June 3, 2020

Afghanistan: Bad Policy, Bad Strategy, Bad Politics

As U.S. policymakers ponder withdrawal later this year, here are some warnings.

Depending on your source we’re either days away from a dramatic announcement that all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by Election Day or locked in on the path and glideslope that were established when a tentative agreement was reached with the Taliban earlier this year. The out-by-Election Day crowd seems to be made up of some of the same folks who have been lobbying for withdrawal for some time and are still hoping “it’ll be a winner in November.” Regardless of whether the proposal was a trial balloon or serious course of action, we should be wary of making important national-security decisions based primarily on the short-term political implications, particularly as we enter a new era — a new Cold War perhaps — in our relationship with China. A precipitous withdrawal at this point is bad policy, bad strategy, and unlikely to generate the political goodwill that pundits predict.

It’s bad policy because it guarantees an ugly ending to the saga. It may or may not be a difference maker in November, but there is no plausible way to present it as anything other than a defeat for America. We’ll give the bad guys pretty much everything they’ve been demanding for 20 years and receive next to nothing in return. The withdraw-now crowd will argue that pulling our servicemen and women out of harm’s way — “it’s not worth losing one more American life” — is a win, but that sounds an awful lot like what many of those same folks are bashing governors for saying when it comes to reopening America.

It’s particularly ironic given that one of most significant developments from the ongoing negotiations is that the Taliban have upheld their pledge not to target U.S. and NATO forces (the last hostile-fire KIA attributable to the Taliban occurred in January) — if not their obligation to steer clear of al-Qaida. Still, if preserving American servicemen and women’s lives has become our top priority and we’re achieving that while adding some degree of stability and keeping open the prospect of an even more favorable outcome in the future — not to mention maintaining our credibility — why cut and run now?

It’s bad strategy in two respects: First, it weakens our standing with increasingly important allies and partners, as, second, we seek to contain an increasingly emboldened China. After an unsteady last few years of U.S. foreign policy, China and the world are watching to see if we’re a nation of “bear any burden, pay any price … to ensure the survival and the success of liberty” or if we’ll walk away declaring “peace in our time.”

Barack Obama cut and ran before we finished cleaning up a mess we helped make in Iraq. Donald Trump arguably later blindsided the folks who had been doing most of the heavy lifting in Syria — which itself was a byproduct of the too-early departure from Iraq — with a tweet telling them (and the rest of the world) we were going home. We’ve talked loudly and wielded a big stick with Iran and taken bold steps in support of Israel. We upended decades of precedent by negotiating unilaterally, if unsuccessfully, with the North Korean dictator. Now we’re about to renege on two decades of promises to our Afghan partners, not to mention NATO, whose nations have also made great sacrifices in Afghanistan at our behest. We’re both literally and figuratively all over the map.

While tactical surprise and unpredictability — attacking at an unexpected time or from an unexpected direction — is to our advantage, strategic unpredictability isn’t. We don’t need to tell China how we’ll respond if it invades Taiwan, but if we value a free and democratic Taiwan we very much need the Chinese to believe that we will respond decisively. The should-I-stay-or-should-I-go cycle that’s playing out in Afghanistan is fueling strategic uncertainty to China’s advantage. Given what’s played out in Iraq, Syria, Korea, and now in Afghanistan, China’s consistency and economic power will look much less threatening and more appealing to potential partners. Before you know it, we’ll be dusting off old references to domino theory. That international ambivalence will continue to nudge China’s calculus in favor of more aggressive international action. As we’ve seen recently in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party cares much more about the actual outcomes than international opinion.

Withdrawal is also unlikely to be the political winner its proponents would like you to believe, particularly if casualties stay low and the Taliban and Afghan government continue to make progress, as they have in recent weeks with prisoner releases and unified governance. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously said that Joe Biden has “been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades” — including his advice to withdraw from Afghanistan in the early days of the Obama administration. If Trump were to subsequently adopt that same policy and try to tout it as a major accomplishment, even Uncle Joe could convincingly rebut it and argue that not only was he right, he was right a decade earlier.

That said, given China Virus-related concerns and an unfavorable economy, domestic issues will likely be decisive in this election. To the extent that foreign policy plays a role, China will loom large. A message highlighting a strong, consistent effort to contain China’s troublemaking — including explaining how letting the Afghan peace process play out contributes to that — is much more likely to pay dividends in November.

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