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It’s no secret that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan is unpopular with the American public, with surveys indicating that well over half of Americans support withdrawal and a large majority think the war was not worth fighting, including the troops who fought in the war. The question shouldn’t be whether to get out of Afghanistan, but how, and on what timeline.
The recent revelations in the Washington Post that U.S. officials have routinely misled the public about the state of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan from the beginning of the war to the present only strengthen the case for withdrawal. Rampant corruption, an overly ambitious military strategy that has strengthened rather than defeated the Taliban, and a failure to understand the basic dynamics of Afghan society have all combined to ensnare the United States in what can aptly be described as a quagmire.
A new report by the Institute for Spending Reform underscores the strategic and economic benefits of a determined effort to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. The report, building on the pioneering work of Brown University’s Costs of War project, suggests that doing so could save between $210 billion and $360 billion in direct costs and future obligations over the next four years alone. This is no small number given rising deficits and urgent domestic needs that have been largely neglected over the last decade or more.
The Institute study fully acknowledges the arguments being made against withdrawal, most notably the possibility of the return of Afghanistan as a terrorist haven, as it was before the 9/11 attacks. But a determined, consistent approach to peace talks can yield results in relatively short order, especially if it involves the Afghan government and regional players with an interest in the outcome of the war, including Russia, Iran, India, and Pakistan. Shoring up Afghan forces is an important goal, but given how little progress has been made on that front after 18 years of war, it should be approached realistically. On the economic and budgetary front, international financial support may need to be phased out over time, or sustained whether a U.S. troop presence continues or not, given that 90% of Afghanistan’s military and police budget and 50% of its state budget depend on international support. But security aid should be premised on leaner, more effective security forces, and economic aid should be keyed to the ability of Afghan communities to absorb and use it effectively.
Donald Trump’s instincts to get out of Afghanistan are correct, but his approach has been erratic at best. Many of the front-runners in the Democratic presidential race have called for an end to America’s “forever wars,” but we need a more detailed discussion of exactly how that should be achieved. The sooner that discussion is held, and a serious peace strategy for Afghanistan is undertaken, the better.