A critique of three Republican arguments to have stayed in Afghanistan

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has reinvigorated the discussion among conservatives over the Republican Party's foreign policy strategy.  Some Republicans have laid the blame for the fall of Afghanistan on the shoulders of libertine isolationists like Senator Rand Paul.  They claim the "endless wars" slogan is an emotional argument and that proponents are culpable for the repercussions of the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan.  On the other hand, Isolationists claim that neoconservative Republicans' support of indefinite forward-deployed military operations amounts to nation-building.  Republicans traditionally support "peace through strength," but defining that and the parameters for deterrence of aggression is still under considerable debate.

The Republican base was clamoring for a foreign policy that puts America first and brings the troops home even before the 2016 presidential election.  President Trump was elected based partly on his ability to listen to the Republican base.  While he promised to get America out of endless wars, many elected conservatives are now advocating for an indefinite war on terror.  Their firm belief is that the U.S. never should have withdrawn from Afghanistan.  But looking closer at the pro–indefinite war arguments shows that they are not as sound as their advocates claim.

The U.S. force consisted of only 2,500 soldiers, and no Americans died.  After supplying the Afghans with $2.2 trillion in foreign aid and $28 billion in military equipment, the U.S. was able to draw down the number of boots on the ground.  They reached 2,500 on November 17, 2020, after 19 years of war.  "Boots on the ground" is an expedient political term used to pacify Americans advocating to bring the troops home.  The reason the term "boots on the ground" is important is that that is all the 2,500 accounted for.  No one was counting the huge portion of U.S. Air Force assets and the two Navy battle groups (including Navy and Marine fighter aircraft) deployed to the Middle East, flying daily combat missions overhead.  Combat operations, consisting of fighter aircraft, air refuelers, cargo aircraft, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, helicopters, and Remote Piloted Aircraft (RPA), to name a few, conducted close air support, convoy support, ISR, and RPA hunter-killer operations.  These aircraft launched daily from USCENTCOM bases in other countries and completed their missions with multiple air refuelings.  This enabled 2,500 troops to hunker down on the relatively safe Afghan bases.  This, along with the peace agreement with the Taliban, is what allowed the U.S. to avoid any military deaths since Army sergeants 1st class Javier Gutierrez and Antonio Rodriguez in 2020, even as thousands of Afghan soldiers perished and the Taliban systematically retook the majority of the country.

The Taliban launched their offensive on May 1, 2021, at the beginning of the fighting season, just five months after the U.S. troop drawdown.  The 2,500 U.S. soldiers were not sustainable,  it was political theater.  When politicians use this number to advocate for why America should have stayed in Afghanistan, they are either naïve or misleading the American people.

The U.S. should secure a forward operating base to counter regional terrorist threats.  As referenced above, 2,500 soldiers were not sufficient to hold a forward operating base in Afghanistan.  In fact, if the U.S. would have stayed in Afghanistan, another troop surge, like Iraq in 2007, would have been likely.  Furthermore, there are plenty of other forward operating bases in the region to deal with terrorist threats.   For example, Al Udeid Qatar, where it's rumored that the U.S. maintains a 99-year lease, where the Combined Air Operations Center for the entire Middle East resides, and where the USAF routinely conducted combat flights for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.  If the U.S. requires a closer forward operating base, why not consider working with a country like India, which is an American ally and has fought periodic border skirmishes with China and Pakistan?

Now that the U.S. is leaving, China will swoop in and secure $1 trillion in natural resources.  It seems reasonable that Afghanistan contains at least $1 Trillion in natural resources and that the Chinese would love to have it.  However, I'm sure political pundits in Russia were claiming the same thing about America when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.  It appears that America's time in Afghanistan has been as fruitful as the Soviet Union's.  If China does invade the "graveyard of empires" that may be the best thing American foreign policy experts could hope for.

Steven Whitson is a USAF lieutenant colonel, commander, and command pilot with over 260 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He is also the CEO of The American Institute for Liberty and Security (TheIALS.org).

Image via the Department of Defense.

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