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The enemy gets a vote: The forever war and future war after Afghanistan

One year ago today, at one minute before midnight in Kabul, a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane lifted off the tarmac of Hamid Karzai International Airport with the acting U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and our last remaining troops on board, marking the end of America’s nearly 20-year military presence in the war-torn country. President Biden, in an address from the White House the following day, stated with finality, “My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over.” He justified his decision to withdraw by stating, “I refuse to continue a war that was no longer in the service of the vital interests of our people.”

But America’s longest war is not over and cannot be terminated unilaterally. Our enemies get a vote. Terrorist groups such as al Qaeda will exploit the more favorable conditions in Afghanistan that a return of Taliban rule provides and continue to seek out ways to do us and others harm. It remains in our vital national interests to protect the homeland from international terrorist attacks, and in our important interests to help defend our allies and partners such as NATO and India from such attacks.

The war against Islamic extremists with global reach continues and we are obliged to wage this struggle from a much less advantageous position. Beyond undermining our ability to interdict terrorist threats, America is less prepared for contingencies and deterrence in future conflict with our strategic competitors and other rivals.

The “war” before America’s withdrawal

At the beginning of 2021, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, commander of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, led an effective economy-of-force effort with 2,500 U.S. military forces – less than 7 percent the size of the New York Police Department – along with twice that number of NATO and partner forces. With this modest force and robust presence of civilian contractors, U.S. and coalition forces were able to keep the Afghan air force flying, the Afghan army with the combat enablers and support it needed to remain in the field, and maintain critical intelligence networks and surveillance capabilities.

Although tenuous, the capabilities and conditions sustained by this U.S.-led military presence prevented Kabul and major population centers from falling to the Taliban and made it possible for the elected – albeit, corrupt – Afghan government to survive. U.S. and NATO forces provided this critical support to our Afghan partners from secure bases and did not operate “outside the wire.” Significantly, no U.S. casualties were suffered in the 15 months prior to the deadly Kabul airport bombing in America’s final week.

The “war” today

When the U.S. forces left, our NATO allies and partners were also forced to withdraw, along with the civilian contractors performing critical maintenance and sustainment roles in Afghanistan. The well-developed intelligence networks across the country largely collapsed. Conditions in Afghanistan are reverting to the dark days circa 2001. Al Qaeda had been largely decimated over the past 20 years but has new opportunities to reconstitute in a Taliban-led Afghanistan. We are now obliged to interdict future terrorist threats emanating from this region by conducting comparatively much less responsive “over-the-horizon counter-terrorism operations” launched from distant bases, with increasingly degraded intelligence capabilities. These come at a significant cost, with the U.S. now shouldering 100 percent of the burden formerly shared by our NATO allies and partners.

The next war

President Biden emphasized in his post-U.S. withdrawal address, “And there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition, than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.” This statement would have been more compelling if the U.S. commitment were not what it actually was in 2021 but closer to the high-water mark reached in late 2010, when 100,000 troops were deployed to support resource-intensive, population-centric counterinsurgency operations. Over 500 Americans were killed in action that year.

The reality is that in this era of competition and strategic rivalry among great powers, both China and Russia – along with Iran and others – applauded the departure of U.S. troops last year. Consider the potential deterrent and operational value of preventing the total collapse of even a highly flawed elected government and maintaining a de facto U.S. and NATO base like Bagram Airfield in a country bordering China, Iran, Pakistan and three former Soviet republics now on Russia’s southern flank. The return on investment of a relatively modest commitment of troops and combat enablers will far exceed the costs of maintaining them. Our biggest strategic regrets in leaving Afghanistan are likely yet to come.

But perhaps the most damaging outcome of America’s abrupt and chaotic departure is the body blow taken by our reputation as a reliable partner. The memory of America deserting tens of thousands of Afghans who risked their lives and those of their families to support our cause, and withdrawing literally overnight without consulting and coordinating with our closest allies – who also made significant sacrifices in blood and treasure – will be enduring. This precedent certainly will influence the calculus of Russia’s Vladmir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and other world leaders who share a different vision for the future of the region and beyond.

As we face growing global challenges, we will be forced for decades to reckon with the cost to our global credibility resulting from our surrender in Afghanistan. America is better than this, and we must be better than this going forward. Never again.

Joseph Felter is a former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and retired Army Special Forces officer who served in Afghanistan. He is a Hoover Institution research fellow at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFelter.

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This story was originally published August 30, 2022 9:00 AM.

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