Editor’s Note: Afghanistan is America’s longest war, and recent attempts to negotiate an end with the Taliban appear to have failed, at least for now. Many Americans are asking whether it is worth staying in Afghanistan as the war drags on. Carter Malkasian, one of America’s premier Afghanistan experts, examines the most important argument for staying—that Afghanistan might again be a haven for anti-American terrorist groups—and from there raises questions that should guide policymakers considering a withdrawal.
Why is the United States in Afghanistan today, 18 years after it first intervened on Oct. 7, 2001? As much as nation-building features in the news, the straightforward answer from senior U.S. officials has been the terrorist threat, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated in 2017 Senate hearings: “We must always remember, we are in Afghanistan to make America safer and ensure South Asia cannot be used to plot transnational attacks against the U.S. homeland or our partners and allies.” Yet the U.S. strategy to achieve this goal, for many, is unconvincing. Sen. Elizabeth Warren bluntly argued in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary debate: “What we’re doing right now in Afghanistan is not helping the safety and security of the United States. It is not helping the safety and security of the world. It is not helping the safety and security of Afghanistan.” This post seeks to better explain the logic of U.S. presence in Afghanistan and thus clarify the cases for whether or not American troops need to stay in the country indefinitely.
Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Afghanistan
Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups exist in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. Their members number in the thousands (thanks to the Islamic State) and enjoy a surprisingly wide distribution across Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to high-level official testimony, they present a low threat to the United States.
Currently, the U.S. military in Afghanistan suppresses these groups. Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, reported to the Senate in his confirmation hearing that al-Qaeda are “maintaining a long-term aspirational goal to attack the West and the United States in particular. What keeps them from being able to do that is the direct pressure that is maintained on them every day by the CT [counterterrorism] forces in the region, assisted by the eco system that is part of the Afghan army and Afghan government.” Drone strikes have taken out Farouq al-Qahtani and Hamza bin Laden, key al-Qaeda leaders, as well as successive chiefs of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Just in September, U.S. and Afghan special operations forces struck a major al-Qaeda camp in northern Helmand. The drone strikes and the support for them (bases, intelligence, logistics, etc.) are facilitated by the cooperation of the Afghan government and our larger troop presence in their country. The Afghan forces themselves, especially their intelligence agency (NDS) and special operations forces, play a significant role in these operations.
In short, the current threat is not why U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan. The logic of staying in Afghanistan revolves around the future threat, specifically the threat that might materialize if the United States were to leave Afghanistan. After more than a decade talking to the U.S. military, Afghan police and soldiers, and sometimes the Taliban in places such as Helmand, Kandahar and Ghazni, I feel I have some sense of what would happen.
If U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, the threat to the United States would grow. Without U.S. air support, the Afghan army and police are unlikely to survive in the provinces. Kabul itself could fall. The Taliban would conquer either all or a significant portion of the country, capturing several cities, fertile croplands and various mineral resources.
In this environment, terrorists would have much greater freedom to do what they please. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and like-minded groups would have access to poppies, farmland and cities for training, planning and resourcing. Other foreign terrorists would migrate to Afghanistan to join them.
The Taliban themselves are not international terrorists. There is scant evidence they bear any intention to attack the United States. They do, however, have deep and long-standing ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. For years, former and current Taliban have admitted to me that they consider al-Qaeda friends and should not be asked to turn on them. The Taliban are opposed to the Islamic State and actively fight against them, but that has not changed their relationship with al-Qaeda. So, though unlikely to conduct terrorist attacks themselves, the Taliban are also unlikely to clamp down on al-Qaeda. The experience of U.S. retaliation for the 9/11 attacks has done little to chasten them, partly since they believe they have defeated the United States. In their minds, they taught us a lesson, not the other way around. Indeed, the Taliban promise in the Doha talks to prevent attacks on other countries from their soil parrots the assurance Mullah Omar gave before 2001 that Osama bin Laden would do no harm to the outside world.
Given this dynamic, in the event of a complete U.S. withdrawal, any U.S. president cannot reasonably discount a terrorist attack out of Afghanistan upon the United States. He or she may search for different ways to address it, such as with a lighter footprint or by conducting operations from “offshore,” out of Pakistan or Qatar, or off an aircraft carrier, but the basic interest remains the same. In any of these alternatives, the United States would still be involved in the Afghan war.
Should the United States Care?
The fact that a president cannot discount an attack does not mean that the United States must stay in Afghanistan. How do we know preventing attacks is worth billions of dollars per year in operational expenses and some number of fallen Americans? Key variables that a president would want to weigh for that decision are unknown and likely to remain unknown: How soon might an attack occur? Will it be within the next election cycle? How big will an attack be? Will it be another 9/11 or a smaller scale Islamic State-style event? How often will attacks occur? Can very limited interventions (like an airstrike on an al-Qaeda base) prevent them? The answers are highly subjective because they demand looking years into the future under different circumstances than today. What to do consequently depends more on point of view and risk tolerance than evidence.
It is easy to see how a president could decide to stay. Even a low possibility of a large-scale attack could be an unbearable political risk, and the experience of the Iraq withdrawal and subsequent rise of the Islamic State cautions against assuming any terrorist movement is knocked out for good. Although critics argue that Afghanistan is only one of several terrorist safe havens facing the United States and deserves no special treatment, a very convincing case can be made that, as the home of the jihad, Afghanistan would be a source of inspiration for new recruits and a rallying point for foreign fighters. Additionally, without the existing government, terrorist groups would have free access to cities and resources in a way that has never existed in Yemen, Somalia or other terrorist safe havens. Worse, even small-scale terrorist attacks in the United States could breed paranoia and racism at home. Billions of dollars in operational expenses abroad may conceivably be worth preserving liberties.
At the same time, getting out can also be perfectly logical. Why should we worry about an attack? The United States faces many threats, not all in the security realm. Why should such a high level of funding be devoted to dealing with one particular threat of unknown timing, scale and frequency? The funds could be better spent elsewhere. Additionally, the United States is a resilient nation. Americans suffer human loss every day and endure, and periodic terrorist attacks would be no different. It is even possible that U.S. homeland defenses, which have matured since 2001, could deflect an attack. From this point of view, spending billions in Afghanistan is a luxury, a high-end insurance policy against an exaggerated risk.
The bottom line is that there is no threat out of Afghanistan that is so apparent, large and imminent that it would clearly merit an indefinite deployment of U.S. troops. Rather, the decision left to the U.S. president and the public is one about the costs and risks they are willing to accept. The U.S. president and the American people need to decide if a terrorist threat of unknown timing, magnitude and frequency is truly so worrisome that it warrants spending billions and losing American lives. The United States needs to decide whether to be highly insured or highly resilient. The tricky thing is that as long as casualties on U.S. soil risk domestic backlash, presidents will find it hard to escape Afghanistan. If we want out, we need to temper our sensitivity to tragic albeit perhaps bearable terrorist attacks. Only our own fears dictate that we must stay in Afghanistan.