This week, President Biden announced the end of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, setting a deadline of September 11, 2021, just about four months later than the deadline negotiated by President Trump last year. The Secretary of Defense traveled to Europe and met with NATO leaders to ensure a coordinated departure with our coalition partners. With just 2,500 American troops remaining, this may not seem terribly momentous and more like simply stopping a long slow bleeding.
Yet our footprint in Afghanistan is much larger than that. It can be expected that at any given time there are about 1,000 more American troops in Afghanistan than official reports because of special forces operations. NATO and coalition nations have another 7,000 troops deployed to Afghanistan. U.S. companies have nearly 17,000 contract employees in Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, NATO announced the departure of all NATO and coalition forces in conjunction with President Biden’s announcement. It’s easy in the U.S. to forget that NATO has been with us in Afghanistan since December 2001, first as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) through the end of 2014, then a more truly combined effort with the U.S as the Resolute Support Mission. NATO and the U.S. will end Resolute Support this year. U.S. contracts tied to the Resolute Support mission should be expected to end this year.
There are a lot of reasons to leave Afghanistan. I know many of my friends and colleagues say we should never have gone in the first place. What is clear is this, as stated both by the U.S. and by NATO: There is no longer a military solution to the issues facing Afghanistan. And it’s a little too easy to look at the British and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan and use the luxury of two decades of recent hindsight to condemn the U.S.-NATO engagement to the same dustbin.
We went to Afghanistan to retaliate against the 9/11 attack and stop a terrorist threat. That was accomplished some years ago—the latest possible date for “mission accomplished” being the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden. Why are we there in 2021?
The hard line, and my line, is realpolitik: We simply don’t require the heavy logistics of a 7:1 contractor-to-troop ratio to maintain U.S. security and counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan. It is expensive and unwieldy, and it diverts our attention from more serious concerns like China, Russia and Iran. Even considering the argument that Afghanistan is centrally located amidst those three nations, the hassle of getting assets in and out of Afghanistan doesn’t make a forward operating base there a sensible choice.
Part of the problem encountered in Afghanistan (and to a lesser degree, Iraq) was the allies’ desire to leave it a better place. The U.S. has provided $143.7 billion in aid to Afghanistan to assist with reconstruction and infrastructure. In many cases this fueled the most venal and obvious corruption at every level of government. Our response, wanting the best outcome, was to provide more money, equipment, and assistance.
Our aid became its own black market and a graft pool for local officials. Vehicles and equipment not outright stolen were cannibalized for parts, knowing more of everything would be sent. The U.S. has had a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in place since 2008; this office does phenomenal work. In 2021, SIGAR remains a voice in the wilderness to many Afghan officials.
20 years of Western presence in Afghanistan and accompanying media coverage has opened our eyes to many injustices in that country and they are terrible: an unready and possibly unwilling military; a global illicit narcotics trade; endemic corruption; post-pandemic health and safety instability; domestic terror threats; tremendous gender inequality; and profound poverty. American troops can’t fix these problems and shouldn’t be expected to.
Afghanistan must be trusted to manage itself. Americans should trust that our Department of Defense maintains the surveillance, intervention and force projection capabilities to keep us safe without committing us to another 20-year war.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.