United States just began its 20th year of war in Afghanistan.
What started as a response to the attacks of September 11 has turned into nearly two decades of combat and shifting objectives that are not in line with our original goals. After so many tireless years of fighting, more than $6 trillion spent, and thousands of lives lost, many Americans question why troops are still in Afghanistan and what we have to show for our efforts.
We asked Concerned Veterans for America’s foreign policy analyst Tyler Koteskey to shed some light on the original objectives in Afghanistan, what we’ve achieved, and why it’s time to withdraw troops from this endless war.
When the U.S. first went to war in Afghanistan, what were the original goals?
The original U.S. objectives in Afghanistan were limited, achievable, and straightforward. After the devastating terror attacks of 9/11, we rightly committed to bringing the perpetrators to justice and decimating Al Qaeda’s leadership. Our other objective was to severely punish the government of Afghanistan, the Taliban, for harboring Al Qaeda — a necessary signal that harboring terrorists that plot attacks against our homeland would be met with a fierce response. These goals were punitive and retaliatory, not the open-ended nation-building effort we face in Afghanistan today.
How and when did we accomplish those goals?
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. With help from NATO allies as well as Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, the U.S. toppled the Taliban and crippled Al Qaeda within months, scattering both groups’ remaining members into hiding as fugitives. In less than a year, America had accomplished its principle strategic objectives in Afghanistan and was in its strongest position ever to unilaterally withdraw or negotiate a speedy exit.
So, we potentially could have been out of Afghanistan in 2002?
Had we approached our invasion of Afghanistan the way we did Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War — by recognizing our limited vital interests beyond our narrow military objectives and withdrawing after they were accomplished — It’s very possible.
Had we left earlier, how would we have kept ourselves safe from another 9/11?
The 9/11 Commission Report revealed that our failure to prevent September 11 stemmed mainly from intelligence coordination failures and poor decisions about actionable information, not a lack of capability. This suggests that preventing future attacks didn’t require us to build a new Afghanistan.
Most of 9/11’s plotting and preparation took place outside of Afghanistan — many of the hijackers were recruited in friendly countries like Germany, for instance, and several spent months in the United States beforehand without being apprehended. 9/11 taught tragic but important lessons about the need for better intelligence and law enforcement coordination at home and with our allies in order to detect and destroy terror cells.
In Afghanistan itself, even before 9/11, America had the capability to strike terrorists. After Osama bin Laden orchestrated the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the Clinton administration launched retaliatory airstrikes on Al Qaeda camps and sent the CIA on a manhunt for the Al Qaeda leader. On at least three separate occasions in 1999, the U.S. had the capability to eliminate bin Laden in Afghanistan, but, for various reasons, policymakers backed off.
Sadly, U.S. policymakers learned the wrong lessons from 9/11. In rightly wanting to protect America from future terrorist attacks , our leaders wrongly concluded that doing so required turning Afghanistan into a centralized, pro-western democracy — something Afghanistan has never been. Improving and being more willing to use the U.S.’s strong anti-terrorism capabilities would have been the better approach for policymakers.
When did we start to see a shift from the original goals to those nation building-type efforts still taking place?
Around 2003, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan changed from narrow counterterrorism to a broader, longer-term counterinsurgency effort. Policymakers felt that Afghanistan needed centralized, democratic institutions and security forces that could win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people in order to prevent the country from becoming a haven for terrorism again. Unfortunately, this nation-building goal proved misguided, ignoring Afghanistan’s own cultural and political history and the lessons 9/11 taught us about preventing terrorist operations.
Are these secondary objectives vital to our national security? And if not, why are we still in Afghanistan?
An Afghanistan with western institutions is not critical to keeping America safe. Stopping terrorists with the intent and capability to harm the U.S. is, and we don’t need a permanent presence in Afghanistan to prevent those attacks. The U.S. has the world’s foremost intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike capabilities, allowing it to reach targets anywhere on earth that credibly threaten it. We can launch counterterrorism strikes and raids if necessary in Afghanistan and elsewhere without permanent deployments in the country.
Staying in Afghanistan does little to keep America safe, but it does make our troops more vulnerable to those who would do us harm. Staying in Afghanistan costs America precious lives and resources while distracting us from more important security concerns. Our presence also subsidizes the security of our regional adversaries, who would otherwise have to devote resources to containing potential instability in Afghanistan rather than meddling with the U.S. elsewhere.
What is the path forward?
At 19 years and counting, the war in Afghanistan is America’s longest conflict ever. A military solution in Afghanistan has proven impossible. Despite past troop surges and decades of nation-building efforts, the Taliban insurgency now controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any point since 2001. Nevertheless, the Pentagon’s Afghan reconstruction reports demonstrate that the core of al-Qaida, the main threat to the U.S., remains scattered and severely degraded.
We should hope for the success of the ongoing Afghan peace negotiations, but we should not tie a withdrawal in our national interest to their success or failure. After 19 years of conflict, the United States should fully withdraw its forces from Afghanistan within the first half of 2021. From there, we should employ our intelligence and strike capabilities as needed, which can protect us against credible threats far more sustainably than an open-ended ground presence can. After a generation at war, it’s time to bring our troops home.