the U.S. Even if he had weapons of mass destruction, Saddam could be deterred. He was deterred from using chemical and biological weapons against the U.S. in the first Gulf War. If he ever acquired a nuclear weapon, the vastly superior (both numerically and technologically) U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal would be a powerful deterrent — just as it is a deterrent against North Korea’s Kim Jong-unKim Jong UnXi, Kim vow to strengthen North Korea and China's friendship, cooperation North Korea reports 'grave incident' related to COVID-19 North Korean state TV acknowledges Kim Jong Un's 'emaciated looks' MORE. And while Saddam supported terrorist organizations, he was never in league with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Moreover, he never gave chemical or biological weapons to the anti-Israeli Palestinian terrorist groups that he supported. Most importantly, Bush subsequently admitted that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11 even though his administration profited off that impression to gain popular and political support for invading Iraq. And ironically, deposing Saddam helped create the chaos in Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS.

Bush is right that “the consequences [of U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan] are going to be unbelievably bad.” To be sure, withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan will not magically result in peace breaking out. It’s clear that the Taliban will seek to regain control. But we should admit that the U.S. military presence is part of what fuels Afghanistan’s violence. The reality is that U.S. troops are a foreign occupation force that breeds resentment with the population — regardless of our intentions — just as would happen if a foreign military was ensconced in America. Furthermore, the violence in Afghanistan is part of a long-standing civil war. It is not America’s war to fight or win. Only Afghans can determine the outcome.

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan is the correct decision because the conflict is not a war of U.S. national survival. The Taliban and other militants in Afghanistan are internal threats to the Afghan government and part of a power struggle over who controls the country but are not direct (let alone existential) threats to the United States. However desirable a representative, multiethnic, democratic government and diverse society that respects women’s rights in Afghanistan would be, it is not a necessity for U.S. national security.

It is understandable that we would want Afghanistan to be a better place. But we cannot engineer that outcome — any more than we could in Vietnam, which is an appropriate analogy. In fits and starts, peace and stability eventually came to Vietnam after U.S. military withdrawal. It took decades, but the result has been a socialist country pursuing increasingly capitalist economic policies and normalized relations with the U.S. and other Western countries. There is no guarantee of a similar result in Afghanistan. But whatever the outcome, our paramount criteria is for whatever government controls Afghanistan — even if it includes the Taliban — to understand that the United States will not tolerate support for or the harboring of any terrorist group with global reach that directly threatens the U.S. homeland. 

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 30 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of “Winning the Un—War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.”