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No forever war in Afghanistan

We must pull our troops with our eyes wide open about the risks, but it is the right and necessary call.

President Joe Biden visits Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virgina, on Wednesday.
Andrew Harnik/AP

We can’t, as President Joe Biden says, have a forever war in Afghanistan. Despite the many risks, pulling out by Sept. 11 rather than staying in Afghanistan after 20 years is the only recourse that makes sense.

It’s not an easy decision. Removing U.S. troops, along with those of NATO, will reduce our capacity to monitor those who might be planning attacks on the United States and its allies. To have an intelligence operation in a country such as Afghanistan requires a military presence. Intelligence operations need a physical base from which to work. You can only do so much with overhead surveillance.

We are right to fear what the Taliban will do if it regains power. Women and girls could lose hard-won rights. Those who fought the Taliban and believed American would remain at their side will be at risk of retribution; the Taliban has said they deserve to be put to death, as have more than 300 such people who have fallen into Taliban hands since 2018. Terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS could again operate openly in Afghanistan and strike against Western targets.

As U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told us, we must go into this decision with our eyes open about the potential dangers even as we make the difficult but necessary decision to leave.

Yet leave we must.

We can’t stay in Afghanistan indefinitely because of a mistake make two decades ago. That’s when the George W. Bush administration, having driven al-Qaida from Afghanistan, turned its attention from putting and leaving that nation on sound footing to starting a new war in Iraq. By ignoring warnings not to do so, the Bush administration invited disaster. Since then, more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers have died and more than 20,000 have been injured.

As with presidents before him, Biden faces an enormously difficult decision. He understands the risks of withdrawing some 2,500 members of the military — the number fluctuates — out of the country. He also recognizes there is little sign it will get any safer to leave Afghanistan militarily in the foreseeable future. After 20 years, the United States and its allies have failed to build a modern civil society. Billions of dollars of training have failed to upgrade a military into a force that America can be certain will protect Afghanistan’s government. The Taliban already controls much of Afghanistan’s rural area. The nation’s inhabitants are weary of never-ending war.

Some of Biden’s military leaders told him the dangers of leaving are too great. But Biden has a depth of knowledge to draw on from his many years in the Senate and eight as vice president. He knows, as Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement, “[W]e have long since lost sight of our original mission,” which was to find Osama bin Laden and make it harder for his fellow terrorists to strike the United States.

Retired Col. Pat Proctor, an Afghanistan veteran and author of “Lessons Unlearned: The U.S. Army’s Role in Creating the Forever Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” (University of Missouri Press, 2020), says the Afghanistan War essentially was lost years ago when the United States failed to achieve a political settlement among factions in Afghanistan that refuse to be ruled by each other.

“We were never focused on winning by creating a political solution,” Proctor, an assistant professor of homeland security at Wichita State University and a first-term state representative in Kansas, told us on Monday. “We were focused on not losing. You cannot lose this war for an eternity.”

The United States should do what it can through diplomacy and any other measures at its disposal to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding and retributions against our interpreters and other partners, as happened after America left Vietnam and Iraq. An effort should be made to gain liberty for any hostages, including Mark Frerichs, a civil engineer from Illinois. Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives reportedly will continue to attack the most dangerous al-Qaida and ISIS threats.

The Trump administration had agreed a year ago to pull out by May 1 if the Taliban stopped its attacks, but the progress of negotiations has been disappointing. Delaying the pullout until Sept. 11 poses a risk of new attacks and invites concern the pullout will be delayed yet again.

There should be no more delay. Maintaining an indefinite military presence in Afghanistan is untenable.

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