David E. Weisberg
David E. Weisberg

Afghanistan

Ms. Nina Mogilnik has written a blogpost in which she commends Pres. Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. She also takes the opportunity to denigrate and insult all those who disagree with that decision. Those benighted individuals are “bottom-feeders of humanity,” a “chest-thumping, pro-war contingent,” “paid mouthpieces,” and “craven politicians,” whose opinions are merely “mindless blatherings of partisans,” “arrogant, and even hysterical yammering that passes for sage commentary,” and “idiocy masquerading as expertise.”

At the risk of inviting more contempt from that very thoughtful, very temperate, very open-minded blogger, I’m going to suggest that not every opinion Ms. Mogilnik asserts is revealed, inerrant wisdom.  (Dear Reader, wish me luck.)

The U.S. and its allies went into Afghanistan because that country, under the de facto government of the Taliban, had been a safe haven and training ground for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda warriors who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.  When the Taliban were ousted from power, the Western allies were able to stand up a government more aligned to Western values.  In particular, the new government provided more opportunities and rights to women and girls.  With the assistance of Western military forces—and, in particular, U.S. airpower—the forces of the Afghan government were able to fight the Taliban to a standstill.

A news report in The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 17) features two maps that depict the areas in Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban on April 13, 2021—the day before Pres. Biden announced all U.S. troops would withdraw by September 11 (later changed to August 31)—and on August 16.  The April 13 map shows very clearly that the Taliban controlled considerably less than half the territory on that date.  Their subsequent swift successes must be attributed in large part to the announcement of a date certain for withdrawal.  Had there been no such announcement, it might well have been the case that a virtual standoff would have continued indefinitely.

Ms. Mogilnik echoes a refrain we have heard from both Pres. Biden and former Pres. Trump.  The Western allies were able to remove the Taliban from power and force al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, and then in 2011 bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos.  At that point, both Biden and Trump insist, the mission in Afghanistan should have ended.  But, instead, the mission was improperly and foolishly altered to “nation-building,” which would require Western forces to remain in the country indefinitely.  As I’ve said, both former-Pres. Trump and Pres. Biden expressed this view—a rare instance of bipartisan agreement.

But there are more modest labels than “nation-building.”  One can say, for example, that Western forces should have remained in Afghanistan to ensure that the Taliban would not return to power and again provide safe havens to Islamist terrorists who might again attack our homeland.  It certainly is possible that, in the not-too-distant future, another attack by terrorists based in Afghanistan will be launched against the U.S.  If that happens, people may regret the strategic decision to withdraw, endorsed by both Trump and Biden.  Almost every newspaper in America has reported that Biden’s military advisers recommended that the U.S. maintain a relatively small force in Afghanistan to assist the Afghan army with air support and with intelligence gathering.  But perhaps those military professionals are part of the “chest-thumping, pro-war contingent” who should be ignored.

Of course, Ms. Mogilnik rightly laments the tragic costs and losses of war.  And she says: “We were fighting a war we could not win[.]”  Again, perhaps we should have thought of “winning” this war as simply succeeding in keeping the Taliban out of power and the terrorists out of Afghanistan.  It should be noted that, in the last eighteen months, the U.S. military had not suffered a single casualty in Afghanistan.  It is not as if maintaining a residual force in Afghanistan would have guaranteed huge U.S. casualties.

Pres. Biden has stated that the deal between former-Pres. Trump and the Taliban is something he “inherited” when he became president; the suggestion is that Biden’s hands were metaphorically tied by Trump’s deal.  But Pres. Biden certainly has not felt bound by other Trump policies; and a former president obviously cannot bind his successor(s).  Moreover, Trump’s deal set May 1, 2021 as the deadline for U.S. withdrawal, and Pres. Biden had no special difficulty in changing that date to September 11.  He could equally well have informed the Taliban that U.S. withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground, and left it at that.

Seventy-five years after the end of the Second World War, the U.S. still has troops stationed in Germany.  Sixty-eight years after the end of the Korean War, the U.S. still has troops stationed in South Korea.  Twenty years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, we still have troops there.  Are the Second World War and the Korean War both “forever wars,” simply because residual U.S. forces are still in place?  Of course, U.S. troops in Afghanistan, both before the recent Taliban takeover and after it, were and are in harm’s way.  They are certainly not in harm’s way in Germany; South Korea may be a murkier situation.

Still, in the last six years and eight months since the end of 2014, the U.S. has suffered 94 military deaths in Afghanistan.  There are, on average, 38,000 highway deaths in the U.S. per year, so that would suggest that more than 253,000 Americans have died on the roads in that same time period.  Every death is deplorable, but preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist training camp is not a worthless endeavor.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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