Long Past Time to Quit Afghanistan
It’s tough for anyone of us to admit a mistake. It’s even harder for a nation to do so. But President Biden did us all a favor this week by admitting that the United States made a big mistake in Afghanistan. It’s America’s longest war, one of its most costly and least effective, and it’s long past time to get out of it.
To those who argue that if we just stay a few more years, if we just send in a few thousand more troops, or if we just spend another trillion dollars, we could someday win this war, Biden says it’s time to accept reality: “We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result.”
Underscoring how long the war has dragged on, Biden noted that he’s the fourth president, two Republicans and two Democrats, to preside over troops in Afghanistan. Pledging “I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth,” Biden announced the withdrawal of the last 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 – exactly 20 years after the terrorist attack on the United States that triggered the war.
Our mistake was not going into Afghanistan in the first place. Most Americans agree that was a legitimate and necessary operation to destroy the al-Qaida terrorist organization that had planned and carried out the September 11 attacks, after Taliban leaders refused to turn them over to the United States. But once al-Qaida leaders outwitted us and fled Afghanistan, our mistake was twofold: not pursuing al-Qaida into Pakistan; and remaining in Afghanistan in the mistaken belief that we could eventually turn it into a Jeffersonian democracy.
We should have known better. In all its history, Afghanistan’s never had a strong central government of any kind. It’s tribal territory. Not for nothing is Afghanistan known as the “Graveyard of Empires.” Alexander the Great tried to conquer it and failed. The British abandoned what they called their “disaster in Afghanistan” in 1842. After 10 years of trying to control it, the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989. But, instead of learning from them, we stayed twice as long, turning a legitimate anti-terrorist campaign into a foolhardy exercise in nation-building.
Twenty years, more than 2,400 American lives lost, 20,722 American soldiers wounded, over $2 trillion dollars down the drain, and what do we have to show for it? Nothing. A weak, corrupt, U.S.-backed central government that controls only the capital city of Kabul and 30 percent of the country’s territory. The Taliban control 20 percent. Half of Afghanistan is still no-man’s land, fought over by Taliban, government forces, and various foreign terrorist organizations.
Again, it’s insane to suggest that a few more thousand troops could achieve what almost 800,000 American troops deployed over the last 20 years failed to achieve. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump promised to get out of Afghanistan, but didn’t. Joe Biden finally pulled the plug.
Of course, there are risks involved. The central government could collapse, the Taliban could take over, or new terrorist threats could emerge. But the United States is more than capable of dealing with those threats if and when they occur. In the meantime, it’s not worth the cost in blood or money to maintain a large, nation-building troop presence in Afghanistan. Especially when there’s someplace else badly in need of nation-building.
Indeed, that was the not-so-hidden message in Biden’s Afghanistan decision: unspoken, but no less real. In effect, Biden was saying: “Why spend another $2 trillion dollars over there, trying to rebuild Afghanistan? I’d rather spend that $2 trillion dollars right here at home, rebuilding America.” And he’s put forth a plan to do just that.
The “American Jobs Act,” the $2 trillion infrastructure proposal Biden’s sent to Congress, is his domestic alternative to more years of military spending in Afghanistan. It would dramatically improve every aspect of the American economy, present and future: from rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges, water treatment plants, and electric grid of the 20th century - to building new public transit, electric vehicles, schools, and universal broadband essential to making us more competitive in the 21st century.
Biden’s Jobs Act is big. It’s bold. It’s the most far-reaching government initiative we’ve seen since the days of FDR, but it’s built on a very simple premise both Democrats and Republicans can understand: We’ve spent 20 years nation-building in Afghanistan. It’s time to do a little nation-building back home.
(Bill Press is host of The BillPressPod, and author of the new book, “Trump Must Go: The Top 100 Reasons to Dump Trump (And One to Keep Him).” His email address is: email@example.com. Readers may also follow him on Twitter @billpresspod.)
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