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Pulling troops from Afghanistan would leave the job undone

Given the chance, the Taliban surely would seek a return to restrictions on basic human rights, denying education to women and brutally enforcing Sharia Law

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U.S. Marines watch during the change of command ceremony at Task Force Southwest military field in Shorab military camp of Helmand province, Afghanistan on Jan. 15, 2018. An accelerated U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, announced by Washington on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, has rattled both allies and adversaries and raised fears of worsening violence and regional chaos, which some say could embolden the Islamic State affiliate in the country to try to regroup in a lawless Afghanistan.

Massoud Hossaini, Associated Press

One fundamental question ought to drive decisions about troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq: Have the enemies of freedom changed their stripes?

Of course, the answer is no. 

The United States has been negotiating with leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Last February, the brutal fundamentalist group that once allowed parts of Afghanistan to be used as a training ground for Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who attacked the United States on 9/11, agreed to begin negotiating with the current Afghan government and to prevent al-Qaida and other terrorists from returning, in exchange for a phased troop withdrawal.

But once the Americans have gone, after spending nearly two decades in warfare, suffering thousands of casualties and spending billions of taxpayer dollars, they likely won’t have the stomach for a return engagement. The Taliban may be calculating on this.

As the Wall Street Journal reported Friday, many people in Afghanistan are afraid the Taliban will see the withdrawal as an opportunity to press for greater influence in the nation, where currently only less than one-third of the nation’s districts are fully under control of the Afghan government.

If they can’t gain influence through negotiations, they may do so by force. Already, insurgents have launched an offensive in the Helmand province. The Wall Street Journal reports the Taliban has conducted more than 13,000 attacks, taking advantage of a reduction in U.S. airstrikes and of a general sense of waning interest by Americans and others.

Either way, given the chance, the Taliban surely would seek a return to restrictions on basic human rights, denying education to women and brutally enforcing Islamic law. There are few reasons to believe the Taliban has changed its beliefs or goals. It has, rather, been kept in check by American and NATO forces supporting a government that has proven incapable of defending itself from onslaughts in the past. 

Unfortunately, the United States and allied forces have reached the political limits of what they can accomplish through force, short of an escalation the American people likely would not support. President Trump’s stated opposition to “endless wars” has resonated in a bipartisan way. The incoming Biden administration is unlikely to reverse the troop withdrawal.

Outspoken supporters of the withdrawal, such as Utah Sen. Mike Lee, argue that U.S. forces have no clear mission or end strategy in the conflict. That is a valid observation. Withdrawal, however, is not the only way to resolve this.

Despite what seems like an endless obligation to keep peace in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans must remember what led to the military intervention in the first place. Left alone, groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaida and others are capable of supporting actions that cause huge security risks for the United States and its allies. Little has changed in this regard.

In addition, while the Afghan government has been, at times, less than reliable, it has imposed a constitutional republic that guarantees basic rights and has allowed many people to prosper.

While the planned withdrawal would leave about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while NATO forces will retain more than 7,000 troops in Afghanistan, this is a number so small as to be of little effect. And NATO may withdraw its presence in response to the U.S. action.   

Abandoning the people who have helped Americans in their struggle, and who have reaped the benefits of greater freedom, would send a harsh message to them about American resolve. It also would leave the job undone, which may require further sacrifices in the future.