Taliban fighters drive a tank through a city amid cheers from passersby. Reuters
Elizabeth Shackelford, Tribune News Service
The security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, prompting many to second-guess President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops by Sept. 11. This is an understandable emotional reaction, but it isn’t supported by facts. More time won’t change the outcome. If US troops left Afghanistan five years ago or five years from now, it was always going to end this way.
Since the final withdrawal began, the Taliban has advanced rapidly, already taking control of roughly one-third of the country. While some Afghan military units are losing in battle, many of the units the US military trained and supplied for years are surrendering without a fight, leaving valuable military hardware paid for by US taxpayers in Taliban hands. US intelligence analysts are now saying the Afghan government could collapse within six months of the withdrawal.
To use this as a reason for the US troops to stay would be like claiming the fall of Saigon as evidence that America should not have ended its campaign in Vietnam. US troops could have maintained a violent status quo there too, but they couldn’t have changed the outcome — not with two more years or 20.
The inevitability of the outcome does not make it any less tragic, but the tragedy does not make the decision to withdraw wrong. Instead, the rapid decline is proof positive that we were not on track to establish a stable government in the country, nor were our efforts to train the Afghan military putting it on a path to self-sufficiency. As Biden has said, this was not a winnable war.
Twenty years has proved that, while the US military can prop up a government and keep an enemy at bay, nothing it can do will create an effective and sustainable Afghan government or military. The threat environment has also changed dramatically in 20 years, and Afghanistan today is nowhere close to the top of the list. Staying now could only be justified if we had decided that permanently propping up a weak and corrupt Afghan government is in America’s national interest. It is not.
The costs of two decades of war in Afghanistan have been substantial and widely reported. The war-fighting costs alone come in at over $800 billion, but that is a fraction of the total costs borne by the American people, and the opportunity cost for what we might have invested in at home instead.
If you add in all US government spending on the war, including care for veterans who served there and interest paid on money we’ve borrowed to support it, it has cost the American people over $2 trillion. Imagine if that amount had instead been invested in infrastructure, education or health care here at home. Certainly, the American people would have more to show for it.
The Afghan people are facing an uncertain future, but whether it will be more violent isn’t even clear. Two decades of war have brought mass civilian casualties including from airstrikes by US and coalition forces. Fighting could drop if one actor takes dominant control.
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