After Afghanistan and Iraq, What?

March 15, 2020 Updated: March 19, 2020


At the end of February, representatives of the Trump administration and the Taliban signed an agreement that could mark the beginning of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after more than 18 years there.

The reaction here in the United States has been decidedly muted, even before everything else was eclipsed by the coronavirus. Why? I think there are several reasons.

We are depressed. Our military has been fighting to keep the Taliban from ruling Afghanistan for 18 years, yet now, we are preparing to withdraw and it looks like the Taliban will prevail.

Perhaps we are pessimistic. There are several conditions that still have to be met for the peace deal to be consummated, and we’re not confident that the Taliban will comply.

Maybe we’re just numb. The conflict has been going on so long that the majority of Americans who don’t have loved ones deployed there have tuned it out.

I’ve been brooding for many months over our military involvement in Afghanistan (Iraq, too). I feel the same kind of consternation that I did during the Vietnam War. The three presidents we have had during this war have failed to communicate to us why we are there and what it would take to bring our military forces home.

Indeed, it seems like the public has been deliberately misled. Worse, we haven’t been fair to our men and women in uniform. Year after year, they have had to risk their lives in a no-win war, just like in Vietnam decades ago. Young Americans have been dying in southern Asia, and most Americans don’t even know what for. That’s pathetic and tragic—a total disgrace.

The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been taking a heavy toll on our troops. There were periods last year during which the military’s recruitment needs weren’t met. That meant that troops who had already been separated from spouses and children for too long had their overseas deployment extended.

We need to think of our fellow Americans in uniform more than just on Veterans Day. Many of these good people return home with scars that we can’t see—scars that are often more painful than the physical ones. Everyone should read the superbly told somber story of U.S. Marine Col. Randy Hoffman, whose dedicated and decorated service in Afghanistan has caused so much pain to the inner man.

Going forward, what lessons can we learn from our prolonged military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq?

I’m no military expert, but I humbly offer three principles that I hope are worthy of consideration: 1. Remember that the purpose, the raison d’être, of our armed forces is to protect and defend the lives of Americans. 2. Don’t initiate military action without a clearly defined and attainable objective. 3. Achieve that objective as quickly as possible, declare victory, and bring the troops home.

President George W. Bush at first upheld all three of those principles in Afghanistan. The original reason for deploying armed forces there was to eliminate terrorist training camps. Remember, this was right after 9/11. The notion of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil was no mere theory, but a vivid reality.

Bush authorized a military operation with a clear objective: Find and destroy any terrorist camps there. Our military’s execution of the plan was superb. With fewer than 300 pairs of boots on the ground, U.S. Special Forces joined with non-Taliban Afghans and achieved a quick and decisive victory. Their strategy was to engage Taliban forces in long-distance gunfights, then call in fighter jets to annihilate the enemy. Within a few months, more than 40,000 Taliban fighters had been killed, their regime collapsed, and there were no known terrorist camps operating in Afghanistan.

However, Bush then made the fateful decision to embark on nation-building—supporting the establishment of a democratic government in Kabul. In doing so, he abandoned those three principles: 1. No longer were American troops fighting for Americans; they were building schools. 2. There was no longer a clearly defined military objective. 3. There was no route to a quick, decisive victory following which troops could be brought home. Instead, more than 3,000 Americans have lost their lives there.

Frankly, it isn’t for us to decide how or by whom Afghans are to be governed. In fact, should we really be surprised that in a country of long-warring tribes, the members of non-U.S. backed tribes want to defeat those Afghanis allied with who appear to them to be infidel imperialists?

Nor, cold as it may sound, should U.S. troops be dying so that Afghan girls can go to school. (Those girls should be able to go to school. Neither should there be slavery in the world, nor the kind of oppression that the communist parties in China, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela are imposing on their people, but we aren’t deploying troops to right those wrongs. The fact is, we can’t keep sacrificing U.S. troops to solve all the world’s problems.)

Simply put, after the Taliban regime fell, Bush should have kept our military action purely defensive by rotating in a small number of Special Forces to monitor terrorist activity and identify terrorist installations, nothing more.

The younger Bush should have learned a lesson from his father. Bush the elder organized a U.S.-led multinational military coalition (Operation Desert Storm) with the specific objective of expelling Iraqi forces from Kuwait. We can debate whether that operation was, strictly speaking, to defend Americans, but the elder Bush deserves credit for setting a clearly defined objective and enabling our military to score a decisive victory that brought troops home quickly.

Had Bush done what many armchair generals wanted at the time and sent our troops on to Baghdad, U.S. military forces almost certainly would have been bogged down there for years—as indeed happened a decade later under Bush the younger. In the latter case, our forces didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction that faulty intelligence had said were there, but “W” could have cut American losses once Saddam was found by simply declaring victory and bringing the troops home.

Instead, he committed to a long-term effort to “fix” Iraq and asked our troops to support the establishment of a lasting democratic government (just like in Afghanistan). The result? A quagmire costing more than 4,400 American lives and nearly 32,000 injured.

Whenever we do extricate our military people from Afghanistan and Iraq, let us resolve to never put our people in harm’s way except to protect American lives. Let us never ask more of them again. Even though we are months removed from Veterans Day, I’d like to thank all our veterans for their service to our country. You are the best and you deserve the best treatment that we can give you.

Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.