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The Unlosable War We Just Lost

Taliban fighters sit on the back of a vehicle in the city of Herat, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021, after they took this province from Afghan government. The Taliban seized two more provinces and approached the outskirts of Afghanistan’s capital. (AP Photo/Hamed Sarfarazi)

We just lost an unlosable war. Over the last five years, with relatively modest military resources and extremely low casualties – less than 70, we’ve been able to maintain relative stability in Afghanistan. Then, President Biden pulled the plug.

Now, Afghanistan is a disaster, a stain on U.S. honor and values, and a defeat with incalculable costs for ongoing U.S. foreign policy.

While the Pentagon stopped releasing troop levels in 2017, the last reported level was about 10,000, although the AP reports that the Trump Administration planned as many as 14,000 troops in 2017. Yet the low casualty levels imply a general decline.

A military mission requiring 10,000 or fewer troops and involving such a low casualty rate is not a failure, quite the opposite. And how did Biden lose sight of the original mission? Now, how do we prevent Afghan-based terrorists from staging another attack on the USA or a key ally?

Afghanistan has been misconceived. It has been characterized as an unwinnable war, and the seemingly logical conclusion reached that it should be ended, because unwinnable wars are fruitless endeavors. That’s wrong. We did not need to win.

Have we won the Korean War? Almost three-quarters of a century after Korean hostilities ended, Korea is still divided. We haven’t defeated the communists in the North. Should we pull the plug?

We have stationed tens of thousands of U.S. troops there — 23,000 troops today — ever since the early 1950s. Today, South Korea is an inspiring success, a vibrant economy and society, and an important strategic ally.

It is less important to win a war than not to lose one. The sufficient objective in Afghanistan should have been long term stalemate. There was no need to control the entire country, nor to conclusively defeat the Taliban.

Tribal Afghanistan was never going to be another South Korea. It never made sense as a nation-building enterprise.

That is the second fallacy about Afghanistan: the notion that, because we couldn’t install a Western style democracy and society, the effort was meaningless.

Another major mistake was negotiating with terrorists, the Taliban, other than as a deceptive effort to confuse them and stymy their operations.

Now, others will replace us. Nature abhors a vacuum. Reportedly, China was first to recognize the Taliban government. Don’t be surprised to see Chinese military aircraft operating out of Bagram airfield. Imagine democratic India’s feelings about that.

Is there any doubt that Chinese communist dictator-for-life Xi Jinping and Russian despot Vladimir Putin will be emboldened.

Is there any doubt that countries threatened by Xi and Putin will feel less secure? Imagine how Taiwan and its 23 million citizens feel today just 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, which claims the island as its territory.

Imagine how governments and citizens feel in the Baltics, in Ukraine, in Georgia – all nations which border Russia from which they gained freedom only 30 years ago. Russia has deployed only thinly disguised Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, and, in 2008, outrightly invaded Georgia.

And what of key global security initiatives? Our three allies in the “Quad” – Japan, India and Australia – are conducting freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea, through which one-third of global trade passes. No doubt, these allies were comforted by the U.S. presence in Afghanistan on China’s western border, as they confronted China on its eastern shore.

India just dispatched its only aircraft carrier to the South China Sea. Would India do so again in face of an emboldened Xi Jinping who might break his pledges and militarize China’s new deep-water port in Sri Lanka, just off the coast of India.

The most damage will occur at home. The impact upon U.S. military morale will be devastating. One’s heart goes out to Gold Star families who can only feel betrayed by Biden’s surrender.   

Biden is manifestly dishonest or confused. His “trillions spent” and “thousands of casualties” were expended and sustained mostly during the first Obama-Biden term from 2009 to 2012 when the American troop deployment reached 100,000. Those words don’t describe current operations. Moreover, those losses are sunk costs. We recover nothing lost in the Obama-Biden era by leaving today.

The challenge in Afghanistan has always been to right-size the effort. In recent years, we have. With modest American support and the most critical element — air support, the 150,000 to 300,000-man Afghan Army (estimates vary) has been sufficiently effective and brave, sustaining casualties estimated at over 66,000. Afghan Army troops were fighting for their country, despite Biden’s malicious charge to the contrary. They were doing so at low cost, an estimated annual payroll of $750 million, according to the Cost of War Project.

Was the effort perfect? No. Was it disastrous? No, at least while the Afghans enjoyed U.S. air support.

Our humiliating self-inflicted defeat in Afghanistan can only undermine U.S. national security and foreign policy.


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