Public Realism on Afghanistan
Sunday was the 17th anniversary of the start of the longest war in American history: the Afghanistan War. When Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off on Oct. 7, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, few would have thought we’d still be there fighting the Taliban nearly two decades later. Heck, I doubt I thought we’d still be fighting today when deploying there myself “only” 10 years ago this month.
But here we are, engaged in a forever war in which the generals seem to have no plausible “theory of victory” and the Taliban remain stubbornly resistant to capitulating to our demands. It is a war that we ought to end honorably through a negotiated settlement with our opponents—or even by unilaterally declaring success, and prudently but surely coming home.
It isn’t as if American troops haven’t fought bravely or killed many very bad men. Rather quickly after our invasion, the United States pushed the Taliban government out of power and into hiding. During the first decade of the fight, we decimated al-Qaeda’s leadership, including the just and emotionally satisfying killing of Osama bin Laden. Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman concluded last year that there is “good reason to be optimistic that al-Qaeda’s decline is for real and might even be permanent.” One could argue that we accomplished everything we needed to after 9/11.
Yet we are still mired in the Afghan conflict after spending billions of dollars on nation-building, spilling lots of American blood in the process, all in hopes of achieving the ephemeral goals of imposing democracy and creating a better Afghanistan (with a little counter-narcotics to boot). While the original mission was necessary and righteous, this expanded counterinsurgency mission is unnecessary and wasteful. It has dearly cost families and communities who have suffered due to long deployments and, in the worst cases, the loss of our fine soldiers.
Given that we’ve been fighting for nearly two decades and are strategically adrift, it isn’t surprising that Americans—including veterans—question the wisdom of remaining in Afghanistan. Many are questioning our overall approach to foreign policy and the extent to which we ought to be militarily engaged in the world.
The Charles Koch Institute recently partnered with RealClearPolitics to poll civilians and veterans/active military members about where our country stands on America’s longest war and U.S. foreign policy more broadly. What we found suggests that President Trump’s instincts regarding Afghanistan are in tune with the mood of the American public—and that he might want to listen to those instincts rather than the wishful-thinking “experts” who argue for staying the course.
Let’s start with how Americans have viewed our efforts to date. Relatively few Americans think our military engagement in Afghanistan has been working. Only 21 percent of Americans—and only 24 percent of veterans—say the war has been successful. Thirty-five percent of Americans and nearly 40 percent of veterans think the war has been unsuccessful, with the rest not knowing or saying it has been neither successful nor unsuccessful. And 53 percent of Americans—and nearly 60 percent of veterans—believe that the United States lacks a clear strategic objective in Afghanistan, and only 15 percent of the public believes we do—this after being there for 17 years!
The perception that we haven’t been successful following the original mission’s accomplishments and have no clear strategic objective going forward has probably led many Americans to reconsider support for the initial invasion. The largest percentage of those polled—39 percent—thought it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan in 2001. Only 30 percent said it had been the correct choice, and a whopping 31 percent said they don’t know. This is disturbing, considering that it was a just and necessary war in the wake of 9/11. Even the most cautious foreign policy experts favored the invasion and understood the importance of meeting our primary war aims there, myself included.
So, what do Americans think we ought to do now? About half of us, 51 percent, say it’s time to decrease Afghanistan troop levels or to remove all troops from the country in the next 12 months. This figure rises even higher over a five-year period. And if the president decided to remove all troops from Afghanistan, 57 percent of Americans, including 69 percent of military veterans, said they would support such a move.
More broadly, and consistent with past polling we’ve done, Americans also question our current approach to U.S. foreign policy. The largest percentage of people, 43 percent, think we should be less militarily engaged in the world, with nearly 20 percent of Americans responding that we should be much less militarily engaged.
The president would be wise to pay more attention to the American people’s realistic assessment of the war in Afghanistan and our military role in the world generally. It’s past time for the United States to make a more serious effort to negotiate an end to the conflict in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the president should withdraw all or nearly all U.S. troops while maintaining the ability to see and eliminate any anti-American terrorist groups with the capability and intent to hit our shores. Given that we are $21 trillion in debt and should be pivoting out of the Middle East to focus on higher priority missions, like deterring great power conflict, we can’t afford to maintain the status quo. The last thing we need is another expensive security dependent that bleeds our treasury and puts our bravest unnecessarily in harm’s way.