The best case for withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan

“The US has a history of missed opportunities in Afghanistan, and we’re at risk of adding another one. In 2001, the Taliban in effect offered to surrender. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai not only said “No,” but “Heck no,” in terms of accepting the Taliban’s offer to stop fighting and just live in peace.

There were also other overtures, some written about and others I’ve personally heard about, and again the United States and the Afghan government said, “No, we don’t agree.”

 In the negotiations I was involved in as the secretary of defense’s representative from 2010 to 2012, the United States did not put the political capital behind the effort. Washington just simply couldn’t get its act together to move forward [in] a peace process. The result was the Taliban eventually got frustrated and left the talks.

Each time we forfeited these opportunities — the last time, when there were 100,000-plus international soldiers on the ground — the Taliban’s only demands were to do a detainee exchange, [Bowe] Bergdahl for the Gitmo Five, open a political office in Doha, and lift sanctions on their version of diplomats.

You fast-forward all these years later to what we’re left with — an agreement where we essentially traded no troops for no terrorism with the Taliban — and it’s the best we could’ve gotten at this point.

Are we ready to miss another opportunity? It breaks my heart to see the suffering of Afghans, and it breaks my heart to see continued policy- and strategy-making in the United States that is leading us to worse outcomes at huge costs in blood, treasure, and time.” 

“The administration should aim for a six-month extension to see if we can get the stalled peace process back on track. If we don’t get that extension, and getting one will require a heavy lift, then we should pull out the remaining 2,500 troops and apply penalties to whichever side breaks the peace process.

The US is in a reverse-Goldilocks position: 2,500 troops is too little to really do any good with what’s coming from the Taliban, and too big to get away quickly. We’re entertaining a lot of risk if we simply abrogate the agreement [signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban]. The United States will blame the Taliban for not meeting their end of the bargain, but at the end of the day, it’ll be the United States making the decision to tear up the agreement.

 What happens then? From the Taliban’s point of view, the West can’t be trusted, and they’ll decide to go on an all-out offensive. The Taliban right now are surrounding eight to 10 provincial capitals. With 2,500 troops and the limited airpower that we have in Afghanistan, the math just simply doesn’t work that [we would be able to] sort all of that out. The Taliban is likely to gain some serious momentum.

 For the Taliban to thrive, they’re going to need support from the West. But if the West proved itself untrustworthy by breaking the deal, then they will look to Russia and China, even knowing any aid will come with huge strings attached.”

“If we tear up the agreement, we can look forward to a Vietnam-style, Tet-like offensive by the Taliban in the summer of 2021. Some of those major attacks are going to be much more successful than the Tet Offensive was.

The Biden administration will own the consequences of what looks to be an increasing calamity in Afghanistan. One of the biggest risks for the United States is the specter of a C-17 [plane] screaming out of Bagram [Air Base] on the heels of a Taliban offensive army.

The risk is, it replaces the fall of Saigon in 1975 as a black eye for America. The alternative is that you leave in the manner in which it was agreed, while putting the peace process on a more stable platform. 

If fighting resumes, and it’s likely to resume, the Afghan government is going to be forced to get its act together and stand up and fight the Taliban to a new stalemate, which is what I personally think is likely to happen. Or they’re just going to collapse. And after 20 years of international investment, the Afghan government needs to earn the public support.”  

“There’s no evidence that 2,500 troops is a difference-maker in maintaining stability in Afghanistan.

 And al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan. There are a lot of groups, the Taliban included, that are interested in fighting ISIS. You also get all sorts of reports coming out of the Afghan government about 20 or 25 terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Well, maybe they exist, and maybe they’re about three or four people sitting in a cave.

Again, I’m just not convinced that a withdrawal is just a prelude to another 9/11. The evidence for that is almost nonexistent.

Plus, our capabilities 20 years after 9/11 — to detect and to strike any sort of emerging terrorist threat in a place like Afghanistan — are much, much higher. Our information networks in Afghanistan itself, as well as our detection and strike capabilities, really are the best insurance against a terrorist attack against the United States. It’s far better than keeping a small force presence in the country.”

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