I was a high school senior when our nation was attacked by al-Qaida on 9/11. By 2009, I was a United States Army infantry platoon leader deployed to Afghanistan. This was eight years after small teams of Green Berets and CIA personnel first invaded Afghanistan, routed the Taliban and largely destroyed the al-Qaida forces that had taken refuge in that country.
Eight long years after 9/11, I was one of 68,000 American troops, many of us part of the “surge,” working to bring security and governance to the country. Today, it has been almost 12 years since I was in Afghanistan, and now our nation is approaching its 21st year of war there.
More years, more money, more lives
Last year, when asked a question about the planned drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “We believe that now after 20 years — two decades of consistent effort there — we’ve achieved a modicum of success.”
The Biden administration now faces a tough dilemma: Does it stick with the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw all U.S. troops by May 1? Does it backtrack on recent negotiations with the Taliban and extend the timeline for withdrawal to an unknown later date? Or does the Biden administration capitulate to a national security establishment that over two decades has proved unable to achieve anything more than “a modicum of success” and is unwilling to consider doing anything other than more of the same: more years, more money, and more lives?
Why is America still fighting this endless war? There are a few reasons:
One is because no one wants to be the president or the general who loses the war. While both Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump ran campaigns promising to extricate America from the war, neither did. And even when top military leaders acknowledge the reality of the war as Gen. Milley did with his “modicum of success” statement in December, or Gen. John Nicholson’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2017 where he characterized the war as a “stalemate,” they fail to offer any alternative to the 20-year long status quo of more time and more resources.
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Another reason is the false premise that a weak, ungoverned Afghanistan will be a haven for terrorists who will then assemble and attack us like al-Qaida did on 9/11. Our country has been spared another major terrorist attack not because we have invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan for the past two decades, but because our intelligence services, our police agencies and our special operations forces have been working tirelessly to keep the terrorist threat at bay.
The Sept. 11 attacks occurred because international terrorism had not been a primary focus for our intelligence community. That certainly is not the case today. It’s time that we acknowledge terrorism for what it is — international organized crime. These criminal organizations are best countered not by large-scale deployment of troops, but by close cooperation with our international partners, focused diplomacy and shared intelligence.
Honor our troops — bring them home
Perhaps the weakest rationale for remaining in Afghanistan occasionally employed by the foreign policy establishment is the sunken cost fallacy: To walk away now would be to disrespect the sacrifices — in limbs and lives lost — that our military members have made over the past two decades.
This rationale could not be any more wrong. Nearly three-quarters of veterans support a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to a poll from Concerned Veterans for America.
We now have 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, our military has lost more than 2,400 lives there and estimates of the war’s cost range in excess of $2 trillion — not including future health care costs for veterans of the war, or the billions of dollars in interest our nation will pay for funding this two-decade-long quagmire with borrowed money.
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I lost both my legs fighting in Afghanistan in 2009. Soldiers I served with lost their lives. This year’s pomegranate harvest in Kandahar grows in soil that has been soaked with 20 years worth of American sweat and blood. At this point, the only way to honor our military’s selfless service is to declare an end to this Sisyphean task.
Back in 2009, Vice President Joe Biden advocated for a smaller footprint and a more focused approach in Afghanistan. Obama instead increased troop levels to more than 100,000 and gave the war possibly another decade of life. Vice President Biden was correct back then. Let’s hope President Biden has the courage to be correct right now.
Dan Berschinski is a West Point graduate and a retired U.S. Army captain. He is a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network, an organization of independent veteran military and national security experts.